24.03.2020

Becoming a Virtual Team Leader

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Becoming a Virtual Team Leader

 Show Interest

Business transformations often include changes to working patterns and the development of geographically dispersed teams. This might mean the person with whom you work closely may soon be in the next city along the motorway or in a small township on the other side of the world. The best talent can be attracted into your team from a wider geography and there are some advantages for including those from minority groups or people with disabilities too.

 

Managing teams that work remotely needs slightly different approaches from those working in the same building. Team managers have to grow into leaders and coaches. Their focus will become more about facilitating the team’s effectiveness, what must be achieved, to what standard and by when. There is less mileage in making the team do things their way. They need to adapt instructions more closely to the individual’s experience and skills. This requires team leaders with confidence and trust in their team.

 

Poor performance or wasted effort in this situation often results from a lack of clarity about what is expected. Team leaders need support from their manager, mentor or coach to quickly become effective in communicating expectations in a way that supports good team performance. They also need to facilitate every individual to participate in being a team that is more than the individual contributions.

 

Here are some things I recommend team leaders think about when they start their team working from home: 

  • Clear objectives, job assignments and supervision
  • Being part of the team (and mental health)
  • Working and non-working time
  • Meetings
  • Stay Healthy – physically and mentally

 

I’ll expand a little on these in the next few paragraphs.

 

 

Clear objectives, job assignments and supervision

 

The team member will expect to understand the objectives and priorities for their work and know who to ask to get clear instructions on what is expected. When will they start the task and how do they get the resources they need to do the work? They also need to be clear who is doing related jobs (and so what they shouldn’t do, wasting effort or resources). If they are working for a number of teams or projects, who will be the person who guides them if they have clashing priorities or if the person in charge of a project isn’t available for urgent assistance?

 

For each assignment, clear delegation will be needed. Is there a standard for the work (SOP, standard operating procedures help), people they should consult, a budget to work within or deadlines to meet? Who will approve their work and after it is approved, how is it delivered to the next link in the chain?

 

Don’t forget to provide supportive calls during the project. These are not to push progress along or oppressive supervision but to coach and encourage: you want your people to ask for help when they need it and not be isolated with hidden problems. Make space in your diary to receive impromptu calls from team members for that eventuality.

 

 

Being part of the team (and mental health)

 

For some people working at home reduces their stress levels because there are less interruptions and commuting hassles. For others (particularly extrovert personality types and those who learn by talking concepts through), it causes stress because there is less social interaction or certainty around their routine. Understand which group you (and each of your team members) fall in and plan your days around that. If people need to schedule catchups with colleagues to work things out and avoid becoming ‘stir crazy’ then make time for those informal conversations that help the team run smoothly.

 

Remember to check on the introvert to make sure they are quietly enjoying the peace to focus and not descending into an unhealth negative place. Introverts (like everyone else) benefit from clear communications and knowing that their team leader cares about them. More than everyone else, over-communicating can slow their progress: different support levels may be appropriate for different people.

 

Working together as a team will provide support through uncertain times provided that the team leader leads with a positive example.

 

 

Working and non-working time

 

Schedule working (and non-working) hours that suits your work, the household and the business or task. Managers need to be aware that some people working at home will suddenly acquire additional household duties (because they don’t have the commute, they are in the right place and should have more time to share responsibilities) and it is reasonable to fit those responsibilities around the working day. Allowing flexibility about working hours means your people and those they live with will be less negatively stressed overall.

 

The underlying principal must be a fair day’s work rather than clocking in/out for presenteeism.  However, in emergencies (unexpected caring responsibilities in normal situations, national emergencies), team managers need to assume people will (and should) prioritize the other humans in their lives. It is ethical but more importantly from a business perspective, this investment in your team member will build working relationships and commitment to the team.

 

Everyone has a subtly different flow to their day. Some of this is nature, some habit and some is dictated by the people around them. Recognize when you are most productive and make that part of the day when you do the big important task(s) on your agenda. Schedule time for this ‘deep work’. Plan you day, ideally before the end of the previous day and communicate with the team so others know what to expect from you. Know when and how you finish your working day.

