The real challenges of leading virtual teams


There was a time when, frankly, it was easier to be a business leader. Your team, no matter how big, was usually located in one place---often in one building. Your team members may have had varying personalities and skill sets, but, more often than not they spoke the same language, had similar backgrounds, and worked the same schedules. Sure, you faced challenges, but nothing compared with what you face today!

Today, as technology has shrunk the world, being a business leader is more challenging than ever before. For many global organizations, the idea of an office has been reduced to an abstract concept. Your team members may reside anywhere in the world, and the language you speak may be their second or even third language. And, you can forget about traditional work schedules. As you sit down at your desk with your coffee in the morning, some of your employees are breaking for lunch, while others have gone home, finished dinner, and are tucking their kids into bed.

The business world's transition to virtual, planet-spanning work forces comes with many advantages. Your company now has access to a world's worth of talent. And, your team members are geographically dispersed, allowing you to have representatives on the ground working directly with clients in countless marketplaces. However, with the benefits of a virtual team also come the challenges---the biggest of which is communication. A recent study by Watson Wyatt (2006) concluded that “communication is a critical element in creating successful business results. The more effectively a company communicates with its employees, the better off its shareholders will be.”

For virtual teams, though, communication is even more critical and even more difficult. In fact, communicating with your virtual team members should be considered at least four times as challenging as communicating with those sitting right outside your office. The concepts are the same, but road blocks include the technology of the virtual landscape itself, widely varying cultural norms, time zones, and, of course, the always-present office politics. It is said that dysfunctional communication runs the gambit from clueless (no one meant to communicate ineffectively) to diabolical (angry, nasty, jealous co-workers, employees, or bosses who work hard to sabotage communication in the workplace).

Let's take a look at several key standards and practices that are essential for effective communication within your virtual team. They won't solve every challenge, but they will set you up for success.

Understand the Real Reason That Employees Leave Your Company

In his book The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, Leigh Branham gives us the results of surveying over 19,000 employees regarding the hidden reasons that they've left their organizations (2005). These seven reasons are:

  1. The job or workplace is not as expected
  2. Job doesn't fit their talents and interests
  3. Little or no feedback and coaching
  4. Feel no hope for career growth
  5. Feel devalued and unrecognized
  6. Feel overworked and stressed out
  7. No trust or confidence in leaders

So, how does knowing this impact our ability to lead our virtual teams? We have learned that effective, honest, frequent communication is the key to success. Once we know why employees---whether virtual or on site---are thinking about leaving our organizations, it's easier to improve their job satisfaction. Specifically, we can do more to clarify expectations, create individual development plans, provide frequent and honest feedback, map out career paths, recognize our employees’ contributions, support them in their quest for work-life balance, and model the behaviors we ask of them so that their trust in us deepens. Remember, all of these retention strategies are more difficult when the team you lead is virtual.

Effective leadership is not only about employee engagement, it's about productivity and business impact. Research from the HayGroup (2001) has shown that employees who are fully engaged in a company and their specific job are 43% more productive. In volatile economic times like these, when organizations are looking to get the most out of their employees, 43% more productivity could mean the difference between success or failure for your organization.

Clear Communication of Your Vision and Your Goal

Regardless of their specific role within your organization, all employees should have a clear understanding of the organization's overall objectives, and, more importantly, how what they do each and every day contributes to the organization's success. This is particularly vital for team members working virtually. A virtual employee may speak to his or her boss infrequently or in group calls with many other employees. Therefore, it's easy for these employees to begin focusing wholly on their day-to-day tasks and lose track of the bigger picture. We often call this a “silo mentality.” In addition, their issues and their questions often go understated because the boss is not in proximity. Employee concerns can't always wait until a monthly or weekly call. This can lead to a feeling of disengagement. When that happens, everyone loses.

To ensure that your employees are tuned into organizational goals, you should make those goals perfectly clear and be sure to communicate them often. The people at Hallmark, who know a thing or two about communication, operate under the idea that a person needs to hear something seven times to actually remember it.

When developing goals, remember the concept of SMART goals.

  • Specific and clear steps to achieve the goal
  • Measurable criteria so progress can be assessed
  • Action-oriented---a goal that you can influence through your actions
  • Realistic (and challenging)---a stretch goal with resources available to achieve that goal
  • Time-bound and targeted with specific deadlines

Following the SMART guidelines will ensure that you have a common understanding of the goals that you communicate to your staff. Because no matter how effectively you communicate, if the goals you're communicating are flawed, unrealistic, ambiguous, or unable to be measured, you might as well not be communicating anything at all. It is often said that when everything counts (there are too many priorities and goals), nothing counts and very little gets accomplished.

Develop a Team Charter

With your organizational goals and the communication of those goals set, it's important to develop a team charter. A team charter lays out your team's mission and represents a commitment from management that the resources will be made available to each employee to achieve that mission.

This is also an effective tool for documenting and solidifying your team's best practices and processes. Your team isn't made up of robots, and so individual talents must be leveraged---especially among your virtual teams. However, an efficient organization is one that is aware of its best practices and makes those practices available to its employees cross functionally.

For your virtual teams, the availability of best practices will likely hinge on the effective use of technology. As part of your team charter, it is absolutely vital that your team and your organization employ an IT strategy that effectively shrinks the world and makes interaction and communication as effective as possible. Just having e-mail and a long-distance phone plan is no longer enough. Instant messaging programs, teleconferencing equipment and video monitors, if used properly, have the ability to trump the distance and time zones between you and your team members and make everyone feel, at least temporarily, as if they're all in the same room. Of course, as wonderful as technology is, and as many doors as it can open for your virtual team, it can never take the place of face-to-face communication.

