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Techniques for Leading Virtual and Hybrid Teams with Confidence

Introduction – The current state of leadership

To be an effective leader of a virtual or hybrid work team you have to do exactly the same things as the leader of an in-person team. You just have to do them better! And, rather than view virtual as a temporary necessity, you must embrace it as a new way of working.

When you are with people in person, some aspects of team formation happen naturally. When a significant portion of a leader’s job happens automatically, it is easier for them to appear competent at doing it. The minimum standard that needs to be met is low. The good news is that leading virtually requires many of the same sensibilities and skills as leading in person. The bad news is that if you struggled previously, you will find this new arrangement even more challenging.

The Great Resignation and trends like “quiet quitting” were driven, at least in part, by the same phenomenon: A critical leadership skill shortage. Consultants have been quick to explain away managers’ deficiencies due to “unprecedented” circumstances. My perspective on this, however, is that this is the job. If the situation changes, you must adapt to it and not make excuses. So my advice to leaders is you better get good at it and fast. But how? Here are some of the techniques that I developed over my 13 years working in and leading virtual global teams.

Treat people like grown-ups

Trust your people. To make virtual teams successful, you must treat people like grown-ups. Over monitoring, tech-enabled surveillance and micromanagement are destructive to team morale in any environment. There will be people who, when provided with more latitude and flexibility, will abuse this privilege. But don’t manage everyone based on these outliers. If you are hiring, incentivizing and managing properly, the non-performers will become apparent and these cases should be very few. 

Don’t fixate on whether people are online or not

Develop team ground rules for response times that are appropriate for your team. These habits will develop and norm over time. Recognize that people will be offline during non-working hours and don’t make them feel like they have to respond urgently at all times. This causes burnout and makes basic prioritization more difficult. You will also have people who prefer to shift their working hours to enable them to focus more and get more done when fewer people are online.

Build team cohesion through small group meetings

One of the best ways to foster team bonding is to encourage and arrange small group interactions, especially one-on-one meetings where people can get to know each other and learn each other’s work styles. It is possible to do virtual team building! One easy virtual team building activity for new teams is a “Slide About Me” activity where people take turns sharing personal photos, logos from past employers or schools, favorite hobbies or any details they want to include. Another is to do online trivia games with a site like Jackbox.tv as a team while in a Zoom or Teams room. Just make sure you practice ahead of time to ensure the experience is smooth for everyone.

Create a “benefit of the doubt” or “assume best intentions” culture

On collaborative virtual teams, people give each other the “benefit of the doubt.” This means that when a conflict arises, before reacting or getting upset, you should assume that that person had a good reason. Be curious instead of judgemental. Be flexible and forgiving. You will likely appreciate the same courtesy afforded to you at some point. On strong teams, people defend each other and they assume their teammate had good intentions, even if they’ve fallen short in their eyes.

Address unresponsiveness privately

Even on globally diverse teams it is easy to tell whether someone is disengaged and not responding within a reasonable timeframe. Don’t obsess about whether they are online at a particular moment. Instead, look at their overall presence over a longer period like a week or two. If they’re frequently difficult to reach, and this has become an issue for you or for other team members, address this with them privately. And, importantly, don’t scold or criticize. Give them the benefit of the doubt as to why they haven’t responded sooner. Don’t assume or accuse, just inquire. There may be a number of reasons for apparent unresponsiveness. For example, other priorities, language/translation issues, cultural reasons such as a local holiday, or a personal matter like a health or caregiving issue. Being curious will prevent you from accidentally coming down too hard on someone that may have a valid excuse and damaging a relationship unnecessarily.

Be strategic about how you communicate

The most obvious leadership skill gap that led to breakdowns during Covid was communication. You cannot lead effectively in person if you are bad at this. And you definitely cannot succeed as a virtual leader unless your communication skills are strong. It helps to revisit the definition of communication: A message needs to be received and understood by the recipient. Only then has communication actually taken place. People send a lot of messages and it does not necessarily mean they have communicated effectively. Most managers are not strategic about how they communicate. For most, communication = email. A more skilled communicator will consider their message and their goals, and then decide on the most appropriate method, channel or forum to communicate that message.

