If you’re leading a virtual team for the first time, you may be feeling overwhelmed. And we’re here to tell you that this is completely normal. Virtually leading a team comes with unique challenges that take time, planning, and experience to overcome. But don’t worry! That’s why we’re here. We’ll share our best recommendations to help you lead a virtual team in this post.
What are virtual teams?
Hybrid. Remote. In-office. As we transitioned to different models of work during the pandemic, we’ve seen many new terms emerge. But these words can be confusing—and the definitions tend to vary from company to company.
So before we get started, we want to clearly define what we mean by virtual teams.
Virtual teams are typically made up of individuals who either work remotely or in different geographical locations. The most defining characteristic of virtual teams is that they work entirely through online platforms—whether that’s Zoom, Slack, or Asana (or all of the above!)
So while remote teams can also be virtual teams, both terms are different from hybrid teams, which refers to a model where some employees work in the office.
The challenges that come with leading virtual teams
Of course, there are difficulties that come with any leadership position. But virtual teams present unique challenges—and being aware of them can help you better understand how to overcome them.
One of the biggest challenges with virtual teams is the lack of visibility. When you work in an office, you have the advantage of seeing your team members on a day-to-day basis. This means you can drop by their desk to see what they’re working on. Or notice when they’re stressed out. But in a virtual setting, these signals become harder to see.
Fewer opportunities for connection
When working together in person, there are more organic opportunities to connect. Whether it’s eating lunch together or catching up while grabbing a snack from the kitchen, it’s much easier to build relationships with your colleagues when you’re physically together. But in a virtual setting, building connection needs to be approached more intentionally.
Different time zones
If your team is geographically dispersed, you may run into logistical challenges. How do you find a meeting time that works for everyone? What are the rules for communicating when some team members are working, while others are offline? These are the types of questions you need to think about as the leader of a virtual team.
12 tips to improve the way you lead virtual teams
1. Clarify expectations around communication
When teams aren’t physically together, clarity becomes even more essential—especially when it comes to communication.
Your employees don’t have the benefit of clearing up misunderstandings face-to-face or reading each other’s body language, so you need to establish clear expectations when it comes to communication. We encourage virtual teams to create a document that answers questions, such as:
- When is the ideal time to schedule team meetings?
- What is the purpose of each communication channel (Slack, email, etc.), and when should each one be used?
- What are the etiquette guidelines for communicating with team members in different time zones?
2. Check in frequently
As we mentioned before, visibility is much lower on virtual teams. That’s why it’s critical that you, as the team leader, find time to check in with each of your team members regularly. The purpose of these check-ins is to understand how your employees are doing—both professionally and personally.
So try to go beyond the transactional status update. Check in on how your direct reports are feeling about their workload. Ask questions about their hobbies. Invite them to an open conversation about their mental, emotional, and physical health.
3. Invest in the right tools
Using the right technology is vital when it comes to leading virtual teams. While every team’s needs will look different, we encourage most organizations to invest in leadership tools, online meeting apps, and noise cancelling software like Krisp. These technologies can improve processes that your virtual team relies on every day—whether that’s daily standups or performance reviews.
4. Sync with company leadership
Part of your job as a team leader is to bridge the gap between your employees and the leadership team. This means that you need to find time to sync with the company executives to see if any significant announcements are coming down the pipeline.
By communicating these high-level updates with your team, you ensure that your employees feel connected to the rest of the organization. It’s also a great way to build trust and show your team members that you’re committed to being transparent with them.
5. Plan virtual activities
Connection is hard when you’re not physically together. But thanks to advances in technology, there are tons of ways to bond with your teammates virtually. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few ideas:
- Try virtual icebreakers before the start of team meetings to help everyone relax.
- Use an app like Donut to schedule virtual coffee dates with team members.
- Schedule virtual watercooler activities, such as trivia nights and escape rooms.
6. Host “office hours”
Another way to make yourself more visible and accessible to your team is to host office hours. This is a time that you block off your schedule to make yourself available to your employees—whether that’s to talk through problems, answer questions, or simply check in.
To get started, find a time in your schedule when most of your employees are available and mark it on your calendar as “office hours.” Let your team members know that this slot is available and encourage them to reach out.
