If you teach online courses, you may create assignments that require students to collaborate on projects in a technology-mediated setting. It’s also possible that, at some point, you yourself will need to lead a group of people that are based in a variety of locations, many miles apart from one another. If your group needs to meet on a regular basis, you probably won’t all fly to one site for every meeting; most of the time, you will probably conduct your meetings via telephone or the Internet. In a similar vein, much of your regular communication will take place via e-mail, instant messaging, or other online collaboration tools.
Though the principles of leading a virtual team are quite similar to those involved in leading a team that’s based in the same location, there are some additional practices that can help you guide the group with maximum effectiveness. Below, we share some strategies, summarized from Ranjay Gulati, Anthony J. Mayo, and Nitin Nohria’s Management, which can help you run a geographically distributed or virtual team with skill:
- Call upon the management and leadership skills you’ve built heading up an “on-site” group or team. These will serve you well as you lead a group comprised of people who live and work in several different locations; after all, people are people, whether they’re meeting in one room or in a virtual space.
- Make all instructions and group guidelines as clear and explicit as possible. Ensure that all team members have the same understanding of the project goals and your own expectations.
- Reach out to team members frequently. Identify the most effective means of communicating with your team and use them consistently. You may also choose to implement several strategies: a weekly conference call, regular e-mail messages, an online collaboration tool, etc. Frequent communication helps ensure that all team members stay up to date on the group’s processes and progress.
- Help the team members get to know one another. Encourage them to share a bit of information about their professional backgrounds, their interests, their daily schedules, and so on. When they get to know one another on a more personal level, they come to recognize one another as colleagues working together for a common purpose. They are also less likely to jump to the wrong conclusion about each other’s intentions and motivations.
- Is your team working on a project that will require the buy-in of individuals across the organization? Identify an “ally,” such as an administrator, director, or upper-level manager, who can serve as an advocate of your work and help you access the approvals and resources you need.
- Keep an eye out for conflict and address it as early as you can. In an virtual environment, people lack the vocal and body-language cues that occur naturally when you communicate in person. Without these cues, it’s easier to misinterpret someone’s words or the intent behind their actions. If you believe a statement needs clarification, you may want to step in and request that clarification before it evolves into a full-blown issue. The sooner you clear up potential misunderstandings between group members, the lower the likelihood that they will have lasting and lingering effects on relationships within the group.
- When your project comes to a close, take the time to meet as a group and discuss both the positive and negative aspects of your experience. You will gather worthwhile feedback and learn practical lessons that you can take with you into your next virtual team experience. (455)
Reference: Gulati, Ranjay, Mayo, Anthony J., and Nohria, Nitin. 2014. Management. Mason, OH: South-Western, Cengage Learning.
Have you led a team that meets virtually? Share your experiences and best practices here.