Be careful with social media and internal forums

Do not try to manage primarily through Slack or Teams. With any digital message the tone can be misinterpreted. If you’re struggling to communicate with someone on your team, switch to live phone conversations or video calls instead of sending emails or other digital messages. Another risk of internal social channels is that they can waste time for your team. For example, I often observed that when a manager shared something on Teams, everyone felt compelled to post “performative” responses. This can inadvertently spur competitive posturing within the team. So before you post something, think “Do I really want my people spending time responding to this?”

Create a tiered communication model based on urgency

Create a model so your team knows which communication channels to use for which types of messages. In organizations now, people have multiple inboxes: email, groups in social channels, private messages in social channels, texts to their mobile phone. It can be difficult to keep track of them all even for those who are highly conscientious. Identify which channels people should use for which types of communications. This model will be very useful for new joiners as well. Take into consideration local laws about contacting employees via email after business hours. You can also schedule messages to send later on. This approach will help ensure that your team is communicating safely and effectively.

Minimize interruptions

Years ago I worked for a company where instant messaging was overused. It was common for people to have three instant message windows with live conversations running at the same time. On the positive side, it was great to get fast responses, but it favored the urgent over the important. I was interrupted many times throughout the day. It was hard for me to stay focused on my main priorities because I was so frequently derailed by others’ urgent requests (that weren’t really urgent.) Some people love multitasking, while others find these interruptions disruptive. 

Solicit ongoing feedback about communication preferences

Just like with the example above, it’s helpful to understand people’s individual communication preferences. For example, some people are great at brainstorming and they enjoy thinking on their feet. They would love it if someone came into their office to bounce ideas off them. Others prefer to carefully read and prepare ahead of time so they can formulate their thoughts. Some people are not comfortable being on camera and would prefer to use audio only. Do your best to respect these preferences. No system is perfect, so it’s important that you ask continuously how it is working and adjust where needed.

Hold regular check ins, and do not cancel them

As a leader, you should hold regular one-on-one meetings with all team members that you do not cancel except under urgent circumstances. I worked for a manager who always double booked their calendar and decided which meeting to attend on the fly. On average 3 out of 4 of my one-on-ones with them were canceled at the last minute. Not only did it make me feel that I was a very low priority for them, it had operational impacts because I couldn’t get questions answered efficiently. It slowed my learning and led to misunderstandings. I also felt disconnected from the team because I missed announcements that would have been shared with me during my one-on-one.

Be respectful of people’s time

Do not have a meeting unless you absolutely need to. If you can get your answer via email, send an email. If you can accomplish something in 15 minutes, don’t block an hour. And always include an agenda or purpose with a short description for the meeting. Be discerning about which tasks have value and which ones are a waste of time. There’s no quicker way to lose the respect of your team than by asking them to do “make work” or pointless tasks. If you’ve gotten an answer to a question or the situation has changed and the meeting is no longer needed, cancel it. If you complete the meeting before the full time you reserved has elapsed, let everyone go early. When I worked virtually, it was much less common to be pulled into unnecessary meetings compared to when I worked in an office. Respecting people’s time is a key part of being a good colleague.

Share the burden and inconvenience of time differences

Understand time zones. Sometimes it’s impossible to schedule meetings if people are spread across the globe. There should be some give-and-take regarding meeting at a convenient time. Sometimes you may have to meet at an inconvenient time for you, and other times, other people on the team are going to have to take the hit. True teamwork means that everybody shares the burden of having a globally distributed team. It helps to include your invitees in the planning process as well rather than just sending out an invitation with no explanation. You can present the situation to them and explain your dilemma to get their input. Sometimes people in other regions shift their work hours to align with the company headquarters where most of their colleagues work. Transparency and collaboration in situations like this will build trust as well. How would you feel if someone just sent you a random invite for 2am your time? 

Conclusion

Leading virtual and hybrid teams requires a proactive approach centered on trust, effective communication, and respect for individual preferences and boundaries. By embracing virtual work as the new normal and fostering a culture of autonomy and accountability, leaders can navigate the unique challenges of remote collaboration. Encouraging team bonding through small group interactions, assuming best intentions and strategically managing communication channels are essential for maintaining cohesion and productivity. Additionally, minimizing interruptions, respecting people’s time and promoting transparency in decision-making contribute to a positive virtual work environment where team members feel valued and supported. Through these practices, leaders can successfully lead virtual and hybrid teams towards shared goals while fostering a sense of connection and collaboration across distances.

About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 30 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

About Jeremy Kestler

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