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The Value of Technology to Virtual Leaders

Bob Little 

November 7, 2014

It’s obvious that the world of work is changing – especially for workers in knowledge-related, technology-assisted jobs. The difficulty comes when you try to differentiate enduring trends from ephemeral fads – and then try to use them to your organization’s benefit.

One trend that seems to be here to stay is the growing number of “virtual workers” – that is, those who work remotely from both their colleagues and their leaders.

This has a number of potential benefits. Recruiting for a virtual team gives you a wider – maybe worldwide – pool of qualified, skilled candidates from which to choose. People seem to be happier working in virtual teams – if only because it helps them avoid the regular commute to work. This also helps them to be more productive, not least by reducing the time wasted each day by the distractions and politics of office life.

Nonetheless, there are challenges in leading a virtual team. It’s hard enough to motivate and lead your team effectively when they’re in the same geographical location as you. It’s even more challenging to do so when your team is remote.

Communications Management

A trainer and consultant for Corporate Education Group, based in Chelmsford, MA, Star Dargin is also an adjunct professor at Boston University, where she teaches graduate-level courses on leadership and communication for project managers. She believes that leaders of virtual teams need a communications management plan.

She says that this plan is similar to the rules of a sports game: “It doesn’t contain play-by-play specifics or the outcome of the game. Rather, it outlines what communication needs to happen, who needs to be communicated with, how frequently, the intention of the communication, where it originates, nuances, and the communication medium. It documents how the information and communication needs of stakeholders will be satisfied.

“If done well, the communications plan can be used for many projects and be adapted as needed.”

Using the “TEAM” Framework

Learning and development professionals who help business leaders lead their virtual teams effectively and successfully can teach them the “TEAM” acronym, which stands for Trust, Empathy, Appropriate, and Maintain.

Trust

All leaders need to build trust in themselves by members of their teams – and encourage it between team members. This can be difficult in a geographically dispersed team, where there are relatively few opportunities for social interaction. Maybe the team leader can be encouraged to use appropriate technology to introduce some ice breaker activities, so that the team can get to know – and trust – one another. At least, with such technologies as email, text and Skype, it’s possible to interact socially – allowing team members, including the leader, to reveal glimpses of what makes them who they are.

Empathy

This helps to build, within the group, the essential trait of empathy with each other. This is strengthened when the leader can find ways to explain the reasons for decisions. In addition to the direct communication technology of Skype, email and text, leaders can use broadcasting technologies, such as a blog or even Twitter, along with narrowcasting techniques, such as an organizational e-zine, to provide updates and insights. Facebook is, however, probably “a social media technology too far” for this sort of thing.

Any team has the potential for experiencing conflict – and this is increased when members are remote from each other, come from different cultures, and have different perspectives. Any would-be successful leader of a virtual team has to be active in spotting signs of conflict (clues can appear in all the technology-enabled means of communication used) and resolve them, tactfully, as soon as possible.

Appropriate

Communicating information clearly, accurately, at the appropriate time, and via the appropriate channel is a key attribute of a good leader. Where virtual teams are involved, the leader must achieve this via conferencing applications, such as Cisco’s WebEx and Citrix’s GoToMeeting, Skype, as well as via email and text. Using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is less effective and far more public, although it could prove useful as a temporary measure if all else fails.

Using the video option with Skype can prove invaluable when communicating with team members who’re not only “geographically remote” from their leaders but are also of a different culture. At the very least, being able to see these people during the communication process can give the cross-culturally-aware leader more clues about how effective it is being, greatly reducing the scope for any misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Moreover, multitasking should be allowable when taking part in technology-enabled team meetings. A team member might search files – or even Google – for information that’s relevant to the current discussion. The key is that team members take personal responsibility for their behavior and their loyalty to the team – and its leader.

Maintain

It’s important to maintain – and, indeed, continue to build – trust and empathy within the team, so that it can function effectively. So, none of the ideas and activities in this article should be thought of as “one-offs.” They need to be used constantly if the team is going to be productive and its leader is to be a success.

Nick Hindley, associate director, learning and performance improvement, at global contract research organization PPD, says: “We operate many virtual teams across the world and, indeed, I’ve managed virtual teams across the U.K., Europe and globally. In my experience, the key obstacles to effective virtual communication are a lack of engagement, lack of communication, and loss of connection with the team and/or company.

“These aren’t technical issues about communication methods. Virtual teams’ issues are linked less to technology and methods than to people and how they interact – or want to interact – with each other. Technology can help as long as there’s motivation for people to work together. Establishing relationships within and across a virtual team takes longer than would be necessary if members were meeting face-to-face.

“A helpful technique in one team I managed involved sending round a PowerPoint slide each Thursday. All of the team added a picture that summed up the week they’d experienced. Before the reveal was made, everyone else had to guess, from that picture, what had happened.”

The virtual world is helping PPD with managing and training virtual teams. People attend training in the form of avatars and can see each other and interact, much as in real life. Nick says: “While it’s really just a phone call, the quality of the interaction feels more ‘human’ and the quality of the training experience comes close to that of face-to-face training.”

What are your experiences of training virtual leaders? Are there any other strategies or techniques that leaders can use to lead a geographically dispersed team more effectively?

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4 comments on “The Value of Technology to Virtual Leaders”:

  1. Bill wrote:

    Great article, and very thought-provoking. Although I have little experience with remote teams, I have had to work in a virtual environment for a couple of months while communicating with a consultant who was working on our technical infrastructure. One of the issues that I discovered in this arrangement was that the consultant was working on other projects, and may not have always provided timely responses to requests or questions. In an effort to overcome this, I requested a schedule of best times to contact, a commitment to be available for my concerns or contact within those time frames, and an agreement that these times would be exclusive to me. In return, I offered that if I had no concerns, I would communicate this so that the consultant could use these times for other matters. As far as the nuances of working as a remote team, I found that, meeting with the consultant in person a couple of times prior to the remote office being established worked really well in creating the collaborative environment between us.

  2. Shaista Shahid wrote:

    I agree with BILL when he says a fixed time in remote teams is the answer. But more important is the trust and relationship you develop within the teams while working virtually. meeting schedules and communicating in time develops trust.technology has opened doors for a global work forum.

  3. Helena wrote:

    This is all good. When you have a mixed team of office-located and remote workers, the office-located need strong skills for e-conferencing – it’s a nightmare for the remote workers if people in the main conference room start chatting in the background, or say things like “Great, so you’ll do that” without specifying WHO they are looking at in the room when they say it.