Building a business from scratch is no simple task, something I’m reminded of every day at Claurete as we design, make, and deliver the highest-quality jewelry with great customer service to back it up. This is especially true when I think of how I communicate with our team of talented people – some in-house, some remote - to make it all happen.
This is especially relevant for me because I’m often out of the office at meetings and events, meaning I wind up communicating virtually even with my in-house staff a lot of the time.
In comparing notes with other established leaders and entrepreneurs in the business community, I found that a lot of them rely on virtual teams to get the job done, like I do. It definitely has its challenges. Communication and leadership are just different when you’re not in the same room, and the usual methods of keeping morale and productivity up don’t always work.
Once you’ve had direct exposure managing both in-house and remote team members, you develop a reference point between the two. Communication, leadership, and productivity differ quite a bit between the two setups.
After speaking with people at a variety of companies from start-ups to multinational firms about this, I realized that for most of them they don’t really appreciate the difference between in-person and remote leadership.
So when I connected with Claire Sookman, founder of virtual teams training firm Virtual Team Builders, and chatted about virtual team members, I thought, “Why not share some insights that could benefit managers and leaders who have faced similar challenges to mine, saving them time and trial and error?”
So, I sat Claire down for an interview to talk (almost) everything businesses of any size need to know about virtual teams:
Separating Fact from Fiction in Virtual Teams
CK: Tell me a bit about leading virtual teams. In your experience, why is it harder than people assume?
CS: It’s not that it’s harder – just that it’s different. The problem is that people assume it’s the same as working side-by-side, when in fact you need to master a different set of communication skills.
CK: So, someone who just starts working remotely, or leading a remote team, will probably experience things like miscommunication, inefficiency and missed deadlines, but not realize why?
CS: Exactly. It’s amazing how 89% of employees report working virtually at least some of the time, and yet 50% of virtual teams fail to meet their objectives.
CK: That tracks with what I hear a lot from other entrepreneurs.
CS: I’m not surprised. These challenges exist because we don’t take the time to train our leaders on how to work virtually.
CK: So, what’s the biggest issue you see when training virtual teams?
CS: Creating an us-versus-them mentality. There are a lot of culprits here, with team meetings being one of the easiest for most employees to relate to. I mean, there are so many memes about terrible team meetings out there for a reason.
Imagine a virtual meeting where some people are sitting around a conference table while others join remotely. Everyone sitting together can make eye contact, gesture, and have side conversations, putting the remote participants at a major disadvantage.
CK: I see how this can be problematic.
CS: And it shows in the results. Remote participants will automatically feel disconnected and disengaged from the rest of the team. They’ll start to multitask. Attrition goes up, morale goes down… it’s a problem that can erode trust.
CK: I’ve also heard a lot of people talk about multitasking and how it can be a real problem if not handled well by the team lead.
CS: That’s another killer virtual team leads need to watch out for. It’s pretty counterproductive. Even though we all do it, no one of us do it well, and it costs corporations over $450 billion per year in lost productivity.
Virtual Teams Need Fairness and Trust
CK: So, what’s the fix?
CS: First, have everyone on the same level playing field. This means that in meetings, if even one person joins virtually, the n everybody does – and encourage everyone to stay off mute. When you are off mute, you’re less likely to multitask.
Also, as a team leader, you need to be consciously aware of eliciting feedback and engagement by engaging your team with interactive conversation every 5 minutes or every 3 slides. Don’t give them a chance to slip into a passive mindset
CK: I see, this is a really nice solution. But, what about a team lead with both in house and virtual team members, do you recommend they conduct separate meetings?
CS: No, the team needs to work as one. What’s important is making sure the meeting is equitable, that everyone is interacting the same way.
CK: What else can get in the way of virtual teams meeting their objectives?
CS: Failed leadership. So many companies put their senior staff in a virtual leadership role with inadequate training, or no training at all. That’s why you only 15% of virtual leads rate themselves as very effective, and just 53% as moderately effective.
CK: Wow. And failed leadership can also lead to…
CS: Lack of trust.
CK: [laughing] Absolutely, lack of trust can be a direct factor as a result of failed leadership. Claire, do you mind elaborating on this point? A lot of leaders may not follow what we mean by this.
CS: Trust is the foundation of a high-functioning team, virtual or otherwise – it’s the glue that holds the team together. It can take four times as long for virtual teams to build trust compared to people working face-to-face, and international teams with a cultural divide can take up to 17 weeks for that team to perform as well as a face-to-face team.
CK: Trust between team members is a determining factor that leads to the success of the company. Would you say there is a secret formula of going about it?
CS: [laughing] I wouldn’t say there’s just one right way, but virtual leadership best practices can help bridge those gaps much more quickly and effectively.
CK: I see, what are some examples?
CS: Spend time building interpersonal trust – people essentially want to get to know who other people are as individuals, not just their work persona. Find things in common. Talk about non-work topics. Everything you’d naturally do at the proverbial water cooler in a traditional office.
Effective Leadership in Virtual Teams
CK: That makes sense. Alright, moving onto more leadership-focused stuff – how is managing different when your team is virtual rather than face-to-face?
CS: In a virtual environment, you’re often communicating without body language. You’re interpreting the message via tone of voice, pitch, word choice, or even just words on a screen.
CK: Yep. I’ve definitely had to come up with strategies to manage that in my company.
CS: Let’s take a classic example: you’re having a virtual meeting, you pause for feedback or questions, and are faced with silence. Nobody’s talking. That silence could mean so many things, from “I stepped away” to “I agree” to “I’m still processing and need more time to reflect.”
Often, our first instinct is to think that silence means your staff are disengaged. It’s a dangerous assumption that encourages us to get into that us-versus-them mindset, where “they” aren’t pulling their weight and you’re the only one putting in effort.
