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How to lead a virtual team: 5 keys for success

How to lead a virtual team: 5 keys for success

You've got the tools, you've navigated the logistical hurdles, but you still may not be leading your remote team in the most effective way possible. Here's how to get virtual teams right.

The days of workplaces located in a single office are done. Today's workforce is distributed — across multiple small offices, embracing work-at-home-employees, and spread across continents — and IT has always been at the forefront of that change, eagerly embracing new communications technologies that make it possible. But we're only a few years into this shift, and the tools and techniques we've used to manage a workforce and forge them into a team when they don't meet at the water cooler every day are in some ways still in their infancy.

Some of what makes it difficult to manage a virtual team just boils down to logistics. For instance, PhoenixNAP Global IT Services, with employees working in North America and Europe, inevitably runs into problems scheduling across time zones, says company President and CEO Ian McClarty. "Since the vast majority of our employees are in either the Mountain or Central European zones," he says, "the bulk of our meetings and discussions take place in a four-hour window that's at the start of the U.S. day (7 to 11 a.m.) and the end of the European day (3 to 7 pm or 4 to 8 p.m.). This avoids anyone having to attend a meeting in the middle of the night, although of course that sometimes happens."

There's also the issue of different labor rules applying to different workers and offices. "Because of differing laws across countries, most providers’ HR and payroll software caters exclusively to either the U.S. market or the EU market," says McClarty. "This means we have at least four different HR systems in place, and none of them are compatible."

These road bumps, while annoying, have solutions that are relatively simple, and boil down to planning and getting the right tools. But there are bigger problems that arise when it comes to what remote work can do to the culture of a workplace. "We've had limited cases where 'lone wolf'-type activity has shown up, and it definitely leads to problems if left unchecked," says Mike Hansen, SVP of engineering at Sonatype. "There has been limited conflict associated with this, and we deal with it head on by making it clear what is expected in being part of a team.  We just do not allow people to work in isolation to the extent that it impacts our ability to deliver product."

Hansen puts his philosophy succinctly: "Remote work is not about working alone. It is simply about collaborating at a distance."

We spoke to executives working with various types of virtual teams — some with multiple offices in different countries, some with many team members working from home — to find out more about the challenges they faced and the solutions they developed to cope. Here is their advice.

1. Sometimes, you've gotta talk it out

At the heart of collaboration is communication, and for everyone I spoke to, it was also at the heart of difficulties they had encountered with managing a virtual team. While there are more tools than ever that allow distributed teams to talk to each other (see sidebar), many of them are text based, and those tend to miss a crucial part of communication. "With remote teams, there is a lack of body language to determine what people are actually saying," says Marty Puranik, CEO of Atlantic.Net. "People end up 'reading into' statements others are making and start interpreting them as something different than the original intent. The team can splinter as a few individuals feel ostracized from the group, leading to a loss of productivity. Clear communication is a must, and as a team leader, it’s important to pay attention to make sure misinterpretations are minimized."

Patric Palm, CEO and co-founder at planning and collaboration appmaker Favro, outlines one way this can go wrong over text-based communication. "I don’t write well-groomed sentences," he says. "I have a bit of military background, so I like to keep it short, military style. Some people can interpret that style as being harsher than I intend. There are two ways I’ve seen that play out. I’ve held 'ping-pong' conversations over email or Slack, where I’ve spent a lot of time explaining what I really meant in the first place. I’ve also been in situations where I thought we were 'all cool,' but then I hear that, actually, things are not so great."

Palm's solution is straightforward. "What works really well is to just instantly pick up the phone and call when I sense that something might be going wrong," he says. "At Favro, we have no internal email, only Slack for messaging and Favro for planning and management. Slack has built-in call and video functionalities that are very easy to use. When I feel that something’s gone wrong, or I feel the other person isn’t getting me, I just push the call button."

Video calling might seem like a technology that's never quite connected with the mainstream, but several of the folks I spoke to say it serves a crucial role in these scenarios. "Video chat might be niche when you look at the entirety of global knowledge workers, but it is table stakes for a fully remote organization in — and this is important — certain situations," says Sonatype's Hansen. "You do not always need video chat, but it does make certain kinds of conversations and collaboration easier. With a strong relationship, people have the ability to pick up on subtle verbal cues enough to offset the absence of body language. Benefits do start to accrue when there are three or more people interacting, because there's a greater tendency for people to drift away from the conversation. There is some innate resistance to this when you know others can see you perhaps looking away from your screen, typing out an email."

