(Part 2 of 2)
Many of you may be in a position where you are suddenly leading virtual teams. While some of you have some experience with leading virtual teams, for many of you it may be the first time. Here are some tips and tricks to help you in leading people during this new leadership challenge. [For tips on managing the process of virtual meetings, see part 1 of this article.]
Setting the Virtual Leadership Tone
It is your job as the leader of the meeting to set the tone. Holding people to the pre-established expectations of the meeting, sets a tone. It is a tone of respect and professionalism. Not holding people accountable also sets a tone. It sets a tone that says it is okay if you don’t get your work done and it doesn’t matter what type of impact that may have on your colleagues. You need to go into the meeting knowing what the tone is that you want to set and have a plan for how to do that. That includes knowing how you are going to handle situations that may be counterproductive to your tone.
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Ronald Reagan
Building Virtual Team Connections
In a physical setting it is natural for people to chat on a more social level as they arrive and depart from the meeting. This social connection is where much of the bonding and trust is established. When leading virtual teams, you need to build team culture into the meeting. An easy way to do this is to incorporate a social response into a roll call. Under the guise of both checking to see who is in the meeting and verifying that their audio and camera are working properly, ask for a specific response. Instead of simply saying yes, present or here, ask them to respond to a question.
The depth of the question you ask should be appropriate for how well the participants know each other. If they are new to each other you can start with identifying their location, any children and/or pets, favorite or most recent vacation, favorite food, etc. – some small, quick item to help team feel more connected with each other.
For groups that know each other better and who may be more familiar with using the meeting technology, you could everyone to share a photo and people must figure out which photo goes with which person. This might be a photo of the shoes they are wearing, their favorite coffee mug or water bottle, the chair they are sitting in, etc. Again, something quick that helps everyone bond and establish rapport with each other.
Questions or photos that express where, what or how are always great starters.
Keeping Virtual Communication Flowing
In an office setting, the after or between meetings conversations tend to happen organically. As you pass someone in the hall, or the water cooler, or stroll pass their office, you are naturally inclined to check in with them. You get a feel for where they are with their work, what things from the meeting are getting done, and what they are frustrated with. It is common to ask questions, get clarifications, and establish support for efforts being made. If you are not routinely physically interacting with the meeting participants, then you need to be very intentional about making virtual interactions happen on a regular basis.
When leading virtual teams, leaders need to be intentional about providing opportunities for these between meeting check-in conversations. That means scheduling random 5-minute chats. These chats should not be over email or an instant messaging service. They need to be either on the phone or a video conference system. Remember, it is not just making sure that work is moving forward, it is also about forwarding the relationship with the other person. You want them to feel supported, appreciated and valued. Working virtually can make people feel isolated at times. Quick verbal check-ins, similar to what happens organically in an office, still need to take place.
I want to clarify what I mean when people need to feel supported. Too many times, I have watched someone express frustration or challenges related to a task and the leader wanted to know if this was going to cause a delay in getting the task finished. This does not make the employee feel supported. What you, the leader, should do, is help the person come up with strategies or identify resources to help them overcome the issues they’re having. It is not about doing the work for them or taking it off their plate but helping them figure out how to solve the problem. After all, your ability to solve problems is likely one of the reasons you are in a leadership role. So be a leader and guide them toward possible solutions.
I also stated that these virtual check-ins should be scheduled. In an ideal world, they would be scheduled for in office environments as well. Scheduling a quick chat shows that your inquiry is not random but has a purpose. You, as a leader, genuinely want to know how people are doing. It also shows respect for the other persons time. Just as randomly dropping by someone’s office can be disruptive to one’s work, so can calling unexpectedly. So, whenever possible, schedule these conversations, even it is only 20 or 30 minutes in advance.
“To master the virtual equation and make all the elements work together, you have to become the connector.” Yael Zofi
Remember too that a little appreciation can go a long way in building and maintaining connections with others. Be sure to show some gratitude and thank everyone for their contributions to the meeting or project. As challenging as leading from a virtual space can be, don’t forget that your employees are facing the new dynamics of a virtual work world as well.
Putting It All Together
Working in a virtual world and leading virtual teams requires a delicate balance between managing the process of virtual meetings and communications and leading the people who are participating in those meetings and communications. The more effective you are at connecting process and people, aka interpersonal skills, the more effective leader you can be.