Virtual teams -- once a novelty -- have now become the norm. Last year, 43% of American employees reported working at least some time remotely.
Remote work makes good business sense. Removing geographical constraints allows businesses to source the best available talent. That talent is frequently more focused, engaged and productive than their co-located colleagues. And, given the volume of knowledge work to be done, a distributed workforce is often the most agile and cost-effective model available.
Yet, despite the ubiquitous nature of virtual teams, many organizations and leaders continue to struggle with the fundamentals of how to manage this permutation of a workgroup. Too frequently, they focus their efforts exclusively on the technology that enables connectivity and fail to address what’s actually most important to attaining the desired results: the human connection.
Anyone who’s led or been part of one of these teams knows that the virtual setting changes the human dynamics. Distance can breed ambivalence, assumptions, and misunderstandings that can be addressed more naturally and quickly by people who share a workspace day-in and day-out. And not working together in the same space can easily compromise the sense of cohesion, identity and community that flows naturally when a team is co-located.
Virtual leaders who have cracked the code and brought their distributed workers together into high-functioning teams know that connection in this environment doesn’t happen by chance. It’s incumbent upon leaders to intentionally nurture relationships, weave connections and transform mere groups into collective communities. Here are five key priorities for making this happen.
Turn up the trust
Trust -- a cornerstone of positive relationships -- is built over time and based upon the experiences that people have with one another. Unfortunately, there are fewer opportunities for this to happen in a virtual setting.
For a team to operate optimally, members must trust each other’s motives as well as their fundamental competency. Leaders can help make this happen by finding ways for each person to shine and making strategic assignments to ensure that trust builds through the shared experience of work and accomplishment.
Cultivate effective communication practices
With so many available communication channels, it’s important for leaders and members alike to be thoughtful and intentional in the selection of the best method for the message. And, in a virtual setting, everyone must compensate for the loss of cues that are picked up naturally by those who are co-located. In general, effective virtual leaders tend to overcommunicate and overdocument to keep people on the same page. But this must be balanced with not overwhelming people and further contributing to information overload and communication fatigue. And, of course, the importance of active listening cannot be overstated.
Invest in shared vision
Communities and teams are formed as people rally around common interests. A clear, compelling and engaging vision reminds everyone about what they’re working toward. A shared vision and values contribute to trust, leaving members feeling like "these people are my tribe." However, developing that vision is not enough. Leaders can’t cross that off the list and hide it away; they must refer to it frequently and treat it as a living document, updating as necessary.
Nurture norms and agreements
Shared agreements for how people will work together is important for any team. But, it becomes even more important when teams aren’t co-located. When everyone understands the "terms of engagement" or "rules of the road," they can go about their work confident in the behaviors and performance they can expect from others. Allowing teams to play a role in creating norms and agreements goes a long way toward creating trust. As with shared vision, these can’t be tucked away, either. They must find their way into meetings, conversations and interactions with others to build a culture and connection.
Mine (and mind) your meetings
Meetings are a primary vehicle for bringing virtual teams together and facilitating connections among members. While important in any setting, meetings take on greater significance for virtual teams. Regularly scheduled meetings create a cadence and predictable opportunities for people to connect. And impromptu meetings address evolving business needs and approximate the more casual way people might come together in co-located settings. Whatever the form, good physical meeting practices must be elevated to the next level when operating virtually -- with a clear purpose, outcomes, agenda and roles, as well as exemplary facilitation skills.
Effective virtual leaders focus less on the technology and details of connectivity and more on helping their teams create genuine, authentic connections. And when they do, they can bridge time, space and cultures to unleash unbeatable results.
How are you doing? Take this short survey to evaluate your effectiveness at each of these practices and download the "Cultivating Connections Within Your Virtual Team: 26 Tips from A to Z."
Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning. Named one of Inc. Magazines top 100 leadership speakers, Julie is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller, “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” a respected speaker on a variety of topics, and a regular contributor to many business publications.