5 Ways to Connect with Your Virtual Team

Man in robe on couch working on a tablet computer

As technology advances, a greater number of people and teams are working remotely from the rest of their coworkers. It could be a single person working from home daily. Maybe half your team is in another country, or every single member of your group is located somewhere else.  There many are reasons that this is great for both the employee and the company. The commute is just a few clicks away. It saves the employee time and the environment is one car less polluted. The company can save money on office space. Workers are happier and one Stanford study even showed that employees are 13% more productive than when sitting at their desks at work. Virtual commuting is the way of the future for many employers and their personnel. Telecommuting is here to stay if not the office of the future.

Leading a Virtual Team

As with any change, there are growing pains. While leaders have found out that having virtual teams works wonderfully for the business, they are not prepared for such a team. According to an Oxford University study sponsored by SAP, only 20% of today’s business leaders are considered digital. And why should they be? We are not taught on how to connect with other people; we are taught the three R’s, reading, writing, and arithmetic. In business school at college, we get accounting, analytics, marketing, and so forth. We are not taught how to communicate with each other or why is it important. Yet, we all know the saying “It’s not what you know, it is who you know.” We must think outside of our normal managerial styles to make a virtual team successful. Here are a few ways to do so.

Understand your Team Members

As I stated, our businesses and our very lives revolve around the relationships we cultivate and maintain. It is easy to see that the more energy you put into a relationship the better that relationship will be. This is true for any leader in the current business world. We have transformed from a working culture of “the boss gives me orders and I march” to a more integrated and collaborative team environment. The boss needs to be the leader, but also a member of the team. It takes a strong investment in your staff as people and not just employee number. Evelyn, a participant in one of my workshops last month, shared an excellent example of what this does not look like.

Blonde teen sitting on a baseball field tossing a softball into the air.

The Assistant

She had been an admin assistant to a senior vice president of this company for over five years. They had worked together every single day of the work week and most weekends on scheduling, projects, and other tasks. One day he came in and slowed down by her desk and asked “How is your son doing?” She groaned inward and said “fine.” She looked down on her desk at the three pictures she had sitting there, one being an 8×10 huge frame; all depicting an teen-aged girl with blonde hair smiling back at her. Her daughter Mary, and her one and only child. One picture was of Mary winning the softball championship in their home state. She could not believe that after all this time together, he knew virtually nothing about her or what was important to her.

Broken Hearted

I asked her if she remembered how she felt at that exact moment. Evelyn said she was furious! “I could not believe I had invested so much time, time stolen from my daughter and family, to help a man that could not care less about me.” I watched as a tear rolled down her cheek, she quickly wiped it away, ashamed. “See! It’s been four years since I worked for him and I am still mad about it! In fact, it was that very day that I started looking for the job I have now.”

A Little Digging

Evelyn was a great participant, and I was curious about what her current boss thought about her. I sent an email over to Evelyn’s boss, who I knew well, thanking her for allowing Evelyn to come to class for the week.  I talked about how I know a week is long time for someone to be away from their desk, and I appreciated her allowing Evelyn to come in to the workshop and how invaluable she had been to the group with her stories and her ability to communicate and organize large teams of people.

The boss responded telling me how hard it was to let her go. She explained how pivotal Evelyn was to their team and she just knew the hardships they would face with Evelyn not being there to help them. The line that stuck out to me the most was this: “I was not sure how I was going to survive without her. I had thought about not sending her so I could keep her in chair for longer, but I knew that was not fair to Evelyn or the company.”

Now Understand their Culture

Culture is the intersection of people and life itself. It’s how we deal with life, love, death, birth, disappointment… all of that is expressed in culture. -Wendell Pierce

Relationships are how you get things done in our current business world. Build them! That relationship is the most important capital you will have in business. I often hear “I don’t have time to do all that mushy kumbaya stuff!” My response is the same every time “You can’t afford not to.”Now Understand their Cultures

As team members digitally cross oceans for meetings, you, as a leader, need to understand the differences between each of these cultures and how they normally communicate and interact with others in their own environments. For example, Americans put little value on sharing personal information in a business meeting. After all, time is money so let’s get to it. While in other cultures that is viewed as incredibly rude. Take Latin America for example, most of their meetings revolves around building and maintaining relationships and once that is done, we will get to business.

