Leading virtual teams: create a heartbeat, keep the pace, and unlock the treasures
Virtual teams conduct most or all of their work without meeting face-to-face. When I started studying these teams over two decades ago, I was surprised to learn they can perform at least as well as face-to-face teams, and in some ways even better. I’ve worked with virtual teams in all kinds of configurations: global and local; crisis, short project, and ongoing management; internal to the organization and external partnerships. In this three-part series, I’ll share the principles of high-performing virtual teams. Part 1 emphasizes the importance of the team’s heartbeat. Part 2 outlines three sources of discipline to keep your team’s pace between heartbeats. Part 3 shares a few things that virtual teams do better than face-to-face, so you can unlock their treasures. Even after COVID-19, you may choose to keep more of your team’s work virtual!
Part 3: Leading virtual teams: unlock the treasures
At this point you’ve got both heartbeat and pace, with the trust, knowledge, and discipline they bring. Now you can unlock the treasure of what virtual teams can achieve. Compared with when you only worked in person, there are three key team processes you can now do even better. As a fourth treasure, virtual teams provide excellent leadership development experiences.
Share more good ideas
Equal participation is one of the best predictors of good team decisions. Virtual communication modes, especially asynchronous ones, level the communications playing field and drive more equal participation. In the virtual setting, who “speaks up” and who “gets heard” is less about who has a loud voice or power in the room. It’s more about the ideas themselves. An expressive extrovert may dominate a face-to-face meeting, but in a threaded discussion their ideas have equal air time to the reflective introvert’s. A team member trying to express a complex idea can think about and even draft it before posting it. Another team member working in their second (or third, or fifth...) language can prototype their comments through a translator before posting. Even status has much less impact on virtual communication. In a regular face-to-face team meeting, there are all kinds of non-verbal signals about who should speak when. These are much less evident in the virtual setting, freeing up the input of less powerful people. With more equal participation, your team will get more good ideas, enabling better decision-making.
Discuss ideas more fully
Another strong predictor of good team decisions is the process of exploring many ideas and combinations before committing to one. In a face-to-face team there’s one conversation at a time. At some point several people start to comment on a particular idea, and it begins to dominate the discussion. Before you know it that idea has support, and other ideas get lost even if they’re good. In a virtual team you can have many conversations at the same time without losing any of them. For example, you can all contribute to a Google doc while you’re also commenting on chat or zoom and pointing to references online and in your data. It can seem chaotic - it’s a different conversation flow than most of us are used to. Sometimes you may all be sitting in silence, just reading and writing to each other. But because you can keep going back and referring to earlier parts of the conversation, the discussion tends to be more impartial. The team uses more objective criteria to assess ideas, rather than just adopting the one they discuss first or most. This process takes those good ideas and turns them into good decision-making.
Address difficult topics more objectively and thoughtfully
You know all those non-verbals that we love so much in face-to-face communication? Well, sometimes they actually get in the way. In my first research study, the highest-performing team never once addressed conflict in person - they always discussed problems on the phone. When you explore this more, it’s not as counter-intuitive as it seems. In difficult conversations, we often get emotional as we are about to say what we need to say. We may suppress it explicitly, but the other person can see that emotion. They, in turn, become anxious and this raises their own emotions. The cycle builds, and we say or hear things that aren’t intended. Ironically, in virtual meetings where we don’t see each other, we can manage the impact of our emotions more effectively. We can ignore our own face getting hot, we can pause for a breath before we respond to the other person, we can say “I find that frustrating” without snapping. The relationships and deep knowledge we get from the heartbeat are especially important here. Without them, virtual conflict resolution does spiral into misunderstanding and blame. You’ve surely experienced that with email. But when the team is solid, this way of communicating becomes a huge advantage of virtual work.
Develop the next leaders more thoroughly
The last treasure unlocked by high-performing virtual teams is one I hinted at in Part 2. Good virtual teams develop the leadership capabilities of their team members better than face-to-face teams do. Other things being equal, leading a virtual team is more difficult than leading a face-to-face one. There is simply more to manage: internally to the team, in the boundaries between the team, the organization and other stakeholders, and in the management of the tasks or projects. Good virtual team leaders therefore share more leadership. To share more leadership, they need to provide both clear strategic direction and active coaching. This exposes team members to more of the bigger picture of the task, and provides feedback and advice about their inputs. In addition, team members in virtual teams more often learn from the best teacher: small failures. As they take on their part of leading the team, they’ll run a team meeting badly or forget to manage all the input to a shared document. They can see the impact of that failure quickly, correct course, and prevent it next time. A global team leader once said to me, “working in a high-performing virtual team is like high altitude training for leadership.” I agree. Everything in a virtual team matters more, and team members practice influencing it more. It’s a great way to develop your next generation of leaders.
Leading virtual teams: a blended world after COVID-19
When your team is working virtually, there is no room for bad teaming. You can’t muddle through and get by, like you can face-to-face. So leading virtual teams is hard work. But there are ways to focus your leadership effort to get the performance. Create a heartbeat, and keep up the pace with discipline and a continued emphasis on relationships and meaning. Then you can access the payoff of performing even better. In an ideal world, the best teaming blends face-to-face for the heartbeats with a mix of virtual modes for the disciplined pace between heartbeats. This also happens to be a blend that supports distributed and flexible work practices, which in turn are associated with higher employee engagement and inclusive work cultures. As your team learns to excel working virtually during this crisis, I encourage you to think about how you can leverage your new normal into a blended model even after you get back to the office together!
Martha Maznevski is a professor and faculty director at The Ivey Academy. She specializes in coaching, leadership, teams, disruption, diversity and inclusion, digital transformation, and experiential learning.
About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School
The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment.
Rooted in Ivey Business School’s real-world leadership approach, The Ivey Academy is a place where professionals come to get better, to break old habits and establish new ones, to practice, to change, to obtain coaching and support, and to join a powerful peer network. Follow The Ivey Academy on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.