When I first came across this concept of ‘invisible team’, I instantly thought of the instance in Lord of the Rings when Aragorn has to go into battle with an immense army of ghosts. He does so wonderfully and they kick the behinds of some really bad looking creatures who want to destroy all nice life in Middle Earth.
Certainly, when we talk about virtual teams in the context of today’s corporate workplace we don’t refer to people who have moved to another dimension but to very real individuals who have to work in teams even if they are geographically separated and may have very diverse cultural backgrounds and belief systems.
Their leader, however, seems to need some of the fairy-tale characteristics of Tolkien’s majestic character in order to manage the team and deliver qualitative results, all the while respecting deadlines and company values.
Unfortunately, unlike in the story, there isn’t some magic sword to make everyone rally and march successfully towards the desired objective. Fortunately, there are some things a leader can do in order to be a real champion in this field.
Understand that virtual teams are unique
First and foremost, leaders need to understand how globally dispersed teams are different from the ones that share a workspace and come from more or less the same social and economic background.
The fact that team members don’t have face-to-face contact may be to some extent detrimental to the relationship. Even with all the technology in place, people still need some old-fashioned interaction so if possible, they ought to meet and interact in order to make later communication smoother.
Furthermore, it’s very important to mind the difference in values. This can be a major issue so it’s compulsory to provide the team with information and training on cultural diversity and how to approach it. Even the most open-minded individuals can have difficulties in understanding and accepting ideas or behaviors that seem strange to them.
It’s not a question of asking everybody to be sensible (and sensitive) when it comes to otherness, it requires an in-depth understanding of what this otherness means and it may be a lengthy process of acceptance.
Provide targeted support
Globally dispersed teams need a lot of support. It is a mistake to believe that people who accept a job in which they work remotely from their teammates wish to have absolute autonomy and appreciate being left alone on their projects. People need training and coaching in order to acquire and improve the skills necessary to carry out their tasks.
Read more: The DOs of training virtual global teams
Furthermore, it’s important that expectations are made very clear and that they are reasonable ones. The leader needs to act as a role model and practice what they preach. They should also strive to facilitate communication between their team members and upper management so that everyone is on the same page and knows where the organization is going and why.
Support is also translated into respecting individual differences and making allowances based on these as well as on the different time zones – some team members may not be able to attend certain calls or online meetings unless they take the time outside their work hours. It’s best to offer the alternative of being briefed at a later date or giving them time off in compensation.
Make a continuous effort to maintain inclusion
The second thing a leader should work on is ensuring all team members feel that they’re included. People need a sense of belonging and it doesn’t come naturally when they don’t interact face to face on a daily basis.
Sometimes online interaction can lead to rather awkward situations. After the EU elections, for example, my husband (who works in a global team) had an online meeting with several colleagues. He expressed his satisfaction with the results, the Polish colleagues also shared their opinion, the French one was a bit disappointed and the Egyptian colleague simply said, “it’s so good that you have free elections over there”. Whether he meant it or not, that put a graceless end to the entire conversation.
Of course, it’s not a business leader’s job to temper with the political situations but they have to come up with creative ways of bringing forth aspects that the team members have in common and can relate over. The sense of inclusion comes mostly from promoting empathy as the main way to communicate so encouraging everyone to be open and assertive is highly necessary.
Create an online work environment based on trust
Besides support and inclusion, dispersed team members also need trust. While this is also true for classic teams, it is a lot harder to mend broken faith when employees work remotely and can easily be unsatisfied for a long time before somebody takes notice.
In order to avoid this, communication has to be constant and very open. A truly skilled leader has to listen to what team members have to say and give them feedback and relevant information. They also have to put their own trust into the employees and give them the autonomy they need to feel genuinely empowered and valuable.
Decisions should be discussed whenever it’s possible and, on the occasions when this is not an option, they have to at least be thoroughly explained. The online working environment needs to be developed and grown in the spirit of assertiveness and collaboration.
It is not an easy task but ensuring that every team member is truly engaged and has a sense of belonging to the organization is key to running a successful virtual team.
To sum up
To sum it up, trust, inclusion, and support are the three pillars upon which any globally dispersed team has to rest in order to work well and achieve its objectives. It is the job of the leader to consolidate these colonnades and fix any cracks that may appear in them over time.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.