“Morning, everyone! Is France online? What about Italy? Russia, India – you in ?”
That’s how I start my weekly call with my team. We work together every day, but we’re rarely in the same room. Like many international companies, my team is ‘virtual’ – geographically dispersed, some in different time zones, all of them with a diverse background, culture, and degree of spoken English.
It is critical for the manager of this kind of team to understand how each region and culture work is essential in making the team effective.
It’s all too easy to get hung up on the challenges of working in a virtual, dispersed environment and forget that diversity is a huge asset. In addition to all the other functions that go along with any management role, as the virtual team leader, you are responsible for encouraging its members to become ‘multiculturally aware.’ The key is to embrace each other’s wider cultural differences while at the same time creating cohesion and a sense of belonging.
Building an effective group must start with learning how each member perceives the others, removing uncertainty, and focusing on mutual support. It’s about empathy, collaboration, and, more important, creating that sense of belonging to a group. Your focus is to build ‘rapport.’
Humans thrive on a sense of belonging. We support a football club, we identify ourselves as members of a nation, we define ourselves professionally and based on our values. Working within the same office makes it easier to create a personal bond with our colleagues. Daily face to face contact greases the wheels of our relationships. In a virtual team, distance makes everything a little bit more complicated.
To overcome this, leaders need to create a ‘one team’ spirit, an environment of mutual understanding where members can learn from each other. That means you need to facilitate discussion, generate curiosity, create a bond between remote employees, and ensure everyone feels part of something great. Their contribution helps everyone else win. Empathy is key. Listen first, talk after.
Build rapport and trust
Virtual or not, a group of people with common goals has to feel part of a team, despite geography, culture, and time difference. The goal is to establish trust, to create a group capable of winning together. The team must understand that ‘we’ is stronger than ‘I’ and that each virtual member’s contribution will bring success for the entire group. Empathy is a powerful tool to achieve this. It would help if you were genuinely interested in each individual, learn their differences, and understand how their unique approach and style can be most effective.
Be mindful of cultural sensitivity. We’ve all heard that joke that starts with, “There’s a French, a German and an Italian guy….” The joke’s outcome is that one of those countries always shines at the others’ expense, right? Everyone is aware of national stereotypes, some funny, some harsh. Stereotypes exist because we’re trying to simplify a complex world and make sense of it, but they can be destructive.
Focus your energy on helping your team to embrace differences and learn how their peers react to situations. Make those differences your ally by transforming them into opportunities and allowing everyone to learn from them. Sharing best practices is a great way to understand how a specific region works. More importantly, it’s often the case that something which did well in one place will also succeed elsewhere. Sharing makes the team more powerful and creates a rapport.
In a virtual team, we don’t have the luxury of body language or visual contact. Ironically, the tech tools which make remote teamwork possible like Skype, phone, and email can also distort our understanding of one another’s meaning. It’s all too easy to misunderstand, especially when team members have different skill levels with your everyday language. For me, that’s most often been English.
When the understanding level of each individual is different, adapt their speech to the lowest denominator. Calmly help the speaker if you feel the rest of the team doesn’t understand, keeping it polite and constructive. To strengthen communication and team bonding, organize live meeting whenever time and budget allows. Ensure your team calls each other regularly and doesn’t fall into the trap of 0ver-reliance on email, where the potential for misunderstanding and relationship breakdown is most significant.
In an ever-changing work environment where everything moves at the speed of light, strategies and decisions have to be crystal clear to everyone. As a leader, you must minimize the potential for miscommunication. Articulate and repeat your current objectives and directions as often as possible in as many formats as possible. Explain on calls, summary via email, check understanding in messages. Clarity has an even more critical meaning in a virtual team where language barriers and imperfect communication tools put your message at risk.
It’s also vital to preserving 1-2-1 communication with your team. It’s not only your chance to reiterate goals – but it’s also your time to gather their feedback and encourage them to raise points they may not feel comfortable sharing with the whole team, for whatever reason.
Empower the team
Great teams blossom when their members have the opportunity to grow. Give everyone the chance to lead, whether through taking responsibility for a whole project or becoming the ‘pilot in command’ of one specific activity. Feeling ‘in charge’ is very important for an employee, and it becomes even more critical in a virtual environment. Your team will feel empowered by the feeling their manager is counting on them. They get a boost from the knowledge you trust them to take command, and you benefit from having more time to focus on other projects.
One word of warning: make sure you balance the share of responsibility amongst everyone in the team. Creating an unstable environment, where a few people are perceived as always ‘getting good jobs,’ can be devastating for morale. Rotate responsibilities, make everyone accountable, and ensure that they articulate their successes and failures with the team. Giving power to your virtual team helps them feel more engaged while freeing you.
Your employee will think, “what the hell!” if you schedule a call at 7 PM or 5 AM! If you handle a large territory like Europe or work for a US-based company, your virtual team will likely reside in different time zones. Be mindful of time differences. It’s not easy to find the perfect timing for a global call, but you must make sure your employees are in a receptive state if you want to reach your goal.
Of course, there will be a few occasions where some emergency will require everyone to make sacrifices. But ’emergencies’ should never become routine. Requiring your team to sacrifice their valuable personal time means they will be less focused during the call itself, and it erodes the trust you’ve invested in building. If it’s impossible to find a time that works for everyone, consider deciding with a smaller group.
Finally, don’t be afraid to question whether a meeting is necessary. You’d think carefully about getting your virtual team together face to face. Still, too often, we arrange conference calls without considering if they represent the best use of our valuable time and resources. Bottom line: respect everyone’s time.
Here are my top 10 tips for managing a virtual team:
- Be mindful of the linguistic abilities and time differences
- Show genuine interest in people – be empathetic
- Build rapport between peers and create a climate of trust
- Make yourself available for 1:1 and whole team meetings
- Be specific in your guidance and repeat it often
- Rotate power between your team members
- Encourage cultural understanding by facilitating dialogue
- Share good regional practices
- Reward team members when they work well together
- Create opportunities for face-to-face team bonding
Managing a virtual team may feel like a herculean effort, but nothing is more rewarding if you focus on the positives. You’ll learn how different cultures function collectively, how they improve each other, and, more important, how they make you, the manager, succeed.
Embrace the challenge, grow everyone in your group, and you’ll all reap the benefits.
Picture credits: Masao Kawamoto