Leading virtual teams. Say what??


If you have ever worked with virtual teams you know how challenging it may be to cooperate with someone you don’t know in person.

The thing is that you don’t know the attitude of the people working with you in such circumstances, you don’t know their faces, their mimics, etc. You have no clue whether they are nodding their heads while saying “yes” to your request/question. You don’t know how they feel about the current situation. Because many of them will never be completely honest with you, they will try to hide certain things. Whether on purpose or not.

Sounds familiar?

I have worked with virtual teams for the past few years. These were people from all around the world, coming from different backgrounds, cultures, beliefs, with various stereotypes, sometimes unfounded stereotypes. Yep.

As a project manager, I had a pleasure to lead multiple teams and bring together all various personalities, be it specialists or vice presidents, from all the time zones, starting with New York, ending up in Singapore,

It wasn’t an easy task to manage virtual meetings while having so many different people on the call. What kind of difficulties one may have during such meetings, you will ask. Well, imagine one of the following scenarios:

  • You have a list of items to be agreed upon by members of your meeting, there are specific deadlines to each item, You don’t hear any objection nor disagreement during the meeting. Everyone seems pleased by the outcome. You end up the call. It seems John is unhappy with the deadline the group established. He just didn’t want to make a burden out of it during the call. But he’s telling you NOW. He won’t make it by Thursday. He’s way too busy with other stuff. Period.
  • There is this new small project to be carried out by your team and you are meeting with the folks to catch up on details. Several locations are involved. Everyone seems to understand the details but you ask if all is clear. Just in case. Then you ask again. Just in case. All clear. All perfect. Awesome… It turns out a couple of hours later that one group of people attending the meeting have no clue how to proceed. They didn’t admit there was lack of understanding while the specialist was explaining the procedure. It is not well seen in their culture. They will never openly admit they don’t know something. Like ever.

I could go on like this forever 😉 But let me keep something spicy for later… And btw, these are real life examples. Just so you know.

What do these examples show? Let me give you a metaphore:

When you go for a blind dinner (you know what I’m talking about, right?) and you don’t see the food on your plate, your other senses are being developped. You tend to use your nose and fingers more than usually. You discover a new way of experiencing food.

Working with people you normally don’t see… moreover, working with people you don’t know in person, may be treated as an analogy, IMO. You will just have to develop other soft skills.

Some good practices which worked very well (from my observation):

  • Whenever possible, go and meet the people you work with. There’s nothing better than putting the name to the face in business. Direct contact allows better communication and help building stronger relationships. I know, not always possible. Especially if your team is dispersed all around the world.
  • Use technology.
  1. Companies, such as CISCO (no, I’m not getting any benefits out of it ;)), provide excellent solutions for your virtual meetings. You will feel as if you were all sitting in the same room.
  2. The example presented above being costly, try using what’s available and for free. Solutions offered by Google, Webex or Skype (for instance) are not that bad either.(Bear in mind phone is not enough. People will appreciate more if you make a little more effort and try to connect them in an unusual way).
  • Share your desktop with the participants. Show them graphs, notes, Excel files, etc. Some people don’t hear well what is being discussed. Furthermore, if your audience is multinational and the official language in your company is English, do not assume everything will be well understood by everyone. People have different accents, intonations. Likewise, do not use jargon or colloquialisms which are less known. 
  • Once in a while check with your audience if all is clear or if anything need to be repeated/explained. Ask especially those who are very quiet.
  • Be natural but also use humour. It’s a good practice to start your call with a small talk. Get to know your participants better. I used to attend meetings where the chairman greeted everyone in their mothertongue. A very cool ice-braker.
  • Organize team building activities from time to time. It’s important to build and maintain strong relationships.
  • Never let a problem escalate to bigger extent. Act quickly. Offer your help to resolve the conflict. Don’t sweep the problems under the carpet. They will resurface sooner than you think. Bigger than you expect.
  • Use your emotional intelligence. Trust your guts but ask questions. If you feel someone agreed to the Friday deadline because they felt forced by the group, check with them if the timelines are indeed feasible. People tend to be more open when approached individually.
  • Check beforehand whether people will be attending you meeting. The same applies to their “homework”. If someone was supposed to present a report on your Wednesday meeting, ask them on Monday if they are still good to go or need any help from you. In such a way, you will ensure you’ve got all you need for your meeting and you will save up your participants’ time. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than waiting for the key note speaker or key decision maker who eventually never shows up. It’s your responsibility to make sure they are there. On time. If they are not, you should know about it and inform other participants. Think ahead, prevent that from happening.
  • Send agenda prior to the meeting. Everyone likes to know what will be discussed and whether they are indeed needed on the call. Nowadays, we are all extremely busy and try to save up time whenever possible. Respect that.
  • Take notes/minutes of the call which you will send after each meeting. People tend to forget what has been discussed/decided. Keep track of all documentation. In case of misunderstanding, you will be fully covered.
  • Always, always, always be polite in your communication. Remember that written word has a huge power. It will never be forgotten. Also, your intentions might not be read the same way you intended. Cultural or emotional aspects may impact the way people receive the message. Always greet the recipients of your messages. Ask how they are doing. These simple words completely change the way your communication is perceived.
  • Bear in mind different time zones and bank holidays in the home countries of your colleagues. It’s crucial you know if the participants are morning or evening persons. Imagine you set up a call at 8am New York time and the manager who is a decision maker hates waking up early. You lost. Forget about the posiitive outcome of your meeting. See my point?

It is important to know some basics before you start leading virtual teams , especially the ones geographically dispersed. A good workshop around cultural differences should be considered, too. If I was to give one piece of advice, I’d tell you to get to know your colleagues better. No, seriously. If you’re friendly and proactive, they will notice your good will and will have a positive attitude towards your person and your meetings. After all, it’s all about leadership, not management. Sometimes you don’t manage directly your teams so your “power” is limited and you have to use some tricks in order to be a smart leader. These good practices presented above should help you as a starting point. The rest is in your hands. Good luck! 🙂