7. Give your team members autonomy
When you lead a virtual team, you have to accept that you won’t see, hear, and know about everything going on with your employees. And that’s OK.
Instead of trying to control every moving piece, give your employees autonomy. Trust them to make the right decisions and meet their deadlines. Not only will this make your life easier, but research also shows that autonomy drives motivation, performance, and well-being.
8. Track progress
Even though we encourage you to give your team members autonomy, you can still find ways to promote accountability. One of the best ways to do this is to track progress on different projects in a shared platform or document.
With this approach, you can ask your employees to regularly post updates on their progress—allowing everyone else on the team to see what they’re working on and how the project is going. Creating this type of visibility will improve productivity and collaboration on virtual teams.
9. Encourage feedback
No leader is perfect. And it’s totally normal to make mistakes—especially if you’re leading a virtual team for the first time. But the good news is that these mistakes present fantastic opportunities to receive feedback on what you can do better. Here are a few ways to elicit constructive feedback from your virtual team:
- Ask during your one-on-one conversations. During your next check-in, ask your direct reports to share feedback on how you’re doing as a team leader. What would they want you to change? How do they feel about your communication style? Are there any processes that aren’t working? These questions may be challenging for employees to answer on the spot, so give them time to process and share when they’re ready.
- Send out an anonymous survey. Many of your team members may feel uncomfortable sharing constructive criticism with you directly. In this case, send out a survey that allows everyone to answer questions anonymously. This relieves any stress for your employees and ensures you receive honest responses.
- Use 360 reviews. Another option is to request a 360 performance review. With this approach, your boss collects feedback from your colleagues and your direct reports so you fully understand your performance.
10. Create opportunities for in-person interactions
Even virtual teams need opportunities for in-person interactions. When it’s safe to do so, consider planning a team retreat to give everyone the chance to meet each other.
During these gatherings, you can schedule fun activities—whether that’s playing mini-golf or enjoying a nice dinner together—and also block off time for brainstorming, planning, and coworking. You’ll be surprised to see how much a few days of in-person time can strengthen your team’s relationships!
11. Recognize your top performers
Another critical aspect of leading virtual teams is recognition. You want your high-performing employees to know that you see and value the work they’re doing every day. And the best way to accomplish this is through recognition.
Recognition comes in many forms. It can be verbal, experiential, or monetary. Casual or formal. Big or small. Regardless of the type of recognition you share, make sure it follows the following criteria:
- Timely. When an employee does fantastic work, they should receive praise immediately. If you wait too long, the impact of the recognition fades away. And your direct report may become resentful because their contributions aren’t recognized in a timely manner.
- Personalized. You also want to recognize your employees in a way that’s meaningful to them. For instance, if you have a team member who cherishes one-on-one time, take them out to a nice lunch with just you. Or if you know they want to spend more time with their family, give them an all-expenses-paid getaway for the weekend.
- Aligns with the contribution. Finally, the type of recognition you give should align with the level of contribution. When an employee does a great job on a project, it’s definitely worth giving a shoutout and possibly a gift card to their favorite coffee shop. But an employee who takes on extra work and goes above-and-beyond expectations may deserve a more substantial reward.
12. Set a good example
Finally, one of your most important roles as a team leader is making sure your virtual team is taking care of their well-being. Burnout is incredibly common for people who work from home. When the lines between work and home are so blurred, it can be challenging to know when and how to unplug.
For this reason, leaders of virtual teams need to set an example. Instead of sending emails late at night, log off at 5 pm and encourage your employees to do the same. Block off an hour on your calendar every day to work out or cook yourself a nice lunch. And, after an intensive project, give your team a collective day off to recharge.
It’s time to take your virtual team to the next level
It’s no easy task to lead a virtual team. Between the logistical challenges and the absence of in-person interactions, it takes a lot of work to ensure your team is productive, collaborative, and well-run. But by using the recommendations we outlined in this post, you can take your leadership to the next level and help your virtual team members maximize their potential.
If you’re curious to learn more ways to increase collaboration among your employees, check out our article on how to improve team communication.