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The Three Myths of Virtual Team Leadership

I recently worked with a virtual team that was developing and rolling out a new product across many European countries. One colleague in London refused point blank to cooperate with another colleague who was based in Amsterdam. When I asked why, I was told that my English colleague found his Dutch counterpart rude and offensive-even though they had never actually met or spoken. When I dug deeper, it became clear that the real issue was about culture and style: the Dutch team member, for time management reasons, only checked his e-mails once a day, used a far more direct form of speaking than his English counterpart, and wrote his e-mails all in capital letters. His English colleague felt he was being ignored and, when he did get a response, that his Dutch colleague was SHOUTING AT HIM!

This is typical of the problems that occur when a team is spread across time zones, national borders or cultural boundaries. A virtual team does not have the same advantage as a team whose members meet face-to-face on a regular basis-when all the team members are inside the “30-foot limit.” Unconsciously, people pick up innumerable subtle cues when operating face to face with colleagues. We acquire information about our colleagues, including what is acceptable behaviour and what is not through observation. Inside the30-foot limit, people find ways to work together without even being aware of it. When we have no face-to-face experience with our new team colleagues, our communication lacks a certain richness. And because we don’t consciously attend to these things when we’re in close propinquity, we don’t appreciate their importance. As a result, the importance of these activities is often overlooked when working with remote teams. To ensure success, the virtual team leader must avoid being seduced by the three myths of virtual teams and must proactively attend to providing the social richness that virtual communication lacks.

The Reality of Virtual Teams

What can you do? At the start of the project, bring team members together in a start-up session so that they can meet each other face to face and socialize. This meeting will establish relationships in a way that is only possible when people are in each other’s physical presence. Human beings can relate to, start to trust, and feel responsibility towards someone they have met in ways that aren’t possible with a stranger.

Use this meeting to involve the team in developing team processes. This includes mapping dependencies between members, articulating their expectations of each other, and explicitly discussing and agreeing on the protocols that will operate between team members. The process-setting portion of the meeting may be the “official” reason for holding this meeting. This involvement will also create commitment and buy-in among the team members for these processes. If the start-up meeting isn’t feasible because of cost or time constraints, you should ensure that any complex work that requires close collaboration is handled by team members working inside the 30-foot limit.

Another option is to have key team members visit their remote colleagues to establish relationships and agree how they will work together. If neither of these options is feasible, be sure that your timeline and budget allow for the additional problems, delays and rework likely to be caused by mistaken assumptions, misunderstandings and conflict. During the life of the project, make sure that all team members are kept up to date on its progress, both what is going well and what is still to be achieved. This helps both to reduce the “outpost syndrome” and to show team members where they fit into the big picture. Repeat and reinforce the agreements made during the initial face-to-face meeting.

The Three Myths of Virtual Teams

As a virtual team leader, you must reject these three myths:

Myth #1

“My virtual team will be successful because they all share a common goal.”

Clarity of purpose and a compelling vision of success is a prerequisite for all high-performing teams. However, outside the 30-foot limit, the shared context that vision provides gets lost or forgotten if it isn’t reinforced daily through words and actions. You must ensure that everyone is up to date with the team’s progress and that expectations and dependencies between team members are understood.

Myth #2

“My virtual team will be successful because I have the best people on it.”

Individuals who perform at a high level in a co-located team situation aren’t guaranteed to operate well in a virtual or remote team. Often, individuals who find themselves working alone stop feeling connected to the team-an emotional state known as the “outpost syndrome.”

Myth #3

“My virtual team will be successful if technology is in place to allow them to communicate.”

It is, of course, vital that appropriate technology be evaluated and deployed in a considered and planned manner (and subsequently monitored to ensure it delivers the expected results). But, with due respect to all currently available technology, technology cannot and does not replicate human communication: technology doesn’t provide the same richness as that of people working in close proximity. The successful virtual team leader recognizes this gap and takes action to bridge it by addressing the human factors that technology filters out. As a team leader, you must initiate action to support the transition to remote working as well as develop team processes and enable a feeling of connection to prevent the outpost syndrome.

Judi Williams is the owner of Great Beginnings Limited and an author and instructor with Learning Tree International. Great Beginnings offers tailor-made training solutions. They design and develop a wide variety of training and professional support material such as fully immersive classroom training, interactive e-learning tools, video-based training, downloadable products etc. Judi has authored a number of courses for Learning Tree International such as The Art of Coaching, Effective Time Management and Personal Skills for Professional Excellence.