3 Steps to Managing Virtual Teams Effectively

Virtual work is the new normal. As technology continues to advance and remote work becomes common practice, leaders are faced with a unique challenge: How do you lead from afar? How do you guide team members to be their very best when you aren’t there to work with them face to face?

When my son was younger, he earned a spot on a Junior A hockey team in Pittsburgh at the age of 18. As I watched the game, I noticed the teammates were shouting out something to one another, so afterward, I asked my son what was going on. He said, “On the ice we can’t see the defense because they are behind us, so we yell at one another, ‘I got your back.’” He explained that in order to build trust on the ice, three things have to take place:

- Have a playbook designed to strengthen players’ skills both on and off the ice.
- Players stick to their own position and know the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates. This holds everyone accountable and allows the players to have each other’s backs on the ice.
- Each player must know there are no solo artists or silos on the team, but there is team etiquette both on and off the ice.  

Leading a team virtually is much like hockey—leaders must learn to champion a set of value-centric skills that require a level of trust, such as communicating powerfully and effectively, building relationships, being creative and innovative, managing projects and processes, making decisions and solving problems, taking responsibility and holding each other accountable, and setting goals and delivering results.

As a leader, you can learn these skills easily by implementing three guidelines that will allow you to get the most out of your virtual team:

1. Develop a leadership playbook.
An effective leadership playbook will guide you on how to lead teams virtually. I’ve had the privilege to work with C-suite executives, managers, supervisors, direct reports, and high-potentials, and all levels developed their own personal playbook as a guideline for growth for virtual teams.   

In hockey, a playbook identifies the coach and players positions, and the same can be used in for the workplace. To create a playbook, use a spreadsheet (like the one below) that has the names of the people on your team and columns that provide SMART goals: those that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Work with each team member individually to develop short- and long-term SMART goals that will help him or her succeed.


This playbook provides leaders an opportunity to focus attention on the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and their team members. As you develop a playbook, begin familiarizing yourself with your strengths and weaknesses, and learn how your team views you. Because all team members have individual needs, begin adapting your leadership for each person so they feel their needs are met even though you aren’t there to guide them in person.

Playbooks allow leaders to get to know the different communication styles of each team member. Find out what words they use to express themselves when they’re excited about something or feel frustrated. Identifying their speech patterns and understanding the questions they ask can show you where their focus is and allow you to redirect and facilitate as needed.

2. Be interpersonally aware and learn how to express it virtually.
Interpersonal awareness is the ability to show your team that you understand their needs, manage your own emotions, and intentionally listen to issues and engage. Listening and responding to feedback builds trust among teams and shows that the leader cares about their input. In a word, it’s all about empathy.

To be interpersonally aware requires continual growth of your own emotional intelligence: a comprehensive understanding of your own strengths and areas of development, as well as managing your own emotions and the emotions of others.

To build your interpersonal awareness, it’s essential to understand that behavior and perceptions are powerful. Take the DiSC Assessment to get a snapshot of perceptions and behavior styles of yourself and those of your team members. Understanding individuals and their perspective of you as their leader explains why we do what we do, why some get on our nerves and why some are slower paced than others.

3. Implement virtual etiquette.
Establishing virtual best practices for every meeting, whether they are one-on-one meetings or with the whole team, is essential. Setting clear expectations with your team about their performance and productivity needs requires a few guidelines. Here are few I have used that have proven to keep a meeting or even a coaching session productive:  

Email the team (or individual) a detailed agenda, with names by each item to be discussed.

- Stick to the timeline on the agenda, holding your team to this is critical. It builds trust and keeps the conversation flowing.

- Remind everyone to make themselves known when they are on the call and to mute their phones while others are talking.  

- Train participants on how to use the technology your company uses for virtual meetings.

- Set ground rules to follow on every call, such as respecting others when they are speaking, staying on task, allowing others time to finish speaking before asking questions, and being careful not to interrupt. Email these out as a reminder every time you send out an invite for a meeting.

- Finally, keep the call on topic. You may have to table great ideas that may not pertain to what’s being discussed, but remember to address them later so they aren’t forgotten. Keep a log of ideas or suggestions mentioned so you can go back and discuss them further later. You can also email this list out to the team or individual as a sign of engagement.

Building and maintaining trust is no easy task, especially when you aren’t working with your team face-to-face each day. As a leader, engaging in the conversations and ridding yourself of any and all distractions will strengthen your team and help them grow. Use your leadership playbook to identify styles of communication and adapt to your team members’ needs. Jot down your virtual etiquette techniques as well, and you’ll be well on your way to building an efficient, high-potential virtual team.

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Julia Crews is former head of training and leadership development at Panasonic Automotive. She developed leaders within Turner Broadcasting at CNN for more than 14 years and was a keynote speaker for Women Leaders in Automotive 2017. She founded Ignite Women Leaders and has three children, all of whom are leaders in their careers.