Create Behavioral Norms

On a traditional team, if someone is 5 minutes late for a meeting, it's easy to give that person the benefit of the doubt. In all likelihood, you've seen that person once or twice throughout the day already, and so you know that he or she is at least in the building somewhere. Therefore, you assume they're just topping off their coffee or that maybe they're running a few minutes behind. But now, consider a virtual team. If someone is 5 minutes late for a conference call, the other attendees, who may be scattered all over the world, don't know what's going on and are floating in cyberspace---waiting.

This example represents the inevitable weakness associated with technology and virtual teams in general. Therefore, accountability must be one of your team's virtual norms. Team members must keep up communication with one another and no one should be allowed to simply drift away. You must create a culture where both the what of work and the how of working together are established. This can be achieved by norms such as:

  • Checking voice-mail regularly and returning all calls within 24 hours
  • Checking e-mail constantly and responding to e-mails as quickly as you can, and always within 24 hours
  • Using your e-mail program's out-of-office alert feature to make your team members aware of your whereabouts at all times
  • Adhering to meeting and event schedules whenever possible

Adhere to Virtual Team Meeting Best Practices

Some norms for maximizing the quality and effectiveness of your meetings include the following:

  • Sending a meeting agenda to participants 48 hours before the meeting so everyone has a chance to prepare
  • On all calls, especially large calls, keep your mute button on when not speaking to avoid extraneous, distracting noises
  • Do not interrupt people while they are speaking
  • Take breaks every 60-90 minutes
  • As a quick pulse check, have everyone on the team do a quick assessment of the call or meeting's effectiveness on a 1-10 scale, and have them identify why they gave it that score

Communicating Difficult Things

Even though technology is what has made it possible for virtual teams to exist in the first place, it's not the only mechanism required for maintaining a virtual team's stability. It is tempting to overuse technology, especially in difficult or awkward times, like when delivering bad news or dealing with conflict. However, as a standard practice, virtual team leaders must commit to using e-mail for updating and delivering innocuous, one-way information only. E-mail should never be used for “dropping bombs” or revealing large-scale problems. A true virtual team will likely never all be in the same room together; that's just a given. However, significant information, sensitive information, and surprising information simply can't be delivered via e-mail. Schedule a conference call, bring everyone together virtually, and deliver such information then.

This same norm should be applied to dealing with and managing conflict. Conflict is a normal part of any team's life cycle and---when focused on tasks, goals, and projects---it's both healthy and productive.

However, as anyone who has worked in an office knows, unhealthy conflict is just as inevitable as healthy conflict. Conflicts between individuals about matters not directly related to work represent a significant challenge to virtual team leaders because it's so much more difficult to detect. If you're sitting in a meeting room with two people who are upset with one another, tension is usually evident. However, tension or ill will between people who live in different cities and who are only face to face but once a year, if ever, is a different problem entirely---one that can slowly erode your team and your chances for project success.

To combat this, as a virtual team leader it's important to take your team's pulse regularly and to be engaged enough with the people in your group to detect problems early. When you sense issues, don't send a passive e-mail; get on the phone and talk to that person---or persons---as soon as possible. Tension, like weeds, will continue to grow. Nip it in the bud early.

Use Straight Talk

A discussion of conflict resolution leads perfectly into a model for communication that I've tried to follow throughout my entire career in human resources and talent management: the Straight Talk Model. Straight talk is exactly what it sounds like, a brand of communication that is direct, truthful, and built on the idea that both parties are interested in improved communication. As outlined earlier, most communication glitches are caused by what I fondly call clueless behavior. The cure for clueless behavior is straight talk. (The cure for diabolical behavior is addressed in the papers I've written done on office politics, which is a conversation for another day.)

All too often, conflict is difficult to diffuse and problems go unresolved because people are afraid to reveal what's really on their mind. Simply put, they will tell you exactly what you want to hear for fear of the consequences of being honest. Straight talk sets all that aside by allowing both parties to put all their cards on the table and work together to solve an issue. It's an excellent mechanism for accomplishing two things that are essential for a leader of virtual teams:

  1. Creating and nurturing an environment of mutual trust---across distance
  2. Empowering employees via a common methodology for improving communication and giving them the skills and the encouragement to bring up issues that, until now, may have been considered impossible to discuss

Straight talk can also be an ideal tool for unearthing and working through the many complications associated with language and cultural differences. Language can be a tricky thing, and interpretations of words and phrases can be difficult for a person who is speaking English as a second or third language. Straight talk allows people to ask for clarification when necessary, which will give them the confidence that comes with understanding what's being said and what's expected of them. Equally tricky are the potential cultural differences that exist among virtual teams. Employees in the West may utilize terminology, hierarchies, and social structures that are vastly different from those of their colleagues in the Middle East and throughout Asia---differences that may even be offensive. Straight talk puts these differences out in the open where they belong.

Mutual Trust Leads to Success

A virtual team is a unique thing, and the relationships within one are delicate. However, if each of these processes is adapted successfully, a high level of trust will be created and maintained. This will make effective communication effortless, allowing you and your team to work together to avoid the many landmines lurking along the road to success.

Branham, L. (2005). The 7 hidden reasons employees leave. New York: Amacom.

HayGroup Working Paper. (2001). Engage employees and boost performance. Retrieved July 2, 2008, from

Watson Wyatt Worldwide Research Report. (2006). Effective communication: A leading indicator of financial performance - 2005/2006 communication ROI study. Retrieved July 7, 2008 from

© 2008, Marcia Riley
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA



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