Leading a virtual team: what needs to be different

In this post, we talk about the differences between leading a virtual vs a face-to-face team. It is a fragment of a full webinar Performance Management 101: Learn how to get team members to perform at the right level, even if they are working from home. Click here to gain access to the whole recording and transcript (email required).

With virtual teams, there are pros and cons to getting stuff done. If you lead a virtual team well enough, you find that they are more productive than a face to face team. But the reality is, what we don't do is that leading the virtual team well enough because we don't have the key elements of that.

So, regardless of where or how your team is, it's about how you lead it and having these four ingredients, and these work whether you are virtual or face to face, but some of them are more important for virtual teams.


4 Essential key ingredients for leading a virtual team

Right team

So with teams, you want to make them small.

As soon as when you've got a virtual team with more than five or more members, you start to get something called social loafing, which is where people feel less responsible for the output, and it gets harder for inclusive communication.

When you talk about the right team, you want to pick people with or to developing people with excellent communication skills, high emotional intelligence, and the ability to work independently. Also, with the resilience to recover from crisis, complex problems that might arise. You need people who can delegate and adopt a coaching-based approach.


Right leadership

One of the things we hammer into our members, one of the things to consider when you are working with a team is that you have to adopt that coaching approach. It just doesn't work, if you're either micromanaging or abdicating.

As a leader of the team, this is the bit where you need more trust in a virtual environment because you can't look over anybody shoulder. Part of your role as that leader is to foster that trust that means showing your vulnerability. It means saying whether you need help from the team. It means encouraging those little watercooler moments but virtually.

In our team, every morning in monday.com, we all put into the chatbox what we're up to for the day and what's going on. That's our virtual water cooler. I tell my team if I'm having a good or a bad day there.

The other critical thing is that, as a leader, you have to encourage that open dialogue.

Think about things like caring criticism, not just going: 'You've done this wrong', try these instead: 'I might suggest you think about this', 'is there a different way we might do this?; instead of going: 'I think that's wrong', or 'you've done that wrong', or 'I don't like that'.

It's all about the culture and about that open-door policy and having that relationship with your team.

As a leader to foster that trust, you need to be consistent. Where conflict has arisen, as the leader, you need to start the conversation with an apology for the part you played in. When you feel that conflict is starting, apologise for how you cause the situation.

Remember, you've always got the apology of 'I own this business', 'I have responsibility', 'If something goes wrong, ultimately, I have caused it.' You could always apologise, but also it's about openly recognising where individuals are fostering collaboration, community and trust.

It's also about being really good at saying 'well done'. Every time Ashley, our Senior Account Manager signs up a new member, my reaction is 'Well done'.

As a leader, you also want to clarify goals and guidelines. This is probably where, when we've shifted into the virtual environment, we are probably suffering.

We've got to get a lot stronger about how do you want people to work, what processes or rules or systems do you want them to follow.

In our team, Ashley and I are going literally through step by step on our sales process and onboarding system, and we take almost an hour every day. We're nowhere near done, but we clear about how you and I will be working.

You've got to be really clear on what you want, rather than 'get back to me on this.' Those fake guarantees like 'Oh, just revert to me on this' don't work. Just state what you want and when do you want it done. A lot of the reasons why we have a problem with performance is we are not clear.

Also, particularly in a virtual environment, you want the rules of team interaction. Such as 'I want cameras on', 'If we're on a call, please do not multitask and do emails.'

You also want to instruct how quickly you want people to respond to stuff. What happens if I don't get a response, particularly when we're using virtual project management tools and workflow tools like Central Carbon, we need to set expectations of how quickly will we get a response. For instance, I know with the part-time members of our business that if they're not working that day, I do not expect a daily update from them. But as a leader, you need to give this clarity.


Right touchpoints

We also need to talk about the right touchpoints as well. So, within the club, we talk about the rhythm meetings. These are daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly key meetings where you discuss both the day job, but also what's going on.

A lot of our members, particularly those that have got junior members of staff, are not just doing a daily huddle, they're doing twice daily huddle. First thing in the morning and then first thing after lunch. Just a quick catch up with everybody just to make sure everyone's fine and dandy.

They're also making sure you got the right touchpoints with the new team member. As an example, we had a new temporary team member and if she became a permanent team. In our first team meeting, we spent almost all the time getting to know each other as a team: what we like, our values, what are we like at our best, how people act, and all of that sort of stuff.

Also, when your onboarding new client, how will you update the team? What does that look like? But also, for an existing team member or client, what is the process? How does that look like with this virtual environment?

Most of us have not had the time to step back and think about this now is your time because if you don't get this right now, this will come back and bite you.


Right technology

Finally, this is the pain that we're in at the moment, getting the right technology.

Because the reality is that if people are not in the office, they can start to work on whatever system works for them, and this is where you've got to be a really strong leader.

Ideally, you want to put the task management aligned with the comms channel because it's really easy to see the conversation, along with the actual task.

But you also want to set up the comms channels where there's no actual task involved, and it's making sure that you reduce the number of systems, so you have a single source of truth. But sometimes you might have two or three systems. In our business, we're debating where do we do our CRM before and after someone becomes a member, where do we do our actual management of member tasks and member communication.

This is about you and the team getting really clear on what we use and how we use things.


What does this mean for you as a team leader?

It's really important that you have to say: 'this is how we now are going to work, virtually'. You've probably already done that to a certain extent, but perhaps you realise you now need to spend more time on this.

We've always been a virtual business, but since this 'new normal' started, I have stepped up my communications to the team, and that's because we're in a time of uncertainty and turbulence. It's actually more important.

You run the business, so stop scrimping on: 'Oh, well, we'll cut down the number of user licenses on this bit of software, and you can save it.' It's no good if people can't use the right tools, we're going to hit performance.

Also, beware of upwards delegation. This happens when a team member says 'I can't do this' and the leader just responds 'All right, don't worry, I'll do it'; or they go 'Oh, you just do it this, this, this way. Don't worry, I'll do it.'

By this, we train our team members to be helpless. We train them not to have initiative by going all "If you get stuck, come up and come and talk to me,' and then we just blurb out the whole answer.

What we want to be doing is training them to take the initiative. So we still want them to come to us, but we want to adopt a coaching approach where you go 'what do you consider doing?', 'who would you ask if I wasn't here to do that?', 'if I was in a client meeting, how could you do this by yourself?'; 'what is your instinct telling you to do?', 'who would you go and call?'

Get them to talk you through how they would do something and then ask them to go and do it again.

Now, of course, this means that you want to be, have time on your side. That means you've got to have your workflow planed, but this is absolutely key, giving them clarity of how much do I want to be involved, when do I want to be involved.

When Ashley first joined the team, I was involved in every touchpoint in the sales process because he'd bring me up on the Growth Accelerator calls and I'd go 'Oh, that's right.' Now, we don't check up when he has a growth accelerator calls. I trust him.

The key thing is everybody's on the journey. Keep that in mind when you are leading your team, whether you are doing this, virtually or face to face.

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