 

 

Meetings

 

Schedule time to catch up with people, both for project coordination and for ‘water cooler moments’ checking in with each other. You probably need more of these than you think: your diary may be full of these useful unstructured conversations when you're in the office.

 

Make sure everyone knows what sort of meeting they are joining. This is especially important with online meetings. Is a meeting a quick 10 minute weekly briefing on business news that will be followed by a email with more detail? Or a decision making meeting when they need to come prepared with data and thoughts to help build consensus? Meetings and formal catchups need more notice and preparation. Those chairing meetings need to be fully prepared with a more detailed agenda than they would for a face to face meeting.

 

There are different types of virtual meeting tools: conference calls, video conferencing, webinar platforms (also work for other online gatherings). Select which you will use for which meeting carefully. Some tools make it easy to chair and control who speaks; others work better when an independent person controls the software. Learn how to use it well before you have the meeting or it will be a distraction for everyone.

 

If you have video links, body language can help others understand your meaning but you need to be larger than life to make your point: on a small screen, some detail of a smile might be missed or misinterpreted.

 

It is easier for two people to draw different conclusions from a virtual meeting without the physical presence and body language. It is important that meeting notes (or minutes) and actions are properly written up, checked and followed up.

 

Zoo meetings with the household pets need to be considered. Pets can reduce stress. Dogs barking or birds mimicking rude words in conference calls can be funny or frustrating. Children and cats putting parts of their anatomy between you and the video link camera can be light relief or lethal to a career. Some meetings need to be human adults only.

 

 

Stay Healthy – physically and mentally

 

This is a big topic for all teams everywhere. The following points are particular issues when working at home.

 

Go to work

 

Do something physical that puts you into ‘work mode’. A little exercise to start the day before you sit at your desk will get the blood moving to the brain and help concentration. Without your morning commute you need some physical movement to get going. You may want to build some stretches or other exercise into your day: it helps relieve stress and improves mental performance.

Dress for work

This has to be optional (unless you are about to join a video call and representing your business) but many people have told me it helps them to focus on work if they wear the clothes they might wear for a “dress down Friday” instead of working in pyjamas. Different people need different things. You might be happy in a dressing gown or jeans. For someone else to ‘be at work’ they need to shower, dress formally, walk to the store for a coffee and paper, walk home to their dining room table and start work. Team managers need to set out what is acceptable when business wear isn’t needed but they must not impose their preferences without good reason: it undermines the collaboration and trust needed for an effective team.

Eat properly

Snacking at your desk is much easier at home: its closer to your kitchen with all your favorite things. To work effectively, you need to feed your brain good nutrition. A healthy regulated diet becomes more important when you work from home as you may get less exercise. It might help you become healthier at home if you change to better eating habits in your working day.

Ergonomics

There are many rules around making your workspace at work safe for you. At work, your desk and working area will have been designed to minimize injury. Most employers will give guidance for those working from home. Make sure you look after yourself: working in a bad position can cause long term physical injury. A good workspace can make you more efficient. There is a useful checklist from the Health and Safety Executive at https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/ck1.pdf for those without employer’s advice.

Manage interruptions

Recognize you may have to educate your household, friends and family about working at home. Just because you are home doesn’t mean you can get distracted with your new gadgets or online shopping. Working at home is still working and there are responsibilities with keeping your job.

Take breaks

In your schedule, make sure you set aside time to take breaks for refreshment and exercise. A few minutes away from the desk can help clear your mind from the task you are doing and prepare you for the next task.  If you continue at full pace all day without break, day on day, you risk mental exhaustion and burn out.


Know that you won’t get it right every time. It takes practice to be an effective manager in a strange environment. It also takes practice and discipline not to get distracted at home. Give everyone time to deal with the adjustment in their lives. Reflect on the experience. Do more of what works and change things that don’t help.

 

 

 

Having lead virtual international teams, and coached many managers through the process of getting teams working remotely or from home, if anyone is struggling with this during these “interesting times”, please get in touch.

  • management development
  • Working from home
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  • Business Continuity Management
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