Virtual Teams Need High Tech, High Process and High Touch Leaders
The traditional way of managing teams doesn’t work with virtual teams. Virtual teams despite (or because of) all the technology are regularly crippled by:
- conflict between team members
- poor communications
- ineffective collaboration
- little cohesion
- inefficient processes
- declining interest and commitment.
In summary, they are poorly managed.
Virtual Teams: Leaders Build a Foundation
Why are virtual teams poorly managed? Because the leaders of virtual teams ignore the unique leadership demands of virtual teams. Or they assume the technology will take care of the leadership demands. So they start work without building the special foundation that virtual teams require. That foundation has three components:
- High Tech Leadership that can select the correct technologies for each team & project
- High Process Leadership that can design and enforce the right processes for decision-making
- High Touch Leadership that builds trust and understanding among team members.
Those components are nice for any team but they are essential for a virtual team. The leader of a virtual team must be both a high tech leader and a high touch leader to succeed. (John Naisbett, “High Tech High Touch”). They must be actively involved with the communications technology the team uses. The leader must install, monitor and enforce communication processes. The entire team should participate in setting these rules. The leader of a virtual team also has to be a high touch manager. They need to focus on the relationships they have with the team members and the relationships the team members have with each other. Fostering strong social connections between the team members is the basis for trust and effective collaboration.
Virtual Teams: Leader Implementation
These ideas make the case for a different kind of team leadership and management. Multi-tasking is certainly one of the requirements for success. Let’s consider the steps a virtual team leader must take.
The leader begins by selecting the technology platform for the virtual team. Data from the Economist states that videoconferencing is a standard tool among the more successful virtual teams. There is a lot of videoconferencing software available. The leader has to choose between the offerings of WebEx, Microsoft Skype, GoToMeeting, and many others. The technological choices don’t stop there. The leader has to select the kind of email, chat, blog or Twitter/Facebook page is best suited to the team. Each of the alternatives has advantages and disadvantages. So the selection of the technology platform is of major importance. It’s the vehicle on which the team will collaborate (more on that later).
Another initial step is the design of the processes the virtual team will use. It’s not like a co-located team that meets in the third floor conference room. There the leader can assume that the processes for information exchange, collaboration and decision-making will automatically happen. With a virtual team, they won’t happen automatically or effectively. The leader has to lay down some rules. These are simple, common sense ideas that have to be enforced. The leader might choose a completed staff work concept. That means no items are discussed in a virtual meeting that have not been put on the agenda. And team members must have received supporting documentation for the items. The leader has to enforce that rule, “If it’s not on the agenda we don’t talk about it.”
The leader also might have a rule about responding to people’s phone calls or emails within six business hours. Because the virtual team is not located together, members of the team don’t know if a fellow team member is out of the office. A virtual team member must follow the process rules for responding to phone messages or emails. The team leader also enforces that process. These rules and others like them must be developed with the team members’ participation. Compliance won’t happen without it. The team must agree that they need these rules to make the virtual team function properly.
Finally and most importantly, the team leader has to build the foundation in which people can collaborate efficiently. That requires that they have empathy (the ability to share someone else’s feelings) for the other team members. They must be able to understand “where the other team members are coming from.” That requires a fairly high level of familiarity with the team members as people. It’s certainly a lot easier to develop that kind of familiarity and get to know the other team members if they all work in the same office. But they don’t and they won’t have effective collaboration if the team members don’t trust one another. That trust must be built on knowing the other people on a personal level, as people. This is the most difficult role for the virtual team leader. He or she must have a relationship with each of the team members. They must also be able to lead the team through interpersonal processes so the team members develop empathy for each other. From empathy they can build trust. And with trust the team members can collaborate effectively. This is the key to excellent team performance and the role of the virtual team leader.
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