Whenever the topic of leading virtual teams comes up, the discussion seems to boil down to a binary question. Can you lead a team virtually, or do you have to meet face-to-face? But in the real world, it isn't a simple yes/no choice but a rather more nuanced one: not so much one way or the other as how and when.
I've often wondered why already-busy people prefer to waste hours at airports and on planes to get to a face-to-face meeting when they could often have the same discussion without ever having to leave their office. So this article on LinkedIn by Steven J Thompson, the CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine International explaining why he avoids virtual meetings was pretty enlightening.
Mostly, his objections to videoconferencing center on the indisputable truth that meeting face-to-face builds better relationships and leads to more honest communication than connecting virtually. He also asserts that "the reasons why have a lot to do with the nature of leadership and how it differs from other types of management."
But there are a couple of points that I'd take issue with.
First, budgets matter. I'm guessing that the CEO of one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the world has a tad more travel budget than most of us. If you've ever worked with any level of the medical establishment in the Western World, you know that their expectations around travel, accommodation and the like are very different from most mere mortals. At medical conventions, hotels with the worlds "Holiday" or "CourtYard" are seldom mentioned. So, yes, some companies do have much better resources to allow travel for at least part of their team, and that can be a serious competitive advantage. If you have the ability to get together, take advantage of it. And if you're the CEO you probably have priority over a mere project manager.
I agree with him that Leadership and Management are not the same thing. Most of the article centers on the need for senior executives to be the face of their organizations, and that's absolutely true. But Dr Thompson does make an important distinction between these high-level interactions and the day to day management of getting things done.
To quote him accurately, "Even leaders have to deal with more routine management transactions, be it getting a quick status report, an update, or a particular piece of information, perhaps from an employee with whom you already have plenty of face time. If you're just swapping a little information and relaying routine tasks, it would be wasteful to physically travel. You probably do most of that via email and phone calls anyway, so a virtual meeting in those cases can actually be a step up in terms of maintaining personal connections."
So leaders must also be managers, and managers can also lead. Not everything is an international summit meeting, nor is everything a simple transaction.
However, I respectfully disagree with the word "can't". Dr Thompson is fond of blanket statements like "videoconferencing simply doesn't allow you to build a trusting, influential relationship". Well, yes, it makes it far more difficult and certainly requires a different set of muscles. But to say that it simply cannot be done damns most of us to certain failure – it is just not 100 per cent true. After all, Queen Victoria never met all her colonial big-shots and yet half the globe was red at one point.
So what's the takeaway here?
First, you have to make really good decisions for the right reasons. What are the advantages and disadvantages of traveling vs. virtual connections? Those reasons go far beyond the simply financial, despite what the bean-counters tell you. Make appropriate decisions.
But second, at some point, face to face contact is important. Make it happen, even if it means transferring through O'Hare airport on a Wednesday in May (may God have mercy on your soul).
Finally, if you are meeting mediated by technology, you need to learn to use the tools and transfer your inter-personal skills to that new environment. A simple example is active listening. You have to let the other person speak more online in order to glean the same amount of explicit as well as subliminal (body language, tone, word choice) information.
Just plopping someone in front of a webcam and expecting it to happen by osmosis won't work. You won't really see them for who they are and if you're worried about which button to push, you'll miss some of the more subtle signals that Dr Thompson is talking about.
All things being equal, I prefer to meet face-to-face with people than interacting through a screen. But I also know that in the real world, we're trying to do the best we can with what we have.