The principles of leadership are no different whether you are co-located or virtual: the challenge – apart from adopting and practising appropriate principles, of course, is making them work in the virtual context. Robert Terry of ASK gives his tips on managing disparate teams in the first of a two-part series.
What changes in the virtual context is the amount of time that you need to spend on certain activities, and the skills and behaviours you need to make them effective. On a less abstract plane, you need remember something important: yourself. Your personal style and preferences will influence your natural comfort levels with – and your effectiveness at – various aspects of virtual team leadership.
There are two underlying factors that need to inform and shape your conduct as a virtual leader: firstly, the majority of your contact with the virtual team (and they do not need to be a thousand miles away to be remote) will be mediated through channels that reduce the scope for sending – and receiving – subtle signals; and secondly, that you will be interacting with a local culture (in the broadest sense) of which you are not a daily, present part. And these two factors are not as distinct as they might appear.
There is a telling sentence in the Wikipedia entry on 'virtual management':
The members of this [virtual or remote] team might meet physically at some point, or they might never do it, depending on their virtual working skills and availability of technology enabling sensible communication.
Whether or not the manager/leader is physically absent or present when leading, key features and attributes are needed to build a high performance team, to recognise and address under-performance (whether individual or collaborative, often arising from poor communication) and to provide clear structures, roles and direction.
Looked at in the remote physical context, it's important to recognise that some of the drivers for the growing prevalence of remote teams can actually add to the challenges for the team leader: in particular, a focus on cutting costs – especially travel – can reduce opportunities for face-to-face time and encourage the maximum possible use of technology. Given the importance of a sense of belonging, of opportunities to contribute and be involved, and of being valued as an individual to employee engagement, there is potential for serious conflict between business drivers and team circumstances. The recent Work Foundation report on the attributes and characteristics of outstanding leadership, 'Exceeding Expectations', also emphasised the critical importance that outstanding leaders place on opportunities for dialogue, and of making time for conversation with individuals to provide the opportunity not only to understand their motivations and personalities more fully, but also for the leader to gain feedback on their own behaviours and impact.
Communication is clearly a vital issue for the remote leader, and one that – in their context – is now almost impossible to divorce from technology. For the remote leader, it is not so much a technical mastery of technologies (email, online forums, blogging and social media, instant messaging, video conferencing) that is critical, but an understanding of the pros, cons and appropriateness of each of these technologies for specific purposes if they can be used to best advantage. At a technical level, the leader and team have to be comfortable enough with their use that learning to use them is not a time-consuming obstacle, but there is more than this to what we might call 'digital literacy'.
As soon as communication – not just from the leader, but to them and amongst the team – ceases to be conducted face to face, differing percentages of the total available communication signals (tone of voice, body language, and so on) are lost with each channel. Emails, especially those written in haste (for whatever reason), can give either no sense of tone or a misleading tone if they are not constructed with care: if it is vital that more than just your literal words are to be interpreted by your audience, the greater the need to check your text for potential ambiguity or misunderstanding before you click the 'send' button.
- See Robert's second part of the article here to learn more about new communication methods and cultural sensitivity.
Robert Terry is founder and managing director of ASK