The Biggest Mistake Managers Make When Leading Virtual Teams

Jennifer Selby Long asked:

Copyright (c) 2008 Jennifer Selby Long

Virtual teaming has been on radar screen a lot lately. It was a hot topic at a recent management consulting conference I attended, and it popped up in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks later. I’m feeling a little like an avatar myself these days — I lead a virtual team, participate on virtual teams, and advise on virtual teams, often having little or no personal contact with the other members.

Virtual teaming has its own challenges, and they grow bigger when the team is truly global and no matter what time you meet, one location is in their pajamas.

To my fellow leaders of virtual teams, I salute you and offer this advice, culled from my own experience and discussions with people who are in the same boat, either as leaders of, advisors to, or members of virtual teams.

The easiest mistake to make is to assume that building this group of individuals into a high-functioning team will take twice as much effort as it took to build your co-located team. Try four or five times as much effort, particularly if the team is global. Plan accordingly.

When team members are far away, everything dysfunctional is amplified once the honeymoon is over. When something goes wrong, we’re far more likely to assume that the people in another location are at fault, incompetent, not pulling their weight, mean-spirited, selfish, back-stabbing, and on and on.

In these moments, of course, we’re fully convinced of how reasonable, competent, perfectly honest, and apolitical we and our local team members are. That’s why it helps to get an outside perspective, from someone other than your spouse, on what’s going on and how you might be unwittingly contributing to the problem.

That’s also why it’s essential to do whatever you can to help the team members be with one another in person or at least feel like they are. Here are some techniques that have worked:

* Bring the team together in person at least twice a year. If the team is huge, at least bring the leaders together twice a year.

* Use a technology that allows you to see one another. The cr? de la cr? would be Cisco’s new TelePresence technology, which produces an incredible live meeting experience, and is just plain cool, but will set you back about $300,000. Check it out here: Other options range from webcams and videoconferencing systems to my personal favorite — a team found themselves with only one virtual member who was chronically forgotten and left out, so they put a web cam and dedicated screen in each location so everyone could see each other at work. Whenever he wanted to talk to someone or vice versa, it was as simple as turning to the screen and saying, “Hey, got a minute?” A dirt cheap solution for a relatively simple but important challenge.

* Add a personal aspect to your meetings and web space. One team opened their early meetings with a “getting to know you” time. This naturally morphed into a personal space (nicknamed “Our Virtual Water Cooler”) on their shared site in which one member posted pictures of her new puppy, another shared photos of his remodeled basement, and a third shared pix from a recent vacation. The goodwill and humanity that was built was of great help during bumpy times.

More tips:

* Involve the team members in “offshore” locations in some of the more interesting work that’s typically reserved for US, Australian, and European offices. Those of you who have call centers in India and programmers doing nothing but legacy systems maintenance in suburban Shanghai have access to a talent pool that is intellectually outgrowing the typical offshore responsibilities and may be eager to take on more. One of my clients tells me he has been doing this for a while now. He’s highly respected for the results he gets, and he has yet to face political resistance for making the offshore/onshore boundaries fuzzy.

* I hate to keep pushing my clients’ products, but if you’re not using an inexpensive technology like Webex ( for meetings that involve documents, you’re missing out on an opportunity to maximize shared understanding and minimize the errors and pointless arguments that come from only talking with one another instead of sharing real-time documents.

* When in doubt, first assume your non-local counterparts are both competent and honest. Assume the best and enter the conversation from a mutual problem-solving perspective. Insist that your team do the same.

* Most importantly, whatever you want them to do, also do it yourself. If you include “getting to know you” time in your early meetings, but all you share are your career highlights, there’s little hope anyone will know you better, extend more goodwill your way, or open up so others get to know them. Likewise, post your own pictures at the virtual water cooler and others will follow suit.

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