In this current technological climate, virtual teams are becoming the norm across many industries. Virtual teams boast many benefits, particularly for employees who require a flexible schedule. But what does this mean for team leaders? How do they adapt their leadership style to manage a team with different schedules and time zones, with limited face-to-face interaction?
Tim Peek, a senior coach with the Conscious Leadership Group, answers these questions and shares his tips on overcoming the challenges that inevitably come with leading a virtual team.
Please introduce yourself, your job role and your experience in leading virtual teams.
My name is Tim Peek and I’m a senior coach with the Conscious Leadership Group, an organization that works with leaders and their teams to create new ways to connect, lead and create sustainable success.
I wasn’t always an executive coach. I spent more than 30 years in the media industry, 17 of them at NBC News, where I led and worked in many virtual teams distributed around the globe. I’ve also worked in several start-ups where everyone in the company worked remotely.
What are the most common challenges you face leading virtual teams and how do you manage them?
The biggest issue I’ve seen with virtual teams is sustaining meaningful connection and creativity. Studies show that remote workers are highly productive, but that close interaction with colleagues is important for highest creative problem-solving.
One of the essential qualities of high-performing teams is that they have high levels of trust and feel personally connected to each other. Not only does this help them stick together during tough moments, but it also enhances creativity because people feel they can be vulnerable and throw out strange ideas, let their imaginations roam, and be fully themselves in the presence of people they trust.
It can be difficult to create that deep level of trust with people you only see in video conferences a few times a week. Here are some things I’ve done to overcome that:
- Establish a balance between in-person time and virtual time. For far-flung teams, this may mean creating quarterly work sessions of several days where people fly in to be together. For teams in closer physical proximity, we’ve done weekly free lunches sponsored by the company along with monthly field trip days
- Create channels for non-task-related communication. So for instance, a Slack channel devoted to fun stuff where we can share gifs, videos, movie vacation photos, etc. The idea is to stimulate more personal connection
- Starting each meeting with a brief ‘presencing’ and check-in round. So we might have 30 seconds to two minutes of guided meditative breathing and then ask people to share their physical sensation, emotional state and dominant thought at that moment. The idea is to connect beyond the meeting agenda to set the stage for feeling closer to our colleagues. We might also end our calls with a quick round of appreciation for the others on the call.
- Placing attention on emotional intelligence. Once team members get tuned into their emotional states and those around them, they can more quickly spot disconnection and dysfunction rather than letting it fester. Lots of research has shown EQ to be essential to leadership and organizational success
One of the biggest challenges of virtual teams is that they can often lack social bonds. How do you ensure that virtual team-mates don’t feel so isolated?
I encourage people to share what is most important to them, both regarding work and in the rest of their lives. I want people to feel connected as complete people, not just workers on a project.
Do you have any suggestions for fun virtual team building activities?
Besides those various meeting practices, I’ve found it helpful to game-ify work whenever possible. So, for instance, taking a common KPI and posting group and individual progress toward it on a shared site where people can “race” each other to reach the goal.
Another fun and useful practice is to share highlights each day, so people can post to a common blog the most meaningful or useful thing they learned or did each day or week. Not only does this surface best practices, but it also allows colleagues to see what’s been important to their colleagues – again, it builds connection.
Regular pulse surveys of team sentiment and preoccupations is another great way to build connection and gauge the health of virtual teams. There are lots of quick and easy tools to use out there, such as TinyPulse. It can be as simple as asking “How are you feeling” and “What are we not talking about (that we should be)?”
What about ice breakers for team meetings or to introduce new staff?
I think these are useful for teams to do periodically even if there are no new members. Two of my favourite questions are “If you really knew me you’d know ______” and (for the more adventurous teams) “One thing I don’t want you to know about me is _______” The point is to build emotional connection as well as fill in the biography. And there is the classic game “Two Truths and a Lie.”
When hiring or inheriting your virtual team members, do you screen for certain skills that are beneficial for remote working?
