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How to lead a virtual team that thrives

How to lead a virtual team that thrives
Submitted by Akhila on

We’ve become accustomed to everything virtual. Socially, we’ve celebrated virtual birthdays, weddings, and happy hours. Professionally, we’ve worked as part of a virtual team, held or attended remote interviews, and met new colleagues through a screen.

Through a bit of trial and error, and by having no other choice than to just get on with it, we’ve figured out what works best and what to avoid in the virtual world.

Even now, as some countries and companies return to the office environment and re-ignite the much missed in-person collaboration so many of us crave, distributed work will remain an important part of day-to-day working life. It’s likely that you will be either working with colleagues based across the world in different offices, communicating with remote-first team members, or your organisation might be trying to create a hybrid workplace with a lot of people coming and going.

Whichever is relevant to your situation, in this article we are focusing on how leaders can ensure their teams continue to thrive with some (or all) of their people distributed across various locations.

The importance of empathy in cross-cultural communication

This is particularly pertinent for those with offices and team members spread across the world.

One of the most important lessons that has been learned by teams spanning different global locations is that not everybody communicates in the same way. It seems obvious, but can so easily be overlooked.

In order to embrace the diversity of perspectives brought about by globally distributed teams, you need to be empathetic and bridge the communication gap. Here’s how you can go about doing that:

How to lead a virtual team that thrives

  1. Educate yourself: Try to build up a personal understanding of the cultures and native communication styles of each of your team members. Read their local news, keep up to date with major events occurring in their locations and take an active interest in their regions; you don’t need deep knowledge, but being able to chat to them about these things will really bolster your communication with them.
  2. Remember the time differences: Always be mindful of time differences when organising meetings. If you have regular video meetings at a set time of the day, does that work for your team members in another time zone? If it’s late in the day for them, could you compromise and change it up weekly so they’re not constantly staying online after core working hours? Also, don’t forget that other countries will have different national holidays!
  3. Limit your written communication: It is common for many companies with international offices to primarily communicate in English, but it may not be the first language for everyone. Aim for brief and clear written communication, making it easier for all to understand - and save time whilst you're at it!
  4. Share your meeting agendas and actions: With a potential language barrier, some team members may be reluctant to speak up in meetings. You can make participation easier by giving them the chance to prepare in advance, and then actively invite them to contribute. Make it clear what is going to be covered prior to the meeting, and then follow up afterwards with the required actions.
  5. Factor in cultural norms:

    There’s no right or wrong way to communicate, especially when it’s cross-cultural.

    What you perceive as normal may well be alien to another team member. Be patient, be inclusive, and you’ll show yourself as a great leader.

Effectively managing your time as a leader of a virtual team

Coordinating a global team comes with a unique set of challenges.

Never forget that, despite the fact you are managing a remote team who have different routines and jobs to complete, you have to look after your own schedule and task as well. It’s important to not get overwhelmed.

How to lead a virtual team that thrives

  1. Be mindful of your energy: Don’t overexert yourself by trying to attend every single video meeting across all time zones. Prioritise only the most critical. Trust your teams to get on without you and delegate key responsibilities. Not only will this help you focus on other challenges and opportunities, but it will improve your team members’ skills - in the long run, that’s exactly what you want as their leader!
  2. Change up your working hours: If you have teams spread across time zones, try working different patterns throughout the week so you can be online when they are. DO NOT try and work a ‘double day’ where you work back-to-back working days. Pick and choose certain days when you work later or start earlier, build it into your schedule and communicate those hours with your teams. Embrace the global nature of your role - the occasional inconvenience will be worth it.
  3. Not everything has to happen ‘live’: Meetings can always be recorded and the information can be shared. Any team members, including yourself, unable to attend can then view the recording and give input afterwards. It’s not direct, live contact, but it’s still a form of face-time with most of the team.

Creating connections with your distributed team members

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of managing a virtual team is the difficulty when it comes to team bonding. This becomes even more tricky if you are all working remotely for a sustained period of time.

You may set out with the best intentions, but it’s easy to let those good habits fizzle out.

  1. Start as you mean to go on: Setting the precedent from day one is key. Make your intentions clear that you want team members to be communicating and helping each other out. From all the instances of successful remote onboarding and virtual teams that we have seen, making sure all information, processes and documentation is easily accessible for employees and having a clear line of communication are both important.
  2. Arrange informal meetings: By fostering a level of rapport between team members that can arise from the more informal chats and discussions, you will be greatly aiding future collaboration. One-to-one or as a team, non-work chat when everyone is relaxed and at ease is the best way to get to know each other.
  3. Ensure all colleagues are equally visible: ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ can easily become a reality with distributed teams. Actively find opportunities that will allow team members in other regions to get the recognition they deserve - from senior leadership and other employees across the business.

Your dedication as leader will be worth it

Leading a team that is spread across numerous locations, cultures and time zones is not straightforward. It commands a lot of attention, empathy and time.

But the key to success is clear: stay connected.

No matter where the individuals in your team are located, remaining connected is integral to leading a successful virtual team. As their leader, it’s your responsibility to support and maintain this connectivity.