Leadership and Management of Virtual Teams

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Preparedness to lead and manage remotely has a positive impact on overall business outcomes like revenue, productivity, and profitability. To be adequately prepared to lead virtual teams, managers need to develop seven core competency areas: team culture, communication management, performance management, conflict management, vision, change management, and learning and development.

Whether managing direct reports who are remote, or managing a co-located team from afar, leaders should do the following in order to improve their effectiveness in leading (inspiring, motivating) and managing (planning, organizing, coordinating, measuring) remotely:

Build Trust

Trust is the foundation of success in any interpersonal relationship, especially in virtual teams. Without trust, leaders of virtual teams who are accustomed to office-based management practices risk resorting to micromanaging, which erodes the autonomy of employees, leading to employee dissatisfaction and decreased productivity.

Virtual leaders must develop trust that their employees are doing their work, and build a culture that inspires their employees to trust one another and their leaders alike. This is no chicken-or-the-egg-scenario: to cultivate trust among team members, leaders must first be willing to demonstrate that trust themselves.

Building both task-based trust and relationship-based trust is an ongoing process that is facilitated by the suggestions that follow.

Intentionally Create Structures that Lead to Desired Outcomes

Desired outcomes include measurable outcomes like productivity and performance as well as less tangible outcomes like inclusive decision making, diversity of thought, and serendipitous moments that foster creativity and connections.

In remote and hybrid environments where not everyone is physically present in the same location, leaders must intentionally design processes and structures that lead to these desired positive outcomes for individuals and the collective group, and provide equal access and participation regardless of employee location.

To do so, virtual leaders should identify and describe with as much detail as possible what the desired outcomes are, and work backwards to identify the steps needed to accomplish those outcomes. Again, provide as much detail as possible about who is involved at each step, and what information, processes, or tools are required.

Document Expectations

When it comes to achieving any outcome, small or large, tangible or intangible, leaders of virtual teams must clearly document expectations for how to achieve those outcomes. These documented expectations can take the form of team agreements, communication charters, performance rubrics, and standard operating procedures (SOPs)—whatever the title or purpose, these expectations should be readily accessible, consistently updated, and easily integrated into workflows. Ease of access to information translates to time savings and increased productivity, so committing to a culture of documentation is a worthwhile investment. Additionally, it provides more autonomy to employees by not requiring them to rely on others to provide information they need to accomplish their work.

It is not enough just to share expectations and expect that the audience will interpret those expectations in the way they were intended. Confirm understanding and consistent interpretation and application of expectations by asking team members directly to confirm understanding, providing ample opportunity for feedback and clarifying questions, and assess understanding by objectively evaluating the outcomes.

Just because something is clear or obvious to you, does not mean that it is clear and obvious to someone else. Additionally, if something is not clear to you, it is likely not clear to others. Often, the best way to improve the clarity of a message is to get feedback on how to improve it—ask for feedback often, and provide both formal and informal methods of collecting feedback from your team. Model the behavior you wish to see in your direct reports by clarifying your own understanding of expectations and seeking feedback whenever possible.

Combat Distance Bias

Distance bias is the tendency to assign greater value to people and events that are close to us in space or time. In remote and hybrid teams, distance bias can result in unequal distribution of recognition and opportunities, as well as exclude people from discussions, decision making, and access to information.

As a cognitive bias, distance bias is likely to happen more unconsciously than consciously—but just because a bias is not intentional does not mean that the impact is any less harmful.

To prevent distance bias from negatively impacting virtual teams, leaders must acknowledge distance bias, reflect on its current and potential affect on their teams, and take steps to intentionally eliminate distance bias.

Encourage Experiments

One of the biggest mistakes that virtual teams make in transitioning to a more remote structure is attempting to recreate the office experience in a digital environment. This leads to perceiving new practices as insufficient substitutes of “the real thing”—making it even more difficult for leaders and individual contributors alike to establish a remote mindset.

Instead of attempting to recreate traditional ways of working in a virtual context, consider modeling a growth mindset by completely rethinking how work gets done. Encourage team members to experiment with new processes, tools, and skills.

Examples of experiments include transforming synchronous meetings into asynchronous processes, eliminating rituals that no longer serve a purpose, developing new rituals for new needs, and claiming more autonomy over how and when work is performed.

Improving virtual leadership skills benefits leaders themselves, their direct reports, and the organization as a whole. By following the practices outlined here, leaders of virtual teams can make visible improvements to their team’s performance and engagement, while making those outcomes more equitable for all employees, regardless of their location.

Which of these practices will you focus on first?


By Tammy Bjelland, CPTD

CEO, Workplaceless