Virtual working has become increasingly common in recent years thanks to globalisation, growing concern for the environment and the need for organisations to cut costs. It has been enthusiastically adopted by Generation Y employees who have grown up in a digital world – and by those who are seeking to achieve a better work-life balance for themselves and their teams.
There are still many managers, however, who continue to regard virtual working as ‘second best’ – a last resort option you only use when you cannot travel or get people together face-to-face. They struggle with the concept of leading people in the virtual space and managing the performance of people they very rarely see.
A new book by Ashridge associate Ghislaine Caulat aims to shatter the myth that face-to-face is always the best way. In ‘Virtual Leadership: Learning to Lead Differently’, she argues that virtual working is no longer a reluctant necessity but a highly advantageous way of conducting business that allows the organisation to deploy the ‘best brains’ to the task in hand, regardless of where they may be located.
Managing effectively in an on-line world does, however, require managers to learn new approaches and completely rethink the way they lead their teams. It is a new discipline, which turns much of the conventional thinking about management on its head.
In a virtual environment, leaders need to put the emphasis on relationships rather than tasks. They need to find new ways to motivate people, build trust and facilitate communication between geographically dispersed members of their team. So what are the key issues managers need to bear in mind if they are to maximise the potential of virtual working and get the best out of their remotely-located teams? Ghislaine shares her top ten tips:
1. Re-learn the basics. It’s important to recognise that in the virtual space, everything is amplified. This means that leaders are more exposed. Personal traits and behaviours are more visible virtually than they may be face to face. People listen more intently and can more easily see flaw in arguments. Leaders need to develop strong self-awareness of how they manage their emotions, react to situations and express themselves.
2. Learn to listen differently. Most managers have been trained to be alert to body language and to pick up visual cues when in meetings or one-to-ones with their teams. Body language, however, often distracts us from listening properly to what is being said. To be effective in the virtual space, leaders need to develop the capacity to listen differently and more attentively. It’s about developing a kind of seventh sense which will allow them to connect with people at a deeper level.
3. Create a level playing field. Getting the team dynamics right in a virtual meeting means making sure everyone is linked in virtually and independently. A mix of virtual participants and others sitting face-to-face round a microphone simply doesn’t work. Trust can quickly become eroded, for example, when someone who is isolated on the end of a line misinterprets a silence and worries that the group at the other end may be ‘ganging up’ on them.
4. Consider timing carefully. Managers working with global teams will often schedule virtual meetings that are at a convenient time for them, forgetting that it may mean others have to get up at 3am. Of course it’s not always possible to find a time that suits everyone, but it’s important to be transparent about the way you are scheduling meetings so that the same people are not always disadvantaged. If time zones make it impossible to keep everyone happy, try alternating who within the team has to be available at an unsocial hour.
5. Get the basics right. People taking part in a virtual meeting should be in a quiet room, alone and undisturbed - not in an open plan office or airport lounge where the background noise will be amplified and distracting for everyone. They should be equipped with headphones covering both ears and ideally using a telephone line rather than more unreliable computer-based lines. Invite people to log in at least ten minutes before the start of the meeting so that any technical issues can be resolved. These small technical details may seem obvious, but often make a big difference to the success of the meeting.
6. Slow down. Don’t squeeze virtual meetings back to back with face-to-face meetings. Plan for a ‘buffer’ of time before and after the meeting to allow you to prepare and ask other attendees to do the same. Take time at the beginning of the meeting to allow people to settle in and connect rather than jumping straight to the task in hand. Close the meeting by allowing people to disconnect – perhaps asking everyone to say something before they sign off – a bit like a virtual handshake.
7. Plan for success. Think carefully about what people might need to read and prepare for before the meeting. Send the agenda out in advance and ask for feedback. Produce a plan for the session which outlines key steps, activities and timings. If you are using slides, prepare not just ‘content’ slides but also ‘process’ slides (i.e. slides with questions on them to encourage people to reflect on issues and connect with each other).
8. Help people focus. Use a focus exercise at the start of the meeting to help participants switch off their current pre-occupations and ‘tune in’ to the virtual meeting. This might involve getting people to relax, focus on their breathing, make sure they are sitting comfortably and think about the colleagues they are about to interact with. Some sample focus exercises are included in the book. People may find this strange at first – but will soon realise that it will help them disconnect from what’s going on around them so they can concentrate on the meeting.
9. Learn to work with silences. Many people feel uncomfortable with silences and try to fill them by repeating information or asking others why they are quiet. It’s important to recognise, however, that people communicate not only when they speak but also when they do not speak. Being silent doesn’t mean people are ‘absent’ – it probably just means they are thinking deeply about how to respond and you need to give them time to do that.
10. Build and nurture relationships. Relationships are the key pillars of virtual leadership and finding ways to build and nurture them is essential. Managers need to spend a substantial amount of time on a one-to-one basis with each member of their team, perhaps following up individually on a point raised at the previous virtual meeting. Some virtual leaders have experimented successfully with concepts like ‘virtual coffee corners’ – meetings with no set agenda where people are invited to come together and talk about whatever is on their mind.
You can find more information about successfully leading virtual teams in: Virtual Leadership: Learning to Lead Differently, Ghislaine Caulat, Libri Publishing 2012 www.ashridge.org.uk