How to Lead a High Performing Virtual Team

by Alli Polin on March 3, 2015

An insider's guide to creating high performing virtual teams

For most of my career, working inside of corporations, I was not co-located with my team.  At one point, my boss was in LA, I was in Virginia and the people I supervised were literally all around the country. During those years, I learned a lot about how to create high performing virtual teams. It stretched my skills beyond managing the work effort to finding new and creative ways to build relationships and create a web of strength among all of the team members.

This past year, I worked with a client who was unsure about his new leadership position where he would have a large virtual team.  He told me he loves leading people, developing strong relationships and doing great work together.  He also told me that he had no idea how to do that without sitting in the same office and was thinking about leaving his organization. Before he had a chance to hate his new job, I challenged him to break the frame and redefine his concept of team.  In the months to follow, he successfully reframed, stretched and grew his leadership skills into the virtual space. 

Here are many of the ideas we covered to create a high performing virtual team.  If you’ve ever led a team, co-located or dispersed, many of these concepts will feel familiar. 

Social Media is Great Training for Virtual Team Leadership

In the social media age, it’s easy to understand how you can feel very connected to people that you’re conversing with 140 characters at a time.  They feel like friends and it feels like you know them, because you do, but only part of who they are.  When you’re on the same team, the goal is to take that feeling of camaraderie deeper. 

On social media, that means scheduling a time to talk or meet to get to know each other.  Works for high performing virtual teams too!  Get to know your people as human beings… not only workers in another state or country. 

TIP: Get to know the people behind the profile picture. This is your team, you’re in it together!

Not All Communication Vehicles Are Created Equal

We all know that you can email, IM, tweet or pick up the phone to connect with someone.  Hopefully, when you have a quick question, you’re likely to make a different choice than when you’re delivering performance feedback. Still, if all you do is IM or you tend to default to email… you’re missing out. 

Voice to voice is not a hardship!  In fact, now it’s incredibly easy to meet eye to eye thanks to free technologies like G+ and Skype. 

TIP: If you want to create high performing virtual teams, create opportunities to see each other.  Body language, eye contact and tone all matter.  It’s hard to discern sarcasm in an IM…

Suck It Up and Get on a Plane

One in person meeting can skyrocket the effectiveness of a relationship.  Sometimes I would fly to them, sometimes they would come to me and annually we tried to get the entire team in a room. During the in person meetings, we not only made a lot of progress on the work, but also got to know each other as people and created shared memories. 

TIP: If budget allows, not only get the team together for a working session, but also plan on some shared experiences… bowling, mini golf or dinner gives time for bonding.

Be Creative with Your Team Building

If you’d make a coffee run with your team member down the hall, you can schedule the same with your colleague in another office. Agree on a time, fill up your cup, and jump on a Hangout. Take 15 minutes just to check in on your day, take a deep breath and enjoy the java. 

I’ve been on virtual teams that had baby showers with games and prizes, book clubs and movie nights out (we bought tickets for everyone and we opened our next team meeting talking about the movie). Ask your team for suggestions and get support putting them into motion.

TIP: You’re only limited by your creativity. The important thing is injecting some play while creating opportunities to deepen relationships.

Make Regularly Scheduled 1x1s a Priority

I’m a huge advocate of having 1x1s with all of your direct reports every two weeks.  Yes, you will likely meet in-between but the 1×1 is a time to keep the agenda focused on both work and career development. 

When you’re not co-located, it can be easy to let 1x1s slide.  Nobody is going to knock on your office door when you’re busy to remind you of your scheduled time.  Especially in a virtual team environment, people don’t see all of the things that take up your day and can truly feel out there on their own if 1x1s are constantly canceled. 

TIP: When virtual, it’s tempting to check in on email while on the phone and squeeze in a little multi-tasking. Don’t do it.  Give the person on the phone 100% of your attention.

Let People Lead

You may feel that as the leader on a virtual team, you need to remind them who’s in charge.  Hello – they know. If your voice is the only one on your conference calls, you have a problem.  Let others facilitate, lead the agenda, give important status updates on their work and lead team-wide programs.

TIP: Help your team members grow their leadership skills and expertise in facilitating a virtual team by giving them meaty initiatives to lead. Be there, just like you would in person, to brainstorm, support and remove roadblocks. 