Ron Schlecht, managing partner at BTB Security, agrees. "Seeing somebody’s face makes conversations more 'real,' just like in-person conversations," he says. And he'd take it one step further: "A regular cadence of in-person meetings, even if infrequent, tend to build great rapport that can be continued from afar."

2. Avoid information overload … with documentation

It isn't just emotional nuances that can fall through the cracks in remotely managed teams, says Krish Ramineni co-founder and CEO at Fireflies.ai. Fireflies.ai's workforce is "30% in the office and 70% remote," says Ramineni.

"The challenge is that there are a lot of informal meetings and office chit-chat that take place where information is exchanged," he explained. "A lot of distributed teams miss out on the context of what happened or why a decision was made. We quickly realized engineering wasn't fully aligned, as some devs were pushing builds while other engineers — often those who were distributed — were surprised by last minute changes in implementation methods. Miscommunication cropped up because of these last-minute changes, which are somewhat difficult to manage for distributed teams."

Slack is an increasingly popular way for remote teams to keep in touch, but Ramineni says that in some ways it conveys toomuch information. "When Slack is constantly on, there are too many alerts and too many things to keep in mind," he says. "The moment you have a twenty-person Slack channel, information quickly gets buried."

His solution is a mantra that developers should be used to: document everything. To Ramineni, this goes beyond the level of code into communication about decision-making processes as well. "Whether you're working remotely or at the office, everything has to be documented — what decisions were made and why," he explains. "Even with five bullet points, we need a memo that's been archived for everyone to see. And you're required to have come into the next meeting having read that memo. This actually saves a ton of time because now we could actually discuss and debate rather than spend 30 minutes getting everyone up to speed. If the necessary stakeholders have signed off on the memo and there's clear consent, the team can move forward. Whether this is an engineering implementation decision or a marketing campaign initiative, the process is the same."

Documents may seem old-fashioned in the modern world of endless streams and newsfeeds, but Ramineni believe they're crucial to his company's success. "A document is a lot easier to track than a one-off message you have to search for in Slack," he says. "We used to literally have important messages from teammates like, 'Oh yeah, Kim and I decided that we had to change the entire architecture after she showed me something.'  And the remote engineer would have no clue because this was buried. So documenting it in a central archive was key."

3. Set the tone

Michael Hackett is Senior Vice President at LogiGear, a California-based company with a big team they had to manage in Vietnam. The company wrote up an extensive blog post on setting up an innovation lab there, and one of the keys was establishing the right balance between keeping the home office in the loop but also letting the remote workers take the wheel on their projects. "It was absolutely a conscious decision not to micromanage them," he told us. "A deliberate hands-off approach was taken. The offshore team wanted everything approved — even just the naming of the project was a big deal. But the tone was set that the team had to take ownership of things like this. This element of the lab was an instrumental aspect to having innovation for solutions from within."

"We totally wanted feedback, and that was something that was required, and asked for consistently," he said. "For many employees, the balance between 'go be creative and innovative' but 'fill me in on how it's going' is just that — a balance. Every culture balances these by differing norms. We were focused on achieving Silicon Valley/U.S. style loose-but-informative reporting."

4. Smaller may be better

Some of the leaders we spoke with have changed the way their businesses were organized to accommodate the reality of distributed teams. Zack Schwartz, general manager of OpenWater, says his company has two different roles within the operations department — project management and customer support — which were initially divided into two departments. "This worked fine for a while," he said. "But as the company grew, cracks started to form in this structure. To communicate, we of course had Slack, Trello, join.me, and a host of other cobbled-together systems to help facilitate the back and forth between the two departments, but it was not enough. The main issue we faced was who was ultimately accountable to the success of the customer. Was it project management? Or was it support? The problem amplified when it came to situations where customers would purchase additional products and services. Who got the credit?"

In late 2017, they chose to reorganize, breaking employees into a small individual teams, each of which included both project management and support staff. "Instead of worrying about facilitating communication between multiple departments, you only need to communicate within your team," he explains. "Everyone on the team helps each other out and has a shared goal. We have found this approach to be immensely effective thus far. Small teams are scalable and new teams can be created as the company hires more staff."

5. Your attention is needed

The leaders I spoke to had various techniques for dealing with a virtual team. But if you had to boil them down to a single idea, it's this: out of sight should not mean out of mind. Your remote employees need the same degree of attention and emotional care as those working in the cubicle across from yours, and sometimes you have to make concrete choices or create organizational structures to provide remote workers with the kind of attention that arises organically when everyone’s working in the same building. As Atlantic.Net's Puranik puts it, "It’s important when you have remote teams to make sure everyone feels included and heard."

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