Whether virtual teams are new at your company or you’ve been working remotely for years, leading a team that is not co-located takes a specific set of skills. As more companies move to hiring globally and with current public health considerations requiring people to shelter in place, leading virtual teams effectively is more important than ever.
At Torch, we’re adjusting quickly to our new remote working style. With some fully remote employees and offices in San Francisco and New York, we’ve already been accustomed to differing time zones and meetings over Zoom. New norms are being created, like our “virtual water cooler” calendar for employees to jump on and connect in a social setting. It’s a time of swift innovation, leading with empathy, and embracing the unknown.
If you’re new to leading virtual teams, we’re here to help. With best practices and advice from our community of leadership coaches, we’ve compiled seven tips to leading virtual teams effectively for the first time.
First, what exactly are virtual teams? We define virtual teams as groups at work that rely on electronic communication to function and are not co-located. They’re often geographically distributed and having access to the internet is key to their function. Virtual teams are also referred to as remote or distributed teams, however, we prefer the term virtual as it reinforces the dependence on technology.
The importance of leading with empathy, defining processes, and having excellent communication skills are a common thread among the tips we’ve compiled for leading virtual teams. We’ll explore each one and how you can put them into practice.
1. Lead with empathy
What resonated strongly with our coach community as well as what we’re seeing as best practice is leading with empathy. Especially in our current climate and for teams who are making the transition to virtual work for the first time, empathy is key. “Empathy and flexibility are paramount at this time as people figure out how to juggle having kids (and spouses) at home, and getting their work done. Lead with the understanding that we will all be impacted in different ways, and let there be open communication about the impact,” explains Torch coach Lara Otte.
“This is also an incredible time for people to learn and to find new possibilities in how we respond to crisis, or any breakdowns in our normal flow of work. We each have an opportunity to bring vitality to this moment (connection, creativity, taking care of what is important), rather than moving into fear or contraction in the face of change and uncertainty,” she adds.
2. Clearly define processes
For teams who are transitioning to working virtually, having clearly defined work processes help keep everyone on track towards their goals. Torch coach Alina Campos says, “It’s important to provide employees with structure and expectations. While the current circumstances require flexibility on the part of everyone, managers should provide guidelines on how the team will communicate. For example, what tools to use, when to communicate via Slack versus a video meeting and the expected response time to messages and emails.”
What works for one team doesn’t have to be the same for others. However, having a company-wide set of norms for working remotely can be a helpful baseline. Zapier, who are a fully remote team, provide a guide on how to transition to remote work in a hurry if this is something you need to execute on.
Alina adds that it’s vital for managers to maintain a routine for their teams, especially now. “Hold regularly scheduled all-team check-ins as well as one-on-ones and collaborate with other teams to find creative ways to continue your work virtually. Providing some consistency amongst the uncertainty will help everyone stay engaged,” she says.
3. Establish new norms
In addition to holding on to your regularly scheduled meetings, transitioning to leading virtual teams will require you to establish some new norms. When it comes to working hours, communication (like response time mentioned by Alina previously) and more, have a frank discussion about what this will look like while operating virtually.
“Establish some framework for communication and connection and apply it,” says Torch coach Rafal Szaniawski. He adds, “Part of the process will (and should) be purely results oriented, like status check ups, but make sure you leave space for human connection. Ask how people are feeling, be mindful of the rapidly changing situation and show empathy.”
Your new norms don’t need to be rigidly enforced, but knowing that they exist gives you something to point to and your teams a reference for what’s expected.
4. Enact virtual meeting etiquette
Once process and norms are in place, zoom in on virtual meeting etiquette, especially if your team is new to working remotely. In a Harvard Business Review article on the ten principles for making virtual teams work, this etiquette is called a “communication charter.” Things they suggest to add to your charter include, “…limiting background noise and side conversations, talking clearly and at a reasonable pace, listening attentively and not dominating the conversation.”
