Using a virtual team to carry out at least part of your business can provide greater flexibility, cost savings, and access to talent when compared to an on-site team. My last two posts have been about why you should consider building a virtual team and how to build a virtual team to take advantage of these benefits.
I will continue on that theme in this post by writing about how to lead a virtual team.
Leading a virtual team isn’t much different from leading a traditional on-site team. However, some leadership and management principles can be implemented a little differently.
The following are some thoughts about how these principles can be applied to leading a virtual team.
Invest in documentation and training
Business owners and managers build a team so they can leverage their time. As their businesses grow, they can’t do everything themselves. They need to hire and train people who can take some of the workload.
The best-run businesses have well-defined roles that need to be filled and operating procedures for carrying out those roles. The E-Myth is a great book about building a company that relies on roles and procedures rather than specific people.
Having well-defined roles and procedures may be even more important for a virtual team compared to a local team.
When business owners are in the same location as the rest of the team, the owner can model correct performance, observe team members directly, and provide training and feedback in person.
These dynamics are different for a virtual team. Clear written procedures are important for virtual teams. Team members can primarily learn how to do their job by reading and following these procedures. Owners can monitor results and provide feedback.
Good documentation also makes turnover less disruptive. A virtual team gives you more flexibility to grow and shrink your team as needed, but that flexibility goes both ways. You may have more turnover with a virtual team than a traditional team. Having written procedures makes it much easier to insert someone else into that role.
I just started using a combination of Sweet Process and Snag It for documenting procedures, and I am happy with the results so far. I can write out steps and attach screen shot images and videos with annotations.
Track status and review promptly
On site, you can check the status of a project by walking around. If revisions are needed, it’s easy to pass the work back for quick edits. It’s not that easy with a virtual team.
With a virtual team it can be tempting to do the work or make revisions yourself rather than incur the overhead of status updates and revision cycles. Especially if your team is on the other side of the world, the revision cycle can take 24 hours.
However, you can handle status updates and revisions easily easily with technology tools.
Email is not a good tool for managing tasks and projects. Files, status updates, and instructions can get scattered across several email strings, and it can be time-consuming and difficult to stay organized.
I prefer to use Basecamp and Google Sheets checklists for managing tasks and projects.
With Basecamp you can create projects, task list categories, and individual tasks. When I need something done, I will assign a task in Basecamp to a team member and add instructions and files to the task. The team member can make comments on the task with questions. When they are done, they assign the task back to me so I know it’s ready for my review.
For recurring and multi-step tasks, such as month-end accounting procedures, I use Google Sheets checklists. This allows me to check the status at any time.
As you assign tasks, it’s important to review and provide feedback quickly. I’m guilty of not reviewing tasks right away, and sometimes mistakes get repeated if I don’t catch them early.
Communicate regularly and clearly
Since a virtual team is out of sight, it’s easy for them to be out of mind. To be an effective leader, you need to keep them in mind just as much as an in-person team.
If team members are working on a long project or if their duties only require periodic action, it’s easy to neglect them. Just like a good in-person leader, check in regularly, even for no reason other than to see how they’re doing.
Don’t just dump tasks on them and expect them to figure it out. Provide clear instructions along with prompt and patient responses to questions.
Provide regular feedback, preferably using the sandwich approach. Start with something positive, provide constructive feedback, and then end on a positive note. People are people everywhere in the world, but some people and cultures are especially sensitive to negative feedback.
An effective method for maintaining morale can be to frame mistakes as your fault. “I’m sorry, I must not have given very good instructions” or phrases like that.
Principles of leadership are the same whether those you lead are in the same room or on the other side of the world. However, it’s important to adapt your leadership practices to effectively manage a virtual team. As you lead effectively, you can take advantage of the flexibility, cost savings, and access to talent possible with virtual teams.
Question: What practices have you found helpful in leading a virtual team?