As a virtual team leader, you’ve got to coach, mentor, guide, and evaluate your team members consistently and efficiently. Excellent written communication is your most important asset in a virtual team environment, because without efficient and consistent feedback, your virtual team members are on an isolated career island. Empathy, commitment, and enthusiasm will help you drive your team toward exceeding your goal.
1. Know Your Team
When working with a virtual team, personality differences surface primarily in how the team members communicate through online platforms. Psychologists have unearthed five very broad categories for personality traits called The Big Five. The big five personality traits are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. For example, an introverted team member may be reluctant to engage in chatter on a team chat. To get to know your team better, you may need to engage in and foster some casual dialogue. Allow the team members a chance to talk about hobbies and interests on occasion to gain insight into the humanity and personality behind a name on a virtual office desktop.
Also, people’s values, beliefs, behaviors, and expectations are formed by internal, external and organizational influences. The Diversity Wheel is an infographic which represents the various dimensions of those influences.
2. Motivate Your Team
Motivating a virtual team requires the team leader to get a feel for the team members internal and external drivers. Send out public praise for team mates who have exceeded goals or who have done something creative or unique. Encourage team members to push harder when you see how close they are to earning a bonus. Most importantly, motivate your team by being enthusiastic about job your team is doing.
3. Foster Cooperation
Muzafer Sherif conducted the Robbers Cave experiment in which two groups of pre-teen boys competed against each other for a common goal. Unimaginable conflict arose between them, but when the boys worked with each other in close proximity for the common goal, the boys cooperated with each other in harmony. Your team is working toward a common goal. Foster a connection between your virtual team members by encouraging interaction between them and by rewarding them for outstanding work as a group as well as individually.
4. Be a Positive Influence
As a team leader in a virtual environment, you will be influencing others through a very strong online presence. You need to stay connected and engage your team often. Angelo Kinicki and Brian Williams, authors of Management: a Practical Introduction, (2006) eloquently explain, “Leadership is the ability to influence employees to voluntarily pursue organizational goals.” To influence your virtual team members to strive for success, connect with them regularly, listen to their concerns, inspire them to succeed, and remind them of their overall purpose.
5. Communicate Effectively
A virtual team absolutely requires a keen sense of communication. If you send important information to your team, gauge their understanding of your message by their response. In a virtual environment, especially, you must get confirmation that your message has gone to your members. Be quick to respond to your team members. If you cannot fully respond when you get a message, email or phone call from a team member, take a moment to let that member know you got the response, then give the employee some idea on how long it will take you to get back to her. If the employee’s request is somewhat urgent (for example, she needs help with a client call), and you can’t respond, find someone who can help her and let her know immediately that you can’t respond but that someone else will contact her.
6. Provide Feedback and Listen
When giving performance feedback, your team member will help you discover what it was that prevented success if you listen to the employee. Be very specific when you provide feedback, whether the feedback is positive or negative. Also, keep in mind that people do encounter out-of-the ordinary circumstances which temporarily impede performance. In a virtual environment in which the only way to assess performance is through statistical data, normal hiccups in work behavior that would normally be seen in a face-to-face environment may not translate well to virtual leaders. Don’t derail an employee’s motivation by lecturing him on being sure to log-in to work on time if his last week’s poor attendance record was due to a bug in his employee software for which he had little to no control.
7. Provide the Tools Your Team Needs to Succeed
Ensure all of your team members can adequately access all the virtual office tools with ease. Ensure they know how and when they can contact you for assistance. As a team leader, you are a tool for their success too. If a team member asks you a question that you feel would be easily answered by a company publication or database, answer the question then show her where the answer is rather than quipping, “Did you check the database?” By answering the question then providing the source, you’ll instill in her a reminder that she should use the publication or database (if she forgot about it) while giving her the tools she needs to use it on her own the next time she encounters a question.
8. Advocate for Your Team Members
When your team succeeds, you succeed. When completing evaluations on your team, be sure to praise the high performers to the supervisor. When your team knows that you are rooting for their success, they’ll build trust in you as a leader. Advocate for them to the supervisor as well as to each other. Feedback is especially important in a virtual team, because workers absolutely need to feel connection to the organization. Giving positive feedback about your team members when it is due is crucial in maintaining motivation for them. They need to know that their outstanding performances won’t stagnate in the confines of an isolated virtual team.
9. Thrive on and Develop Team Empathy
Empathy is integral to successful leadership. Empathy is a trait that lets others know that you are there with them and that you care about their concerns. As a team leader you need empathy to solve performance issues, to motivate your team to succeed during challenging times, and to encourage group cohesiveness. Empathy in a virtual environment requires quick communication in which you reiterate your team member’s concerns and acknowledge that you understand those concerns. Before you can ever improve your team’s performance, you have to get into the trenches with them and see what’s going on in their work world. You have to show that you are doing that through written and verbal acknowledgments and by giving timely updates to the teams on systematic issues which have been challenging to their success.
10. Train Your Replacement
Look beyond the goal. Lead your team as if you’re recruiting each of your team members to replace you. A good leader can never fear that her subordinates will take her place, because if you are so good at leading that your team members are exceeding the work you did before you became a team leader, then you are a an exceptionally good leader. If you lead well, one of your team members may eventually replace you as team leader when you get a promotion.