In response to an increasingly global marketplace, over half of organizational leaders are now called upon to collaborate with and oversee virtual teams—groups of remote employees who are spread out across cultures and time zones, connecting with the group via technology such as Skype, email, and phone conferences.
The advantages of virtual collaborations are immediately apparent:
- diverse perspectives create an environment of creativity and multiple solutions,
- virtual communication is “greener” than arranging travel to get everyone in the same room,
- and many employees feel more engaged with work when they feel autonomy over their location.
On the other hand, a lack of face-to-face communication can lead to challenges such as a sense of isolation, misunderstood directives, and decreased motivation. Communication works differently in an online environment, so it follows that leadership too must evolve to meet the needs of increasingly complex—and vast—organizations.
But virtual leadership isn’t about reinventing the wheel. With just a little modification, the following traditional management strategies can have an equally powerful impact in virtual environments.
Friendships at work can increase employee satisfaction and production by almost 50 percent, a statistic that makes the ability to build strong relationships a highly desirable leadership skill. In one study, employees who shared bios, pictures, and video chats reported the highest levels of feeling they belonged to a team—which increased engagement and production. They reported even more work satisfaction when their team leader demonstrated ways to connect (e.g., explaining how to install Skype or connect Facebook pages for everyone to view).
Likewise, leaders who exhibit regard for the team members’ values are more likely to develop strong and productive working relationships. Showing your respect for the schedules of employees in other time zones by scheduling a call at 4:00 a.m. your time, for example, will go a long way in earning their trust.
Investing in strengths
In his book, Strengths Based Leadership, Senior Gallup researcher Tom Rath says that “when leaders focus on and invest in their employees’ strengths, the odds of each person being engaged goes up eightfold.” One approach is to mix up the methods of communication between phone, email, Skype, and face-to-face meetings in order to allow all team members the opportunity to highlight their personal communications strengths—extroverts will have a chance to shine in live chat, while more introverted employees may feel confident sharing ideas in written form.
According to Rath, understanding your own strengths as a leader can offer insight into the best ways for you to communicate and manage your teams, making your work more productive. The time you save by streamlining your work according to your strengths can be re-invested in relationships with team members (for example, by having one-on-one chats with everyone to assess their goals and contributions.)
Learning to communicate online is a skill that may not come easily for everyone—effective public speakers who rely on body language and audience presence to get key messages across may struggle to remain as impactful when communication modes are limited to emails, conference calls, and Skype. Writing skills are a must-have for virtual leaders, who rely heavily on text to deliver a message and rouse a sense of community. Specific, clear, and concise messages are more likely to have an impact. Abstract terms and storytelling—which may go over well during in-person conversations—may be wordy and take up too much space in an email, which encourages people to skim.
There is a tendency for virtual communication to feel one-sided, with a manager distributing information through channels in order to be heard by the team. But listening is a key leadership skill that requires more attention in virtual situations. Make sure there is time for questions and team feedback during all scheduled calls, and post questions to the group that allow everyone a chance to be heard.
The key is to know your strengths as a communicator, and choose the technology that fits the message. While a motivational speech on increasing sales may be most effective as a video chat, a briefing on key sales strategies may make more sense laid out in an email, where key points can be bulleted.