Well, obviously, virtual team members have to be self-directed and good at creating solutions on their own. So I look for people who have a history of working independently on projects. I also look for people who are good collaborators and good communicators, because it’s important that they communicate easily and effectively with remote colleagues so everyone can stay in synch. I also try to determine why remote working is important to them – if team members have a strong reason to work remotely – beyond just getting the pay check – then I know they will be highly motivated to make the remote situation work.
Virtual working can be a challenge for some. How do you train your team members so that they can work productively and communicate effectively?
I tell them to err on the side of over-communication. That includes telling others when they are feeling disconnected, distant or worried about something in their work relationships. I also tell them to check in when things are going well, so they can share the good news and not just communicate about problems. Teams need to connect in good times to build strength for the tough times.
From your experience, what is the optimum team size for productive virtual working?
It does become more difficult to coordinate as teams grow larger. Technology can help with this – tools like Slack and Asana, internal blogs, etc. My experience, though, is that 12 is a good maximum team size.
Without visual cues and body language, it can be difficult to read emotions. How do you ensure that feedback is effectively given and received by virtual team members?
We teach everyone what we call emotional literacy. First they learn how to notice what emotions they are having themselves. This means learning what basic emotions are, their connection to physical sensations (e.g. fear often correlates to butterflies in the stomach or other sensations in that area; anger correlates to tension in the jaw, neck, shoulders or upper back). Then we have a practice of sharing those emotions as a sort of internal weather report. The more teams do this, the more natural it becomes and people can express their emotions without judgment or fear.
I also have a rule about gossip: none is allowed. If you have something to say about someone, you go direct to them to say it. I don’t listen to anything people won’t say directly to the others involved.
Which collaboration tools have been essential to you when you manage virtual teams?
Slack, Asana (or some other project management timeline tool), internal blogs and group chats on WhatsApp. Zoom for video-conferencing and screen sharing.
How do you manage team members working in different time zones?
I let team members work out for themselves the best times to talk. Asynchronous communication tools like Slack and WhatsApp are also very useful.
Do you implement any ground rules to minimise misinterpretation due to cultural or personality differences?
I’ve found that creating practices around non-judgmental sharing of whatever is up for us individually allows people to notice any friction or anger they are feeling with others on the team and share that directly with the people involved. We also use the conscious leadership principle of making learning our highest calling. So a cultural misunderstanding becomes an opportunity for me to learn about my biases, learn what makes me defensive and learn about what’s important to others on the team.
In your experience, have there been certain types of projects that are more of a challenge for a virtual team? If so, how did you manage them?
I’ve not noticed issues with specific types of projects. But I have noticed it with specific types of people. Folks who want lots of feedback and permission to take action have trouble with working virtually because they don’t always have access to colleagues to get that feedback or permission. People need to develop their own self-leadership so they can work independently for long stretches and then gracefully accept feedback on their work product.
What have been the biggest company benefits to you because of virtual working?
Flexible work schedules have allowed us to hold onto talented people as their lives change with marriage, children, spousal relocation, etc.
We also get to find the best talent no matter where they are on the globe, and often pay less for it because those people work in cheaper markets or value flexibility more than a big pay check.
How have you had to adapt your leadership and management style from leading a physical to a virtual team?
I’ve had to relinquish my desire to control things and devolve authority to individual team members. That has meant facing my own fears about work quality and my value as a leader. It’s made me a better boss and colleague, someone people actually sought out to work with as part of my teams. People like being their own boss while knowing that team leaders are primarily focused on supporting their success.
What has been the most common cause of conflict within your virtual teams and how do you manage it?
People not staying fully informed or communicating with others. This includes people not sharing when they are feeling conflict or disconnection.
Are you managing or directing a project with a virtual team? If so, you will benefit from taking a 1-day course on Leading remote project teams.
Tim Peek is master coach with the Conscious Leadership Group, an organization dedicated to supporting leaders and teams to create sustainable success. A pioneer in the conscious leadership movement, Tim coaches leaders and their teams to use emotional intelligence, body intelligence and the power of presence to increase their learning agility, creativity and team connection. You can follow the Conscious Leadership Group on Twitter and find Tim Peek on Linkedin.