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 2: Leading virtual teams: keep the pace
The heartbeat is the lifeblood of the team, but it doesn’t actually get the work done. In face-to-face teams, there are all kinds of ways that you can monitor, remind, and reach out to each other easily to make sure things get finished. But in virtual teams you need to be especially disciplined, or the teamwork simply falls apart. At the same time, over-organizing can paralyze a team. Just focus on three things to keep the pace.
Stabilize your workflow to provide the backbone
Together at the office, it’s easy to send documents around and to track each other down when you need something. But when you’re working virtually, these invisible organizing processes drop away. To keep the pace, your virtual team needs to stabilize the workflow with a backbone of information organization and team norms. When team members are working apart from each other, they need to be able to find documentation anytime, see what others are working on, and know exactly who to call for more information. It sounds boring, but your team needs a place for storing and accessing files and information - including a project plan - and the discipline to keep everything organized there. You can use sophisticated teaming or project management software, or a combination of shared drives and common documents. For team performance it doesn’t matter which tools you use, what matters most is that you agree and you all stick to the system.
You also need discipline around how you’ll work with each other between heartbeats. Will you use chat or email? Will you respond within an hour or within a day? How early will the heartbeat agendas and preparation material be ready? How will you hold each other accountable for good preparation and project management? What values will be important to the team, and how will you make sure to include all relevant perspectives before making key decisions? If you agree on these norms and keep the discipline, the team’s trust is reinforced and team members are able to do more and more complex work between heartbeats.
“Stabilize your workflow” is good advice for any team, whether it’s virtual or face-to-face. All teams should have a charter that they review and update periodically. In a face-to-face team, though, you can get away without the discipline. When you get together, you muddle through and figure it out. Your outcome may be suboptimal, but it’s good enough. When you’re working virtually you don’t have the luxury to muddle through. Without the backbone, the team and the work fall apart.
Flex your tech and adapt to your needs
What’s the best software for teamwork? The best video meeting software? The best document sharing software? The answers to these questions are dynamic, there are always new tools. But the underlying principle doesn’t change. High-performing virtual teams are comfortable with a wide range of technologies. They flex to select the right combination for the situation.
There’s one important ground rule: the more you need to build relationships and develop shared meaning, the richer the technology you need. Rich technologies let you communicate synchronously, with multiple modes of communication at the same time. Face-to-face is the high end of the rich spectrum: everyone can be in the conversation at once, and you can use all five senses to communicate (even if you’d rather not).
Rich technologies let us communicate way beyond what’s in our words. We can feel the heat of emotions, the intensity of hand movements, the excitement or frustration in a tone of voice. When we can’t see each other in person, we can approximate that richness with video meetings. Interestingly, video meetings that show the person in a natural context help us improve the communication. If you need to reinforce or strengthen relationships or develop shared meaning about your work, then doing a video call on a webcam from your home office with the dog photo-bombing in the background is better than doing it from a quiet, sterile, windowless room. In the more natural setting, we see more of the person, and more can be communicated.
The richness rule explains why your team’s heartbeat meetings should be face-to-face. But video meetings can be exhausting. When we already have strong relationships and shared meaning, less rich technologies can convey a lot on their own. Even a single-word text like “Understood” can express trust and commitment, with both sender and receiver knowing exactly what will happen afterwards. It’s completely appropriate to use non-video technology between heartbeats.
High-performing virtual teams tend to be agnostic and flexible with respect to other technologies, like document sharing and storage, chats and emails. They access a portfolio of technologies, and they often combine them. During a video meeting in Zoom or Google Hangouts they may be working together on a shared document, while also sharing links and short facts in a chat system. If one technology goes down, there’s always another to bring in.
When the team has the discipline of a stable workflow, technology is an enabler not a constraint or channel. There’s no one technology that’s either necessary or useless - good teams flex their tech.
Share your leadership to empower the team
You know what a good team leader does. Manage the relationship between the team and external stakeholders (including the team goal and the long-term needs of the organization), organize and drive the task process, empower and shape good team dynamics, develop the team members, and more. This is hard enough for one person to do in a face-to-face team. In a virtual team it is, frankly, impossible. Each of those leadership tasks is more complex to manage when team members are dispersed.
In high-performing virtual teams the “work” of the leader is formally split across more than one person. For example, different team members may be responsible for driving the project plan, facilitating meetings, organizing the work outputs, and managing specific external stakeholders. The formal team leader must hold accountability for the overall goal and progress. Beyond that the formal leader’s main role is to coach and enable others to fulfill their roles. Some leaders worry that by sharing the leadership role they’re not doing their jobs, or that team members will resent being asked to do this “extra” work. But remember that all these virtual team principles are self-reinforcing. If the team has a strong heartbeat and disciplined work flow, team members will be highly motivated and cohesive. They know that by sharing the work of running the team, the leader can take them even further. If you don’t share the leadership role, you’ll be holding your team back.
High-performing virtual teams combine a strong heartbeat with the discipline to keep the pace through stabilizing the workflow, flexing the tech, and sharing the leadership. By following this recipe, a team that works together mostly or even entirely over technology can equal the performance of a good team working together in person. Along the way, this virtual team is likely to discover some treasures that virtual teams can do even better. More on that in Part 3.
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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