Managing Virtual Teams: Three Things to Consider

After many years of managing virtual and hybrid teams, I’ve often reflected on the differences between teams that are high-performing and ones that are not. I recently participated in a group discussion led by Jim Ware of The Future of Work, and Susan Bernstein, of Work From Within, which sparked additional thoughts about these differences in light of evolving workplace characteristics. Many facets go into successfully managing virtual teams, not just the three below, but leaders with an eye toward the future need to focus more closely on the following:

  • Trust. With flattened hierarchies and evolving manager/employee relationships, trust is at the heart of any good working relationship and essential for virtual team success. Managers need to evaluate the strengths of both an individual employee and the collective team in order to balance a group with complementary strengths and skills for high performance. A manager of a virtual team must employ strategies that foster collaboration, and rely on aspects of Tuckman’s stages of group development, which builds relationships and trust over time. But what happens when you don’t have time? A unique changing feature of teams (both virtual and not) today is the reliance on a growing number of independents in the workforce, how subcontractors are used to fill needs for expertise, and how quickly those needs may be fulfilled. Leaders need to consider new strategies in building a ecosystem of trust when independent contractors are used to lend expertise to a team/project for shorter periods of time. How does a manager build trust more quickly with an growing number of contractors being utilized and how do these individuals assimilate into virtual teams?
  • Collaborative Tools. Collaborative tools are the enabler of virtual team communications and performance and the sophistication of these tools will continue to impact the efficiency of team output and operations. Managers need to be at the forefront of enterprise collaboration tools, on the lookout for ones that strengthen communication-based work processes and team development. More employees are also bringing their own devices to work (BYOD), a trend predicted to rise exponentially in the future as information and tools are accessed from devices anywhere, at any time.  What kinds of security technologies, risks and issues will managers and employees on virtual teams need to know about when using collaborative tools and accessing corporate information on mobile devices?
  • Collective Work-Life Integration. A recent article, A Team Approach to Work-Life Balance in the Wall Street Journal, highlighted an important aspect of work-life conversations today and its what I’ve seen for years as a critical success factor for virtual team development. Employee work-life balance is not fulfilled in a vacuum between manager and employee alone. An essential ingredient for high-performing teams is the responsibility an entire group has to help each employee meet their needs of work-life integration. The more a team acknowledges and respects the diverse schedules and commitments of each member around deadlines and deliverables, the risk of internal competitiveness goes down and a higher degree of trust is fostered. What are ways managers can best shift the discussion from individual work-life balance to work-life integration for the whole team that positively impacts workplace effectiveness?
Earlier this year I read a statistic that in five years all our technical skills may be obsolete. While that may seem dramatic, it also made me think about management skills that may become obsolete with an increasing prevalence of virtual teams. Issues surrounding trust, understanding and using enterprise collaboration tools and transforming work-life conversations are just some of the areas where skills need to evolve.

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