Six Skills You Need for Leading Virtual Teams

See also: Team-Working Skills

A virtual team is a group of people that work together on common goals and projects but do not sit together, and so communicate electronically rather than face-to-face – although they may occasionally meet in person.

Virtual team members are sometimes homeworkers located in neighbouring towns but often they are based in offices across borders and continents.

Virtual team working is notoriously challenging and it is often quoted that 50% of virtual teams fail to meet their objectives – and even when virtual teams do meet their objectives they very often don’t want to work together again. 

You might assume that if you have led teams before you will be able to manage a virtual team without any problem but it takes a highly skilled team leader to be able to build, manage and maintain a successful virtual team. You will need all those skills you developed when managing face-to-face teams – and a whole lot more.

The absence of those informal opportunities to collaborate or those water cooler moments where colleagues share a joke and build rapport means that it is much harder to build trust and create a sense of common purpose and engagement in virtual teams. The virtual manager needs to dedicate more time, energy and resources to establishing good relationships throughout the team, not only between themselves and the rest of the team but also between colleagues.

So what specific skills are needed when leading a virtual rather than a co-located team?

1. Transparent Communication

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

Excellent communication skills are essential for virtual team leaders who don’t have the luxury of face-to-face communication but instead have to rely much more on text or voice only communication.

Without the benefits of non-verbal cues it can be much harder to interpret the real intention of what is being said and know what the speaker is really thinking. As a virtual team manager you must ensure that your communication is clear and unambiguous and that you make sure not only that you fully understand your team but that you are understood yourself.

Here are some tips for virtual communication:

  • Communicate regularly and frequently but don’t overload your team with information.  Very long emails or online meetings should be avoided
  • Make time for regular one-to-one communication with individual team members as well as group emails and meetings.  Picking up the phone to see how someone is doing is usually appreciated and is certainly the best method if you have something sensitive to discuss
  • Paraphrase and summarise when you are giving complicated instructions and check back that you have been understood
  • Particularly with new team members be wary of using jargon or acronyms that they may not understand
  • Listen attentively and be ready to read between the lines.  Ask the right questions to check that you have understood

More essential communication skills from SkillsYouNeed:

2. Patience

Working virtually is challenging. Technology can let you down, response times may be longer if you are working across time zones and a lack of face-to-face communication can make it so much harder to interpret the real message.

You may also have language and cultural barriers to manage.  Particularly in the early stages of your virtual team, you are going to have to flex your patience muscle: things will take longer, interpersonal irritations and upsets may well occur, people won’t always say what they really think, meetings won’t always go to plan and you will need to remain positive and focused on achieving your goals. 

You are likely to need a lot of patience!

3. Rapport-Building

Virtual teams risk losing the human element of the workplace and so their leaders need to be highly skilled in building relationships and creating good rapport with their team members.

Make sure you allow time for the team to get to know a little more about each other’s personal lives and factor in a few minutes small talk at the start of meetings – and don’t be afraid to share a joke. Remember that your team are human beings so from time to time check in on how they are feeling as well as what they are doing and engage sensitively when a team member is experiencing personal or professional challenges.

A regular quarterly or even annual face-to-face meeting will help enormously to build positive team relationships. And do make sure you use any face-to-face time wisely and focus on team-building activities rather than on updates and reporting that can just as easily be done at a distance.

For more information see our page: Building Rapport.

4. Results-Focus

Of course, all team leaders need to focus on results but one of the challenges of managing a virtual team is that you can’t see what people are doing or monitor their performance in the same way and so you can only really manage, measure and reward based on outcomes and results.

When managing virtual teams it is crucial to have clear individual accountabilities in place with agreed methods of monitoring and measuring performance.

5. Intercultural Skills

Tolerance, intercultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where people are becoming more and more closely interconnected.

Kofi Annan

If you manage a virtual team the chances are that it is also an international team with members located across cultures and time zones. 

This means you will need to navigate values, communication styles and working preferences that may be at odds with your own or with other team members’. 

Virtual team leaders need to manage multiple perspectives and decode different cross-cultural styles so that they can get the best from their individual team members and also maximise the diversity of the team as a whole.

Be prepared to listen and learn about other cultural norms and move beyond nationality stereotypes. If colleagues in one location never seem to deliver on time, don’t jump to conclusions but consider how milestones and deadlines are managed, how much support they are getting and if instructions are clear and accessible.

If another colleague rarely contributes during online meetings, think about how the meeting is managed, if more materials could be circulated ahead of the meeting, and whether they need additional language support – and make sure you make time to speak to them one-to-one.

See our page: Intercultural Communication for more information.

6. Technology Skills

The more elaborate our means of communication the less we collaborate.

Joseph Priestly

Virtual teams rely on technology to interact with each other and share information and as the team manager you need to lead by example and demonstrate excellent technical skills.

You want to be able to select the right tools and platforms for your team and match each task or interaction type to the most appropriate mode of communication.  And it goes without saying that you should be a competent user and be able to stay calm and trouble-shoot when technology lets you down.

Select a relatively small number of tools that can be used regularly and consistently but also be aware of how individual team members prefer to communicate.  You might find you get a faster response from some colleagues by using an Instant Chat function while others prefer the human contact of a quick Skype call.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

Virtual team working is becoming increasingly common yet many teams struggle to perform effectively.

Virtual team managers need to consider how they adapt and expand their skills to adjust to the lack of human interaction – they need additional skills but they also need to be aware of how and when they use the skills they have.

Successful virtual leaders and project managers are going to be in demand!

About the Author

Cathy Wellings is the Director of The London School of International Communication which provides training to organisations and their people to help them work more effectively across borders and cultures.

Cathy is an intercultural and global leadership trainer with many years’ experience of working internationally – both face-to-face and virtually.