Telework and Virtual Teams Leadership

Leading a virtual team requires more than just setting up the right technology so team members can communicate. Learn what else you should do to make your virtual workforce feel connected to each other and the company mission.

The Way of the Teleworking World

There is a global phenomenon that is changing the way we work. That of course is working virtually or teleworking separate from brick and mortar corporate offices. This may be difficult for many 9 to 5-ers to grasp, but over a billion (with a B) people already work remotely worldwide and major corporations, particularly in the hi-tech sector, are capitalizing on the tremendous cost savings and talent pool available when using the new, increasingly less costly technology–talent that may not be available within driving distance of your company. Small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs) are getting into the act as well, even though they may not be as far up the learning curve as the heavily resourced giants. This article is for you.

Succeeding with virtual work is a simple in concept, but not so easy to implement. There are more failures than successes due to leadership that doesn’t recognize the distinction of how the nature of work changes when dealing with distributed work teams, for the company and for the individuals involved. Unfortunately, the price of failure in lost productivity, missed deadlines, and HR casualties will nearly always far exceed the investment needed to get it right the first time. If you’ve been unsuccessful with virtual work teams in the past, take heart and don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Set Up the Virtual Team Strategy Protocol

Okay. So you found the coolest gadgets available to have meetings with, collaborate with, and otherwise communicate (or so you think) with the company’s new distributed employee network. Are you done? Of course not. There are so many things that happen as a matter of course when working with colleagues and employees in the same office that are absent in the virtual work environment. Things like a sense of connection with each other, total understanding of the direction and how I as an employee on an island connected only by the tether of the Internet fit into the plan.

This starts and ends with communication, and not just setting up the wireless network, but really connecting. If you’ve read my blog post (okay, article) on “The Expectations Game,” you know that dealing with customer expectations and controlling them up front is critical to project success in the world of consulting. The same applies to virtual co-workers and employees, in spades! The first communication element necessary is to set up the protocol, the ground rules for how communication will occur. What happens on a web meeting? When is teleconferencing or Skype videoconferencing required? What about email and text usage? And lest we forget, at what point is face-to-face meeting and hand shaking essential? Leaders of distributed workforces need to establish that protocol with their teams early and reinforce it often.

This only scratches the surface of setting up a distributed or virtual work environment for your company and overcoming barriers to success. It should, however, emphasize the need to take a structured approach to making it happen at your company.

Creating a Virtual Environment for Telework Success

The befuddling aspect of leading distributed teams and establishing a telework and virtual team strategy, is that many leaders are missing the mark–big time. Most American models of leadership still use the top-down, authoritarian style of communication when dealing with “subordinates.” We glorify the strong, brave, dictatorial styles of Jack Welch in business and Patton on the battlefield. Everything has its place and in the virtual landscape, the world has never been flatter! You cannot have an imposing, physical presence or command and control in the same way as you might when co-located with your staff. It’s too easy to simply tune out. They have to want to and enjoy working for you, and here is where the working conditions are butting heads with the classic business-school management philosophy and hierarchical organization chart.

I discussed this phenomenon with virtual expert Phil Montero. Phil and I got into non-tech elements critical for success when leading virtual or distributed workforces. This generates the intangibles necessary for leaders and why authoritarian leadership models won’t fly in a purely virtual situation.

Phil suggests engaging in methods to relate informally and establish relationships that go beyond the board room. Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski of Virtual Distance International calls this “closing affinity distance,” or building ways for people who may never see each other to bond and gain connection, and highlights this in her books Uniting the Virtual Workforce and Leading the Virtual Workforce. Use the company blog or informal social networks and events on Facebook or somewhere else like Virtual Happy Hours.

The Virtual Team Strategy Leader

“Become a question asker instead of an answer provider,” is how Phil describes the shift needed in leaders, be they team leaders or company CEOs, to gain top performance from the virtual workforce. This move to being a facilitator, or helping supervisor, is not new and reflects the Steven Covey servant leader principal, and many leaders of organizations already engage their co-located employees this way. By constantly asking questions about what the team needs–technologies, time zones, virtual pizza, different avatars during the virtual, online meetings (yes, I said it)–leaders not only find out information to foment the success of the team, but they manifest the old axiom “before they care how much you know, they need to know how much you care.”

That provides the will to be successful for you from the virtual team that perhaps has only seen you on Skype or from a headshot in the company newsletter, and that desire to succeed for the leader will enable the virtual tools we talk about in these interviews to really work magic: cutting costs, projects coming in ahead of time instead of hopelessly delayed, ecstatic customers–all the stuff that you wanted when you began.


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