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 1: Leading virtual teams: create a heartbeat
There are only two things that face-to-face teams do fairly easily that are difficult for virtual teams: build strong relationships with trust and commitment, and develop deep knowledge about the context of your work together. Unfortunately for virtual teams, those are two of the most important foundations of good team performance. They’re both especially vital for teams with dispersed members. When your team members have strong relationships and deep understanding of each other, they share trust and they’re committed to helping each other out. They communicate clearly even with short emails, they manage conflicts over the phone, and they work hard to help out. They’re also able to take decisions and act on behalf of the team without needing to check in all the time.
Leading virtual teams must start by building and reinforcing strong relationships and deep shared meaning; everything else follows from this principle. The principle is so important you need to embed it in the team’s heartbeat.
Heartbeats are regular time-bound meetings when we see each other and have good conversations
A heartbeat is a face-to-face meeting. In-person is best, but video can work well too. Audio-only is a distant third choice, but suffices if everyone knows each other well and the team already works well. A good heartbeat is regular in timing, with clear boundaries on the time. For a global sales team in “normal” times, it might be a once a quarter in person for one or two days. For a team switching to virtual work during a period of fast change in the environment, like the current COVID-19 crisis, the heartbeat might be a one-hour daily video call. For team members to trust its reliability, you should plan forward at least four cycles of the heartbeat.
How often should the heart beat? It depends on both the team and the task. If your team is fit - with stable membership, respectful relationships, and a high level of shared meaning - the team’s heart can beat more slowly. If the team membership changes or there’s tension among members, the heart needs to beat a little faster. If your team is running up hill - a difficult or complex task, many stakeholders, changing environment - your team’s heart also needs to beat faster. Like with our bodies, there is danger in having a heartbeat that’s too frequent. It starts to get in the way of productive work, and stops fulfilling its purpose. You’ll know if your team’s heartbeat meetings are too frequent or too long: people will stop attending because other things are “more important.” Or, if they do attend and stay, they’ll be distracted or disengaged.
Heartbeats pump relationships and meaning into the lifeblood of the team.
What happens in a heartbeat meeting is critical. This time together is too precious to squander. Your heartbeat meetings should focus only on two objectives: build deeper relationships, and put meaning around facts. A heartbeat meeting should, literally, pump this lifeblood of relationships and meaning into your team.
In a crisis, the heartbeat meeting may be just about keeping team members connected with each other personally, and sharing the impact of recent work events. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, your team may need to spend time reflecting about family and personal anxieties, and tell stories about their experiences trying to get the work done. They’ll need to know what’s happening at the organization and how senior leaders are managing the crisis. As a leader, you may worry that the time is “wasted” on this social chat or unproductive discussion. Put the worry aside. If your team members feel close to each other, understand each other’s experience with the work, and feel knowledgeable about the company context, things will get done in between the heartbeat meetings. As long as you spend at least a few minutes agreeing who’s going to do what between now and the next heartbeat meeting (see part 2), you’ll be fine.
Even after a crisis or change is over and the team is settled into more routine virtual work, heartbeat meeting agendas should be focused, with most of the meeting around one or two big topics. Heartbeat meetings should never be used for presenting a set of results or a spreadsheet. Teams should share that kind of information in advance, and during the heartbeat meeting you can discuss issues that arise from the reports and data. For example, your team could analyze a key customer who has potential to buy more, and develop a path for innovation and value creation. Or you could conduct an after action review on a client presentation that went well (or badly) and identify lessons for future presentations. You could compare potential suppliers on total cost of ownership, or identify patterns in market data to develop new insights. Remember that heartbeat meetings should build both relationships and meaning. As a leader, facilitate the discussion so that everyone provides input and is listened to. Even when problem-solving, the team should keep away from blaming, and instead should look at the situation from multiple points of view and work creatively to find solutions.
Between the main heartbeat meetings, remember to reinforce the relationships and knowledge - keep the blood flowing. Take the time to update each other, to share information about work experiences, and talk about clients, suppliers, or other stakeholders. These are the conversations that would normally happen around the water cooler or coffee machine. They’re not long, but they signal to each other the importance of trust, commitment, and meaning.
Every few heartbeat meetings, discuss the heartbeat structure and ask each other if the heartbeat is serving its purpose. If not, then work together to adjust the meetings. With a good heartbeat, your team can get the rest of the work done between heartbeats: over email, in phone calls, and in individual work. More on that in Part 2.
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.
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