How to Lead a Virtual Team to Accomplish Goals
Follow These Tips to Lead Your Virtual Team to Success
Carley Kimball, Media Specialist
7 Min Read
In today’s world, working remotely has become the norm for many. But some leaders and managers have struggled to adjust to leading a virtual team. With remote work becoming a permanent fixture in many organizations, it’s imperative that management gain the necessary skills for building and leading high-performing remote teams.
As businesses make decisions on where they want their employees to work moving forward, skills for effectively leading a virtual team could easily apply to both a hybrid and in-person work environment.
In a 2016 study highlighted by the Project Management Institute, 76% of the 168 respondents (managers, leaders) noted that “engaging remote participants” stood out as the main challenge of leading a virtual team. In a post-pandemic world, it wouldn’t be surprising if that percentage increased.
Virtual work tends to magnify challenges faced in traditional settings. Existing studies suggest that teams with properly equipped skills in a virtual setting are vital for business success, a white paper from Wroclaw University of Technology highlighted.
“It necessitates a fresh inquiry into the role and nature of management methods in virtual settings,” the paper read. “Empirical studies revealed that management failure can cause team attrition, under-performing team members, lack of team spirit and crash of team goals.”
Experts in human behavior – psychology, project management, business, and technology – have taken a global look at the impact of remote work due to the Covid-19 pandemic, what can be learned through trial and error in this process, and how leaders can guide their teams to success in a digital space.
Clear Vision and Objectives are Essential in Building and Leading High-Performing Remote Teams
From the wealth of resources and commentary available for leading virtual teams in a post-Covid world, one thing is clear – clarity is key.
From the very beginning, the entire team needs to have a full understanding of expectations.
“Clarify tasks and processes, not just goals and roles,” a Harvard Business Review study pointed out. “All new leaders need to align their team on goals, roles and responsibilities in the first 90 days.”
With virtual teams, coordination and clear communication can become convoluted.
“It’s important to focus more attention on the details of task design and the processes that will be used to complete them. Simplify the work to the greatest extent possible, ideally so tasks are assigned to sub-groups of two or three team members. And make sure that there is clarity about the work process, with specifics about who does what and when.”
Holding regular check-in meetings can ensure the team is staying on track toward the desired goal.
Columbia Business School suggests shorter meetings, no more than an hour in length.
“Virtual meetings are more intense and tiring,” researchers noted. “For longer meetings, consider using breakout groups or surveys, and demonstrate more engagement with the team, designating different members to lead parts of the discussion or even chair the meeting. Provide a meaningful opportunity for your team to engage once every 10 to 15 minutes.”
Setting up a dashboard to track progress, timelines, and deliverables can hold the team accountable without falling into the trap of micro-management that can chip away at the trust dynamics between employees and management.
Project management tools, such as Azure DevOps and Microsoft Project, can simulate the familiar process of working with others in an office within a digital environment. These types of tools establish guidelines for sharing information, making decisions, and resolving miscommunications or potential conflicts. Always check in with team members early in the project to make sure they a comfortable with using the tools and offer one-on-one training if necessary.
Offer Support, Encourage Teamwork, Promote Leadership Within Virtual Teams
A team leader needs to show they have their team’s back and can offer support when needed. This is even more important in a virtual setting where employees might be more hesitant to reach out for help.
A team works better when they are comfortable, can recognize the resources at their disposal, and have opportunities to lead from where they are.
Perceived supervisory support will help teams stay engaged in the workplace even if they are working remotely. Research shows that people who have a supportive supervisor are generally more prepared to contribute more of their energy and knowledge, an article from Forbes noted.
“The adage ‘people work for people, not organizations’ is right here too,’ it read. “Most people take the relationship that they have with their supervisor as a proxy for the relationship they have with their employer. If a person’s relationship with their supervisor is weak, their relationship with the organization suffers too.”
A strong showing of support makes for a successful leader, helping organizations maintain valuable talent and keep projects moving forward. It’s also important for leaders to make it known to their team that they are invested in them as individuals, according to the Harvard Business Review.
“Start each meeting with a check-in, having each member take a couple of minutes to discuss what they are doing, what’s going well and what’s challenging. Regular virtual team-building exercises are another way to inject a bit more fun into the proceedings.”
Consideration of each team member’s overall responsibilities and workload can make or break a project as well. The Center for Creative Leadership suggests this can help balance tasks to meet deadlines and avoid burnout.
“Employees can only be stretched so far, and the more teams they’re involved with, the less time they’re able to devote to each project – be aware of the number of teams on which members simultaneously work. Avoid overloading high performers with too many team assignments.”
Also keep in mind that managers aren’t the only ones that can handle leading others to success. By fostering leadership in others, engagement and efficiency increases overall.
“By sharing leadership, you will not only increase engagement, but will also take some of the burden off your shoulders,” Harvard Business Review noted.
In a 2015 study by psychology researchers Emma Nordbäck and Alberto Espinosa, shared leadership demonstrated key benefits for virtual teams.
“Shared leadership’s influence on team performance is moderated by leadership coordination, such that shared leadership has a stronger effect when the distributed leadership activity is effectively coordinated, both cognitively and behaviorally.”
Provide Regular Feedback to Keep Employees Invested
Regular assessment of work by both the team and individuals is essential to creating a virtual workplace in which employees can thrive. Highlighting problem areas early keeps progress moving forward. Celebrating milestones throughout the journey of a project makes it easier for team members to stay invested in their work.
“Combining the virtual team challenges of balancing taskwork and teamwork with its accurate assessment, we urge current teams to focus on teamwork and continuous feedback,” a study from Science Direct advised.
One-on-one performance reviews can be a valuable opportunity to discuss how to improve workflows and increase engagement. Implementing regular check-ins can provide insight for leaders on how to better manage the team as a whole and create an opportunity for individuals to refocus on the final vision of project completion.
While managing virtual teams carry its own unique challenges, success is still dependent on the traditional values of what makes a great leader – adaptability, connection, and clarity.
The future of remote work isn’t clear, but a leader’s ability to listen to their team in a remote space is not much different than in the office. Fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and are encouraged by leadership to feel invested in the work they do every day will lead teams to success time and time again – both in a digital or physical workplace.