Top 10 tips for leading virtual teams from CSU College of Business
tips by M. Travis Maynard
story by Joe Giordano
published April 27, 2020
For the past 15 years, M. Travis Maynard, a professor in Colorado State University’s College of Business, has been studying virtual teams, examining how they work, what makes them successful, and places where they struggle. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought that research to the forefront as workplaces move from brick-and-mortar working environments to online virtual spaces.
“Almost everyone we know now works in a virtual team,” said Maynard, who serves as the chair of the Department of Management. “However, what makes this situation different from most of the research on the topic is that most people who now find themselves working in virtual teams have been working with their teammates for months or even years, but in more traditional, face-to-face working arrangements.”
Maynard has worked with his colleagues — Lucy Gilson of the University of Connecticut, Thomas O’Neill of the University of Calgary, and Patricia Costa of the ISCTE Business School in Lisbon, Portugal — to compile a list of 10 tips for individuals now charged with leading a virtual team.
1. Leadership matters
While leadership matters for all teams, it arguably matters even more for virtual teams. Leaders need to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
Give work context, clarity, and reduce uncertainty and ambiguity about the content but also about the process, especially in what is new.
Realize members of your team will have different personal challenges so you must be receptive and empathetic.
Not everyone deals with the boundaries between work and “off-work” domains. Getting to know the team members’ preferences can allow everyone else to better adjust.
In virtual teams and for those where the task is more complex, it is extremely important for the team to have a plan.
What is the team goal?
What is the team working on? What are our priorities, and how do the individual members all contribute to this goal? Make plans explicit – everyone should know what the team plan is and how their work contributes to it.
Monitor and regularly check on progress
This helps to evaluate how the plan is (or isn’t) being carried out and the problems people are facing.
3. Set clear norms and expectations
While many team scholars speak to the value of all teams developing norms and expectations through tools such as team charters, this discussion typically happens early in a team’s lifecycle.
However, given the COVID-19 challenges, many teams who may have worked together for some time are now being asked to work within a totally different context and situation. Accordingly, even if the team has previously had a discussion of their norms and expectations, they may not perfectly translate to the new reality.
Set some time aside in a team meeting to discuss how your team will be interacting.
Conversation points for setting norms and expectations
What communication channels will be used for meetings and other communications?
Do individuals have certain channels that they prefer (i.e. text, email, cell phone, etc.) and/or certain channels they prefer to not be used for work-related communications?
What is the expectation for communication turnaround times (be specific)?
How often should the team meet and for how long (recognizing that individuals may have responsibilities they are balancing in their homes precluding excessively long meetings)?
Meeting etiquette factors (microphone muting, no multitasking while on call, etc.)
Trust is a topic that has received a great deal of research attention. One thing that is clear is that within virtual teams, it is much harder to develop trusting relationships. However, in the current situation, many “new” virtual teams have previously worked together in face-to-face situations, so the focus is not on building trust but on maintaining trust.
Tips for promoting trust
Be willing to share personal information.
Disclosure your own vulnerabilities.
Encourage collective problem solving.
Communicate informally often.
5. Psychological safety
Team members need to feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions and disagreeing with one another, with no fear of negative consequences. Without promoting psychological safety, team members will share information less frequently and accurately and are much more prone to decision-making biases.
Psychological safety tips
Encourage a trial-and-error culture.
Promote fairness in communication.
Relax status cues.
Avoid stating your opinion beforehand when promoting discussions.
6. Manage conflict
Leaders of virtual teams need to be aware of the fact that conflict can happen in unexpected ways. In part, because of the impersonal nature of much of the communication that happens through technology-mediated means, team members cannot always see the facial expressions of the person who is on the other side of a conflict situation.
Tips for managing conflict
Discuss how you will handle conflict in your norm/expectation setting conversation (see Tip 3).
Be on the lookout for possible friction points within the team.
Handle conflicts at their onset to reduce the chance the team will fall into a vicious spiral.
7. Be patient and flexible
Team leaders need to be patient and flexible. It will take time for individuals to get their routines back in place, as people may be setting up home office spaces and technology that has never been used. As such, leaders need to provide time for such routines to become established. Likewise, leaders will need to be flexible with their team members as they may be juggling household responsibilities.
It may also not be reasonable to expect team members to work a normal 9-5 workday. Instead, leaders will need to be clear about when a certain task is needed and allow team members to juggle their varied responsibilities in such a way to accomplish the task.
Tips that help foster patience and flexibility
Provide time for employees to develop their routines and alter them as needed.
Be flexible with team members who are juggling various responsibilities.
Collaborate with your team members about when a task can be completed.
Once the task deadline has been established, “step back” and let the team members make it work within their other demands.
8. Maintain professionalism and encourage routines
We counter our recommendation No. 7 with this, where we suggest the need for routine.
Now this may not be entirely the routine that was previously in place, but there is value in some sense of routine. This can take the form of a weekly staff call so that everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing. So, to the extent possible, leaders may want to encourage routines for their teams to allow people to create structure in their work and the work-family interface.
Granted, everyone’s structure will be different (hence the need for patience and flexibility). But without structure, motivation, interest and meaning can wane.
Tips for promoting routines
Have regular check-ins. Get into a cadence or rhythm in connecting with staff (i.e. 1-hour meetings each week; daily 10-minute check-ins).
Create a work environment at home that will be conducive for your work.
Establish times each day/week where individuals know when their teammates can be (or cannot be) contacted.
9. Social support
Check up on your people! Individuals on your team may have personal/family/spousal things going on and they may not have the social support from work as readily available as before. So, do all you can do to maintain the existing relationships and network of social support. Most teams have a prior relationship and way to work. Some of the things you see or hear in their house on video calls, dog barking, etc. replaces what they used to do at the water cooler – so allow for that. In fact, you may even want to “force” discussion around personal things within your teams by taking time in each meeting for each person to share something interesting that happened to them, some challenge they faced, or some help they may need.
Social support tips
Maintain the relationships you have already created in your teams.
Try to create informal discussions in your teams like what would exist in the office – okay to discuss dog barking in the background; or children entering a video call.
Dedicate time for social interactions (i.e. Friday afternoon social time, etc.)
May need to use emoticons more than previously (they can convey tone; prevent erroneous interpretations)
10. Communication medium – message – task match
As technology has developed, virtual teams now have a plethora of communication channel options. However, all channels are not created equal, and leaders need to recognize that certain channels are better suited for different types of communication.
There are several factors that virtual members need to think about when selecting their channel in addition to the importance of the message and the need to not have the message misunderstood.
For instance, urgency of the message is one relevant factor. Likewise, you need to consider how many people need to receive the message. Leaders also need to recognize the receiver of the communication is an important factor when selecting a channel and think about whether the tool that they would like to use is going to be successful given the different levels of proficiency that exist within the team.
Finally, as part of the norm/expectation setting conversation (see Tip No. 3), leaders may find it valuable to have a discussion of which communication channels will be used and perhaps which channels will not be used, within the team.
Tips for selecting communication channels
Try to match the channel of communication to what you are communicating.
Be more specific and precise in your communication.
Recognize that not everyone on your team has the same skills on various channels – consider providing training as necessary.
Be explicit about which communication channels will be employed within the virtual team.