Leading any team has its challenges; however, the leader of a virtual team–in which members do not meet physically—has to approach things in a unique way.

Not only are virtual teams here to stay, but they are becoming more common as technology improves and allows people to communicate more easily and at a lower cost. Knowing how to lead one is especially important because research has shown that if a virtual team is not led correctly, getting work accomplished becomes harder than with a traditional team. If it is led correctly, a virtual team has the ability to outperform teams where the members are all at the same location.

What’s interesting is that while virtual team members are often separated by long distances, even thousands of miles, teams made up of people working on different floors of the same building exhibit some of the same characteristics. When you think about it this way, you may have worked on a “virtual team” without realizing it.

I’ve worked with multiple virtual teams and know they can be successful, and I’d like to help you lead a virtual team to success. First, I am going to identify the main challenges, and then provide you with some useful tips. Some of them are from my personal experience and others are from research. These tips can help you become a better leader (or potential leader) of a virtual team.

Communication Tips

The ability to drive and improve communication among team members is critical to any team leader, but it becomes even more necessary for geographically distanced teams. Here are some best practices to keep communication flowing in a virtual team:

1. Try to make sure everyone feels included in team processes, and continues to be engaged. One of the main drawbacks for virtual teams is lost context. People start to feel isolated and lose trust in the other members. A good leader realizes when this is happening and works through it.

2. Use task-oriented communication.

3. If you’re building a team, consider how employees act when working with teams. Teamwork styles are important to consider. Team assessments, such as the MBTI, can help a leader discover more about how each person works.

4. Create a personal connection between team members. Have at least one face-to-face meeting with the whole team. You can also use technologies such as video conferencing that allow people to experience meetings in a more traditional way.

5. Make sure everyone interacts frequently. People won’t be eating lunch together or talking in the break room, so you want to make sure everyone feels a connection with one another.

Tips for Setting Clear Expectations

Because members of a virtual team don’t have the opportunity to see each other often, it’s imperative that everyone understands what their responsibilities are and how things will get accomplished. The following are some guidelines leaders can follow:

1. Distribute all materials at the beginning. Give people a clear picture of what the team is responsible for getting done.

2. Make sure you create defined processes at the beginning. If people don’t know how they should be working, they might stop working or continue on a path that isn’t best for the team. Virtual teams often come from different work cultures, which means conflict can arise if processes are not defined.

3. Make sure you establish your role as the leader. People need to know what kind of a leader you are, and that they can trust you to help them as needed.

4. Determine, as a team, how conflict will be addressed and resolved. Conflict will arise, so it helps if people know what to do before it does.

Technology Tips

Technology, from video conferencing to email, is how virtual teams communicate. Virtual team leaders don’t need to be tech experts, but they should have a solid grasp of all tools being used by their teams.

1. Make sure you keep current on all technologies in use for your team. Technology is ever-changing, and if you stay updated your team will work more smoothly.

2. Be able to teach other team members the technologies they need, or know where to direct them if someone else can help them better. One great thing about the Internet is that many tutorials and resources can be found for free that can explain all types of technology.

3. Design and coordinate tools that work best for your team. If most members don’t know much about technology, you might not want to pick the most current options since the learning curve will be steeper for these members.

4. Make sure you move away from your desk and encourage others to do so. Through research, Professor Ian Woodward has found that moving your body while speaking enhances your voice quality. People who stay glued to Skype tend to lose their persuasive edge, he says.

More Team Tips

1. Promote self-leadership across the team. People need to be accountable to themselves, and a good leader will help create this an environment where people will lead themselves.

2. Encourage and provide regular feedback. Give team members an understanding—throughout the stages of the team—of how they are doing, and how the team is doing overall.

What would you add as other tips to this list for leaders of virtual teams? Let our readers hear your ideas and join in the discussion.

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