How Virtual Managers Can Lead Effectively
Go into most companies these days and you’ll witness hand wringing around the complexities of managing a virtual workforce. Studies show that 80 percent of managers deal with dispersed teams, which may include managing people in remote locations, other countries, or in home-based offices. (When you factor in our dependence on consultants and cross-functional teams, my guess is that nearly all managers are leading virtually in some fashion.)
We’re doing it, but we don’t like it. Fifty-seven percent of managers say trust is a challenge with a virtual workforce, followed by communications, managing projects, and creating consensus. Virtual managers often say it’s simply harder and more time-consuming to manage when the team isn’t in front of them.
Virtual management can be isolating, and even lonely. A virtual manager’s day can be a flurry of conference calls and emails. Having personal connections and camaraderie is one of the highlights of managing others, and when you lose that, work can be a slog.
Frustration aside, and contrary to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s controversial decision to eliminate working from home, most companies are moving ever further into virtual structures. Whether to extend their talent pool, appeal to a younger workforce, or for sustainability, my prediction is that the term “virtual manager” will have a short shelf-life. All management will be, at least in part, virtual.
We now have a good decade of studies showing what works well in virtual management, and what falls short. The toughest challenges are always communications and trust, so if you want your virtual team to hum, here are some best practices to keep in mind.
1. Use face-to-face meetings strategically.
Virtual teams need some in-person meetings to establish deeper relationships, so plan for them wisely. Research shows that timing matters. Gather your team after roles are clearly established, not at a team’s inception, and they will use the time together to suss out work styles, and organize socially. It’s also important to have a schedule for in-person meetings that everyone knows in advance. People will save certain communications and relationship matters if they know there will be a chance for a personal meeting.
2. Schedule informal time.
Research at MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab found that informal time was the #1 determinant of success in a team. Turns out the water cooler talk makes us more productive, not less. For virtual teams, this means that however you communicate, whether by phone or video, have a set time for informal connection. Even five minutes to talk about weekend plans can make a difference. Sacrifice some efficiency now for effectiveness later.
3. Humanize the communications.
In To Sell is Human, Dan Pink cites a compelling study about the power of seeing the face of another person. When radiologists were given CT scans to interpret with photos of the patient attached, they were far more effective at reading them, and also at uncovering unrelated medical threats. The researchers concluded that having a face in front of us changes our level of involvement, and behavior.
This has relevance for building connection in the virtual business environment as well. Put a face with a voice whenever possible. Make sure pictures pop up in your instant messaging or videoconferencing software. Or take PR firm Ogilvy’s lead. They use their internal social network to ease collaboration and relationship-building. Each person has a bio, formal and informal, with notes about their particular skills. Socialcast, Ning and Path offer low-cost ways to implement this technology for any size company.
Finally, virtual relationships are built faster when they are one-to-one. Find ways to divide the team into smaller working teams so they mix in dyads or small groups.
4. Blend task clarity with work autonomy.
Virtual teams need more communications, more protocols, and more clarity — around tasks. But when it comes to doing the work, one of the benefits of virtual work is you have more room to move in how you accomplish it. Be clear about expectations for deadlines, resolution of team issues, availability, and even communications. Then get out of the way.
5. Stack the deck.
A study at the London School of Economics showed that virtual teams are not all created the same. The best ones aren’t composed of functional experts with similar talents — rather they are quite diverse. High-performing teams have a mix of new and legacy employees with complementary skills. (The balance is critical, if the ratio favors too many legacy employees the new folks can feel left out.) Also look to add boundary spanners to your virtual team. These are folks with relationships across the company who know where to go to get things done. They can help the entire team manage hurdles, which given the complexity of virtual work in the first place, will be inevitable.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.
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