Create a Shared Virtual Workspace

There are many collaboration technologies out there to make it easy to work on shared documents and track updates.  Whether it’s a workplace with status updates or a presentation that needs charts from multiple team members, emailing back and forth is a thing of the past. 

You may need to try out a few tools before you figure out what works for you and your team.  I have had success using both Google Docs and Basecamp. There are many good choices out there that will save you time and headaches from going through your email for old versions and latest updates.

TIP:  Once you decide to go with a technology, really commit to making it work.  It’s easy to think, “I’ll email just this time…” but it sets the tone for the entire team.

Agree on Protocols and Etiquette

On some teams, you accept all meeting invites and on others it’s okay to decline, send a substitute, or ask for a meeting to be moved. Set the tone for how you will work as a team and don’t leave people guessing. 

It’s also imperative to be respectful of time zones.  Don’t always schedule meetings for 11 AM ET in the USA and expect your Australian team members to be jumping for joy.

TIP:  Make time to talk about the way you work and the way you want to work as a team. Create agreements, be explicit, be a role model for follow through.  

What about Virtual Team Leadership If You’re Not “The Leader?”

If you’ve read all the way to this point and are thinking, “This is all great, but I’m not the team leader, what can I do?” Here are a few ideas:

Make suggestions

If you see opportunities for improvement, speak up!  Schedule a call or hangout to share your ideas on how to improve the work and team culture too.  Team-wide conference calls may not the right time.

Raise your hand

Step up to lead while creating opportunities to deepen your relationships with your colleagues too.  You can’t swing by your boss’s office but you can pick up the phone.

Be Human

Don’t worry about always being formal.  Take a deep breath show people who you are.  They can’t see your silly socks… so tell them and send a pic too!

Reach out

Touch base with your colleagues and be a connector.  Initiate moments of connection.  

Some of my fondest moments from my career took place on virtual teams and those connections remain strong today, many years later. 

I have a list of free and low cost team building ideas for virtual teams.  If you’re interested, shoot me an email and I’m happy to share.

Have you been on or led a virtual team?  What would you add?

For coaching, consulting or speaking, Let’s Talk!

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ March 3, 2015 at 7:51 am

Hi Alli,
Great subject. Virtual teams are everywhere and more and more there are studies showing the engagement is not the best.

My favorite part of your post is two words “reach out.” It makes the difference. Leaders and teammates who initiate, reach out, and show extra effort in communicating lift the virtual team to new heights.

Such a simple phrase — reach out — can be the daily vision and mantra that could actually reduce the number of procedures and structures needed. Dynamic, authentic, supportive high performing teams from just two words — reach out!

Bravo. Great post.
Kate

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

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Alli Polin March 4, 2015 at 8:04 pm

I’m with you, Kate! It’s easy to isolate yourself when you’re working virtually. Leaders need to reach out, team members need to reach out and both need a willingness to show up with focus, and engage.

Thanks for adding your insights here!

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Terri Klass March 3, 2015 at 8:43 am

Well done and said, Alli!

Most of my clients today deal with the challenge of keeping their virtual team connected and highly functional. I think you nailed it when you talk about taking the virtual contact to a face to face interaction. That makes all the difference. I recently worked with a young leader who was facing conflict with a few of his team members located in another country. When he actually got on a plane and visited them in their location, his views totally changed and they became real human beings to him.

We can humanize virtual teams by making an effort to meet them IRL.

Thanks Alli for tackling such an important topic leaders face today! Your suggestions are superb and I will share!

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Alli Polin March 4, 2015 at 8:06 pm

Even one face to face meeting can skyrocket engagement and deepen the relationship. It’s easy to get lost in the “I think I know what they think” and “did they mean” conflicts without knowing who they are.

Thanks for sharing the story of the manager you worked with showing that sometimes face to face is what it takes – even in a virtual world!

Thanks, Terri!

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Joy Guthrie March 3, 2015 at 8:59 am

Great post Alli. I too led a virtual team years ago. My team was in every US time zone. We varied meeting times to share both good times to schedule meetings and not so good times to schedule meetings. We had a “virtual” watercooler web page (intranet) to establish more ways to communicate with one another. We also gave the lead to different team members to lead sessions. At least twice a year, we got everyone together in one place (with budget restrictions that wasn’t easy to do). We also had an email protocol that established the urgency & when response was required (that was by far one of the best things we did).