Understanding these differences and using them as strengths instead of weaknesses will help each member of your team have their cultural needs met. This will make them feel valued and dedicated to the team.

Know that You May Not Know…and that’s OK!

A great leader knows that she or he will not always have all the answer, and no one ever will!

Use the collaboration of your team to help in problem solving and decision making. The millennials on your team have been raised as a part of decision making all their lives. My four-year-old daughter chose where the family was going for the family vacation. It did not hurt that my wife and I are huge Disney fans when she picked Disney World, but they are used to helping make decisions. If you exclude any of your employees from the decision making process on a virtual team, they may feel alienated or that their input is not valued on the team. This will instantly shut down communication from that person.

Each member of your remote team will have a different view of the issue. Your employees can have a solution you may not see or they see a “landmine” that you are missing and need to avoid. They may know how it will affect their markets but not for others. Involve everyone on your team as often as you can to promote unity and communication. If someone is unable to make a valuable meeting, let them know what will be going on in the meeting, what decisions will be covered and ask for their ideas up front.

Be a LEADER not a manager

Chart of the differences between boss and leader

I often ask my classes this very question: “What is the difference between a manager and a leader?” The answers usually come flying back in rapid succession. In our virtual team discussion, the leader needs to empower her or his people. Not only should you allow them into the decision making but you should empower them to handle their areas of the business without you micromanaging them through the process. This is based on the relationship again and more importantly the trust built into the relationship.

You, as the leader, will need to trust that they are knowledgeable at their job and are doing the work. They, as the employee, will have the trust in your relationship that if they get stuck, they feel comfortable to come to you and ask for assistance in removing the barrier. Your job as a leader is to help your team be superstars; it is not for your team to make you look like a superstar. If you are doing it right, you both will win.

Boundaries Do Not Exist on the Internet So Don’t Create Them

Technology is awesome! I can pull a metallic and glass rectangle from my pocket, touch it two or three times and my daughter can see and talk to my wife on the other side of the planet IN REAL TIME when she is gone on a business trip. That is really cool! Our common reaction to that fact is “Duh, you have a smart phone.” But step out of our modern frame of mind and think about it. My wife and I own devices that can send signals into space, race around the world and back again in milliseconds to allow us to see and talk to each other. That is the awesome level of a technological world that we live in.

Woman with business coat on holding out her hand with a map of the world shining from her palm with dots on her virtual team locationsOur tech shatters distances and limits at light speed, so don’t be the barrier of that for your team. If there is an expert in South Korea that just broke ground in something your team is working on, why can’t you reach out and ask for thirty minutes of their time to web-chat about it? The mental filter that jumps to “we can’t do that” MUST, I repeat MUST, be replaced with “WHY CAN’T WE?” The technology is there, therefore you just have an obligation to dare to use it. It will blow the minds of the other leaders in your business that had never ever fathomed to do that.

Use Your Virtual Tech

Same rules apply to people in your company. No longer do we need to spend thousands of dollars on airplane tickets, hotels, and rental cars to have a Subject Matter Expert, or SME, from the China office come to your location to work on a project for a month. Just ask if you can borrow their expertise, then use technology and instantly make that connection. The options are near limitless, so do not limit them in your own mind.

These five ideas are powerful in becoming a modern digital leader. In turn, they creating a powerful quick reacting team that will value their coworkers instead of alienating them due to distance. Not only will your team look like superstars, but you will look like a genius for your cutting-edge approach to the new world of business.

I would love to hear your ideas as well, so please add them to the comments.

Here is our PDF Leadership Challenge on Connecting with Your Virtual Team


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