Why virtual teams need special treatment

Mar 11 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

On the face of it, there should be no major differences between working in a team remotely, and working in the same office. After all, the desired outcomes are exactly the same; smart people who work hard, shared information, completed projects, creating quality work. Yet managers who treat remote teams the same way they work with their co-located teams are often surprised by how the same leadership behaviors elicit different results.

More and more, leaders are finding out that even with really good people working really hard, the virtual environment calls on different skills and communication behaviors in order to work successfully.

Here are a few reasons working remotely is different, and why we might need to adjust our management style to lead more effectively when our teams are spread all over the place.

There's a big difference between constant communication and micro-managing. Many of us have worked really hard on delegating and not micro-managing. Mostly, that's for laudable reasons: we trust our people, we are confident in our people's ability to speak up if they need help and you're not that hard to reach if they need you.

The problem is when people work remotely, they rely on their managers for the context they need to work effectively. What might be seen as over-communicating if you were all on the same office floor, is critical information when someone is working in a home office on the other side of the country.

There is a lot of critical, unintentional, communication that happens when you work together. When you all work in the same space, you get a lot of information without even realizing it. Someone's body language at their desk can indicate a need for assistance. Maybe you overhear someone ask a question and just pop your head up like a meerkat to provide an answer. When working remotely, we are in silos and have to rely only on what we are actually told, or trust our assumptions, with (shall we say) variable results.

Technology is a complicating factor - even when it works like it should. Even with all the tools at our disposal, true communication is tough (not impossible, but difficult) to achieve. That's because communication is more than simply data transfer. Electronic tools make it easy to pass out data without nuance: numbers, results, cold hard facts. What's harder is to make the conscious choices that truly elevate the way you work together.

People need to understand the needs of the team, identify the technology to help achieve the kind of information sharing your team requires, know how to use those tools to their utmost, and - maybe most tricky of all - make the decision to utilize them at all.

As organization leaders, then, we need to help managers, project leads and team members understand the altered dynamics of working in a remote environment. Here's what needs to happen:

  • Help them recognize the similarities and differences between the way we've worked traditionally and the new world of virtual work. Identify what's working and what's not.
  • Provide the technology and tools to achieve the goals you've set. You can't hold people accountable for failure if you're not giving them the tools they need to do the work.
  • Create expectations for remote leaders that accurately reflect the way they function. "Management by walking around", is fine but it's a long walk to Bangalore. Yes, the work appears the same. But there are skills that are unique to that environment: appropriate use of technology, ability to engage employees, managing performance from a distance all need to be built into the way we choose, assess, coach and promote managers.

If organizations expect people to be successful working in a virtual environment, they need to do more than simply hand a list of employees to managers and expect them to figure it out for themselves. They must think strategically about how to create reasonable goals, and how they'll support managers in achieving those goals.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.