Lead Virtual Teams One Conversation at a Time

Technology and employee expectations have changed how virtual teams operate and what is required to lead them effectively. I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve noticed most this year as I’ve engaged with and listened to professionals who are new to online work and who, like Kathy and me, have been virtual pioneers for decades. I’ve been to Australia and back this year talking to and working with training educators, L&D professionals, and HR. Across all participants in 28 events, the theme has been how to get virtual learners and workers engaged in their own learning and with work teams, leveraging technology and blending virtual and F2F connection.

The integrated networks and collaborative technology get much of the attention (and corporate budget), enabling teams to coordinate, cooperate, and collaborate digitally. Team members can connect to each other and the organization, never needing to be alone or separate. And yet globally, loneliness in the workplace is becoming an epidemic, and employee engagement continues to decline. Only 24% of global employees self-define as highly engaged. 36% of all workers say they are not engaged at all. Yahoo, Best Buy, and others are responding to this crisis by limiting virtual work and telecommuting, requiring employees to report to regional work centers. Why? They need better employee engagement and synergistic innovation, deciding it was easier to ‘manage’ when physically together.

It may be easier to bring people together physically, but it’s a solution to a symptom, imho. An honest examination reveals that a mobile, virtual workforce usually performs best in a blended environment. They spend time together while developing strong virtual communication and collaboration pathways, often working apart. Consistently high-performing teams communicate well virtually, keeping everyone informed and connected enough to build strong relationships. Strong virtual team leaders develop teams who know and trust each other – regardless of how much time they spend together physically.  They expand the team’s emotional bandwidth while clarifying team roles and responsibilities, nudging out diverse opinions, and vigorously discussing various options before coming to a unified action plan.

Just as bandwidth determines how fast data can up or download, our emotional bandwidth determines how well we can build and keep relationships.

“Emotional bandwidth is the personal and sustainable connection created among virtual team members who are working together for a common purpose toward a goal. The more emotional bandwidth, the more resilient the virtual team and the more they bridge virtual distance.” Trina Hoefling

This is the official definition I coined when I wrote about building swift trust when working with a virtual team in The Handbook for High-Performance Virtual Teams Wiley Publishing, in 2008.

The truth is, emotional bandwidth expands through conversation. Most work gets done through relationship, not task management. Managers and team members who take the time to get to know each other develop an arsenal of knowledge for how best to unleash talent and hold one another accountable. These teams – virtual or not – produce better results.

Once we begin to see each meeting and email, each phone call and hall encounter, every virtual chat as part of a stream of interdependent business conversations, we can make the necessary agreements and develop the expectations that will lead us to personal and team effectiveness.

High-performance teams develop over time and with experience together. People commit to one another more fully when they know one another. A good conversation creates something bigger than the words. It explores new territory and creates new understanding for everyone.

So how does a virtual manager encourage virtual conversation?

Start with one simple principle. People hanging around talking online isn’t a distraction. It’s the work of collaboration. If it isn’t happening, the virtual manager’s job is to stir things up. Get tongues wagging and fingers smoking on the keyboards. Build relationships as well as schedule meetings. Encourage personal conversation woven into work communication in addition to task-related communications.

Let’s get practical. Ask yourself two questions that give you a fresh perspective on your team culture:

  • How DO we work as a team? Are we perceiving clearly, or do we have blind spots? Are we acting from shared assumptions, or are we working at cross purposes? Do we reach out to co-located team members more than our virtual contributors? (When answering your own question, focus more on your team’s day-to-day habits.)
  • What’s working well virtually, and what is slipping or confusing?

The following is a starter list of virtual team leadership habits to expand emotional bandwidth and connect your team:

  • Have face-to-face meetings as often as possible, but especially at the beginning of new projects. (Sometimes this isn’t practical. Skype for Business, Zoom, Go to Meeting are just a few popular platforms to connect your team when you can’t meet face to face. I like some smaller platforms that have 24-7 live customer support and hands-on service, like Greenlight Collaboration.)
  • For new projects, develop a clear, concise vision and project plan. Set the pace and direction, roles and timelines, additional communication needs.
  • Emphasize trust with verification, support of new ideas, integrity and personal contribution as additional measures of team effectiveness.
  • Encourage knowledge sharing and set up easy ways to do so.
  • Provide sufficient technical and nontechnical resources, as well as backup plans for when the inevitable technical challenges happen. Being shut down technically for extended work periods can diminish productivity and
  • Post pictures of the team on the team’s virtual dashboard, and create stories together.
  • Identify team virtual distance strengths and weaknesses, and coach to bridge virtual distance. (We highly recommend our colleagues at Virtual Distance International. They have the only valid instrument, assessing 3 factors impacting virtual distance.)
  • Read and re-read Working Virtually: Transforming the Mobile WorkplaceLead a book club conversation!