It’s important to remember that while research says 76% of virtual workers report colleagues who don’t participate as a major problem, the reasons for that lack of participation is just a symptom, not the problem.
CK: So how do you figure out what the silence means?
CS: This is an easy one: ask your team directly.
CK: [laughing] Best method is to never assume and just ask, right?
CS: That’s it. A simple statement like “I’m hearing silence now and I am not sure what it’s all about. John, what are your thoughts?”
Also, let everyone know at the start of a meeting that you will call them by name for input. Set the expectation early and reinforce it over time.
Maintaining Productivity in Virtual Teams
CK: Great insights, Claire. Moving on, I hear from entrepreneurs that productivity is a concern on their virtual teams. What’s your experience?
CS: Virtual teams can be equally as productive as their face-to-face counterparts.
CK: Absolutely, part of it goes back to finding what motivates a team member, whether it’s a face-to-face relationship or a virtual one. But it’s also much more than just that.
CS: The important thing is to identify where gaps can occur. What makes a virtual team successful is the ability to collaborate effectively from a distance, as well as use technology effectively.
CK: Right, a statement I hear quite often from my tech entrepreneur friends, is how tech can make or break it. What may be a solution, can often influence a team member and not always in the best way. What are your thoughts on that?
CS: Technology helps us collaborate, which is critical in a virtual environment. Yet, there is a common misconception that if we only had the right technology in place and our teams know how to use it, then our team will be effective. In fact, technology is only 10% of the equation. The other 90% is people.
CK: But it is an important 10%, right?
CS: Absolutely – so let’s look at that first. I often hear that teams have the right technology, but don’t use it to the fullest advantage. I can’t tell you how many teams use Slack for instant messaging, but don’t set up separate channels for different projects, meaning every conversation is either in the main group chat or just one-on-one. It’s incredibly inefficient.
CK: And this must have an impact on building those trusted relationships we discussed earlier, right?
CS: Technology can either act as a barrier to collaborating with your team members or it can enhance your connections. I like to focus on the latter.
For example, while you are waiting for people to join a meeting invite everyone to share either via chat or on the whiteboard a tip or website they came across that could benefit the rest of team, this simple activity can help build a stronger, more collaborative virtual team.
Building an Effective Virtual Teams Framework
CK: I am sure a lot of our readers would find comfort in knowing it’s possible to have a high-performing, close-knit virtual team. So. my next question for you is, how do you transition someone to become a great virtual manager?
CS: Here is a short example: There’s a professor at the University of Georgia, Kristen Shockely, who does some interesting research in this area. Her advice to companies should never just blindly permit telecommuting. They need to re-evaluate policies around performance reviews, measuring work output, and salary increases to make sure they don’t accidentally favor on-site workers. It’s a question of how to properly monitor people you can’t see directly.
CK: And the goal is to make sure that team leads know how to make sure that all their employees feel valued and seen, regardless of their work setup.
CS: Very true. It feeds into one of the virtual worker’s greatest fear, which is being out of sight, out of mind. If I’m working virtually, will my manager know all the great things I’m doing and will I be rewarded?
CK: I see. Doesn’t this go back to building a results driven team? When I am working with my team, I pay attention to results. We rely on software like Trello for tracking growth and tasks, and weekly meetings where we communicate about our goals, and any setbacks someone might be experiencing.
Basically, open communication is a huge factor in our company.
My question for you Claire would be, how do virtual managers and workers strike that balance?
CS: Virtual leads need to establish communication strategies that reinforce their recognition and support of virtual staff, as well as respect their team’s off hours. At the same time, employees need to take responsibility on their en by cultivating effective routines, setting between work and personal life, and making an extra effort to strengthen connections with their team.
CK: Exactly the kind of soft skills most companies overlook when implementing new policies like telecommuting.
CS: It can lead to major problems down the road.
Problem-Solving in Virtual Teams
CK: Sometimes you don’t even realize something is a problem until it’s too late, because it’s not physically right in front of you. Which I am sure a lot of team leads have experienced at one point in their careers.
CS: Absolutely. Issues with communication, productivity, and overall resilience should be on every virtual manager’s radar to address proactively, not just sweep under the rug.
CK: What are some examples?
CS: We might see low participation in meetings. Frequent confusion or miscommunication. Conflict. Missed deadlines. Isolation and burnout, like we mentioned earlier.
Every virtual team is different so there’s no real one-size-fits-all approach, but open communication is a great place to start. If you see something, say something. Ask questions and really listen to your team’s feedback.
CK: Of course, I am sure it’s case by case.
CS: Correct. And, of course, proactive communication is good as well. Take the time early on to communicate and clarify the objectives up front, converse about everyone’s expectations, and your virtual team will save a lot of time, effort and even money.
Final Thoughts on Virtual Teams
CK: If there’s one piece of advice you wish every virtual team would follow, what would it be?
CS: Spend time building trust. We talked about it earlier, and I’ll say it again: trust is the glue that holds any team together. Every miscommunication and missed deadline undermines trust. Remember, building trust in an ongoing event, not a one-time event.
It can feel like time spent on this “soft” side of managing people is time wasted not working, but in reality, it’s an investment. The productivity, resilience and efficiency you’ll get over the long term makes focusing on trust is probably the most important thing a virtual manager can do.
CK: It’s the people that make the company. Great advice for any entrepreneur.
CS: Entrepreneur, start-up, multinational organization, virtual teams..
CK: haha so true. Claire, thank you for taking the time to speak with me about this.
CS: It was a pleasure.
Training for Virtual Teams and Leads
If you are interested in learning more about VTB, join Virtual Team Builders’ free upcoming webinar, Myth vs. Fact: The Virtual Truth, to get an in-depth look at the top three factors in virtual team success.