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Alli Polin March 4, 2015 at 8:21 pm

Sounds like your virtual team found a groove that worked and was rocking it out, Joy! Your experience sounds similar to my own and initially it took a while to figure out what worked. We couldn’t let the people in CA consistently suffer with early morning meetings while the East Coast people were already on their second cup of coffee. It only made it more complex when Europe was thrown in the mix.

Thanks for sharing that these are real-life solutions that you had in practice and they do work!

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LaRae Quy March 3, 2015 at 10:44 am

You give great tips here on how leaders can break the frame and look at how they do business differently!

I’ve gotten to know several people on-line and our initial interaction was via Google hangouts and skype—and then when I met them in person I realized that I already knew a great deal about them! As you say, we can learn as much about a person’s non-verbal messages via SoMe as we can in person! It’s been an eye opener…

Another great article, Alli!

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Alli Polin March 4, 2015 at 8:23 pm

Makes all the difference when you look someone in the eye (even via a computer screen!) The words people share on Social Media only show one facet of them… that they want us to see. Great to get to know the person behind the tiny picture.

Been great to get to know you!

Thanks, LaRae!

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John Bennett March 3, 2015 at 11:49 am

Great and very relevant post as usual, Alli. A few thoughts:

I agree that social media, especially Twitter chats, enable the development of strong “e-colleagues” relationships. It’s the catalyst for many expanded interactions – even within the chat I’ve found.

One way to multitask is to agree to meet at a conference or a convention or even an organizational function planned for another purpose. I’ve found the few times I’ve done this that the conference, etc. is more meaningful because of the discussions of / about it with your virtual team.

With respect to protocols and etiquette, I have found an upfront discussion about the group’s first document – with my students, we called them TPAs (Team Performance Agreements) – was essentially a contract among all members, developed by all members. It was documented and reviewed periodically for refreshing memories and / or revising it.

Technology today is so helpful with so many options. I’m just completing an online learning experience on Universal Design for Learning. The number of new (to me at least) tools and apps that I’ve found out about is incredible – lots to revisit and likely use is incredible.

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Alli Polin March 4, 2015 at 8:26 pm

What a fantastic suggestion, John… meet up at conferences and conventions! Fits in team building, learning and it’s easy to tack on a day for team meeting to focus on team engagement, processes and the work at hand.

Also, it’s a great idea to not only talk about how you’re going to work together but to make it a formal agreement. That way, when someone steps over the line, you bring the conversation back to the agreement vs getting angry over the behavior.

Huge thanks for sharing – love how actionable your ideas are! Will definitely help others!

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Jon Mertz March 4, 2015 at 11:06 am

Alli,

Although this is changing, there still seems to be some hang-ups on virtual teams. The points you make are great ones to engage and learn how to lead virtually.

About 10 years ago now, my whole team was in another city and by boss was in another one. Through IM, phone conversations, and onsite visits, we were very productive and kept align. The plus side of a virtual team is that you think more about communication than if you were in the same building. In many ways, communication improves in virtual settings because we are more aware of the need for it.

Virtual teams are here to stay and we need to stepup our leadership ways and skills!

Jon

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Alli Polin March 4, 2015 at 8:28 pm

You definitely need to think more about communication. It’s so easy for out of sight to become out of mind in a virtual environment. It’s about making choices that facilitate connection… not only quick answers.

Interesting how many people I know who have been on virtual teams. That number will only grow in the future despite the many hang ups that are still out there.

Thanks, Jon!

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Chery Gegelman March 4, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Great post Alli – Your points and your tips give people the vision and the ideas they need to break the frame and to create something very powerful!

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Alli Polin March 4, 2015 at 8:28 pm

Thanks, Chery! I hope that if people are struggling with leading their virtual team, this post will have some actionable suggestions that will make an immediate difference.

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Virtual Helpmate August 11, 2015 at 9:21 am

Amazing insight Alli. I’m a part of a virtual team and sometimes we need to be with our leaders face to face so they can encourage us thus boosting our morale.

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Alli Polin August 11, 2015 at 9:23 am

Thanks! One of the strongest virtual teams I was on actually met face to face a few times (before budgets were cut) and in those days together, our bonds grew stronger than ever. It made a huge difference to our success.

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