Many would argue that leading a virtual team requires the same leadership skills and attributes as leading a traditional team. While the key fundamentals of leadership hold true in both cases, virtual leadership scenarios offer unique and significant challenges. Following are five areas where virtual leaders need to focus energy in order to lead effectively.
Communication – Although leaders and team members are not in the same geographic location and cannot have a face-to-face conversation, effective communication is a key to success. The virtual world offers many different means of communication. These can include phone calls, emails, text messages, instant messaging, and video conferencing.
Communication guidelines should be set before communicating with a team virtually. These guidelines could consist of regularly scheduled calls, which mode of communication is used based upon the importance of the issue at hand, and how to handle time zone differences.
Consistent, prompt, and timely communication will help a virtual leader guide their team and create synergy among its members.
Trust – Developing trust in a virtual environment is not as easy as walking down the hallway or going out to lunch to chat, with your team. When building virtual relationships with team members, relationships are built at the individual level. Remember the special needs of each person. It will be vitally important to have an open and honest relationship with a lot of feedback. A virtual leader must be willing to make themselves accessible and available to their team members.
Another great way to develop trust uses personal attention: acknowledge birthdays, anniversaries, successes, and other achievements important to the individual.
Clarity – Team members must have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. When a virtual team is working on a project, there are questions you can ask yourself as the leader to ensure clarity. These include:
- Is there a clear division of tasks?
- Does each team member clearly understand what their specific task is?
- Does each team member know the process for reporting results?
- Are deadlines understood?
Support – Virtual leaders need to understand that working in a virtual environment can be “lonely” at times for team members. They do not have the energy and excitement that is created from working in an office with other team members. As a virtual leader it will be very important to know how team members are doing emotionally. Share your support.
Another type of support that will be necessary involves the work that team members perform. Team members must know that just because they are not geographically located in the same area as their peers and leader, help is readily available from the leader or other team members if they need it.
Empowerment – Team members must feel they have the ability to exercise authority to ensure they can complete their assigned responsibilities. There could be quick decisions to be made without time to go through the communication challenges that virtual teams inherently face. Leaders must allow team members to make decisions and support the decisions that are made.
As virtual teams become more and more prevalent, focus on effective virtual leadership will also grow. As leaders transition from traditional teams to virtual teams, many of their attributes and skills that made them effective leaders will transfer over, but it is important to look at how the miles separating leaders and team members will cause some adjustments to their leadership style. The more effective leaders are at leading a virtual teams, the more they can take advantage of the many benefits virtual teams bring to an organization.