Slack’s ultimate guide to remote meetings recommends the following etiquette:
- Introduce everyone during the meeting, and give everyone a chance to contribute
- Don’t stare at your phone while other people are presenting
- Don’t interrupt other people when they’re speaking (or attempt to speak over them)
- Test all technology (including camera/video, Wi-Fi, and screen sharing) before the meeting
- Read the agenda, and come prepared
- Don’t work on other tasks (like checking email) during the virtual meeting
- Turn off all notifications and make sure your cell phone is on silent
- Make sure all team members are in a quiet area free from unnecessary distractions
Find the right etiquette for your team and share it across your virtual communication channels. If you want to make the process collaborative, spin up a Google doc and have people contribute ideas for etiquette and refine based on what works best.
5. Keep one-on-one meetings a priority
One-on-one time for leaders and their reports is invaluable. It provides a time to focus on learning and development, overcome obstacles through coaching, celebrate achievements, and more. When moving to a virtual team set up, it should be a priority to keep this time with your team. Rafal suggests using some of your one-on-one time to ask what kind of support people need from you. “By showing curiosity and interest, not only do you learn about the way they want to be led, but you also practice your listening skills and build trust,” he explains.
In addition to checking in with people on a personal level, take some time to ensure their understanding of your new virtual processes and norms. Torch coach Daniel Phoenix suggests encouraging your team to take an inventory of what times of day they are most alert. Advise employees to schedule their hardest tasks at those times because being alert is essential for handling the most difficult tasks.
6. Set aside time to connect socially
One of the benefits of working in an office together is that it’s easy to build social connection. You’ll say hi when people walk in, bump into each other while getting coffee, or grab a lunch outside. When working virtually, you need to be more intentional about creating moments for social connection. There are lots of fun ideas for virtual team building activities for you to try, from simple icebreakers to start a meeting to tiny desk s’mores.
Torch coach Puja Madan reminds us not to forget about the importance of motivation and appreciation when transitioning to virtual work as well. She says, “One powerful way to motivate remote teams is to understand their unique communication style and offer appreciation in ways that are meaningful to them. In Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, he outlines five main appreciation languages. Perhaps one team member prefers quality time and another, brief and sincere words of affirmation. When leaders make the time to tune in and communicate in ways that resonate with individual team members, everyone feels heard and understood. In turn, there’s a sense of connectedness even with the remote setting and productivity and performance improves.”
7. Communicate more than you think you should
Just as it can be more challenging to build social connections virtually, communicating through a transition to remote work can be difficult. The simplest way to smooth the transition overall is to communicate more than you think you should. Torch coach Stephanie Staidle says, “We lose a lot of how we naturally communicate as human beings, like body language and tone of voice, when we transition from office to remote, not to mention the social aspect (and we are by nature, social creatures).”
Her best tip is to over-communicate, especially when it comes to challenging or complex situations. “We can’t hear tone of voice or see body language via email or text, so it’s best to leave those channels for ‘updates’ and logistics. For strategy, education, brainstorming, or conflict resolution, having face-to-face via Zoom or other video software is best,” she adds.
In today’s climate, everyone is going through unprecedented changes on some level in their personal and professional lives. Coach Alina Campos says, “During this time of uncertainty, employees can feel isolated and uncertain about their futures. So, managers need to communicate regularly with their teams and keep them informed. They should strive to be as transparent as possible with whatever information they have available and reassure them of the measures that the company is taking to protect the business and take care of their employees.”
Know that you have the skills needed to lead virtually
Transitioning to leading a virtual team will take some extra effort. However, you have the skills you need. Translating those skills to be most impactful virtually just takes some adjustments. Whether you’re leading a virtual team for the first time or you’re a first time manager in general, the advice above will set you on the right path.
Remember to lead with empathy above all during this uncertain time. Clearly define processes and establish new norms in order to provide structure and a team vision. Put virtual meeting etiquette in place so people know what’s expected of them in a virtual workspace. Keep one-on-ones and time for social connection prioritized and over communicate.
It might be a far-reaching thought now, but when it’s possible, bringing your team together in person for an offsite or social event is a great way to further strengthen your connection. While we all operate in this new environment, it’s our leaders who will continue to make a positive impact. Know that you have the skills you need to lead virtual teams, and if you need support, we’re here to help.