How to Build and Lead a Virtual Team in These Uncertain Times
Business Career

How to Build and Lead a Virtual Team in These Uncertain Times

virtual team
(Image: iStock/SDI Productions)

Now that it’s well into 2021, it’s evident that we won’t be switching back to the way things were before the COVID-19 pandemic. While industries are still adjusting to these uncertain times, that doesn’t mean businesses can’t flourish.

One way for your business to survive and thrive in this New Normal is to build and lead a virtual team.

That’s because virtual teams are incredibly beneficial to business owners, particularly those who have to make do with a very lean budget. These include the ability to tap talent from all over the world while significantly reducing your operating expenses.

However, building and leading a virtual team can also be challenging, especially for businesses that have followed traditional business models.

For starters, virtual team management involves processes that are entirely different from traditional business models.

In this article, you’ll learn how to build a virtual team and the best practices to observe so that your business can stay afloat—even survive—during these uncertain times.

Steps to Build a Virtual Team

1. Lay the Right Foundation

Before adopting a virtual team for your business, you first need to evaluate your business operations carefully.

The reason is that even though a virtual team can get things done, it’s not necessarily applicable to some types of business.

Laying the right foundation also requires a mindset change, especially if you’re used to physical work environments and traditional office setups.

You’ll also need to reset your current expectations because some of your workflow processes might not be appropriate or feasible in a virtual setup.

For example, if you measured your employees’ productivity based on the number of hours they work, shifting to a results-oriented working environment might be a better option.

2. Choose Your Virtual Team Model

Once you’ve laid the foundation, it’s time to decide which growth model you’re going to adapt for your virtual team. This will determine how you should organize your team.

Consider these two growth models:

The Independent Growth Model

In this model, team members work autonomously. By sharing your business goals, values, and principles with your virtual team, they can then independently decide what to prioritize to help reach goals within their respective teams.

You can choose between a workflow-based model or a metrics-based model that focuses on results.

The Functional Growth Model

In this model, team members report to a functional head of their team. This shows your employees which superior they should come to for support and direction.

You will need function heads to juggle their functional responsibilities and their responsibilities to drive the business forward.

3. Streamline Your Virtual Team Onboarding Process

Your virtual team’s first few weeks will determine how well your team will work together. Your virtual team members must know and understand their tasks. At the same time, they all need to be familiar with your processes.

More importantly, having a straightforward onboarding process ensures that quality of service and support your customers receive stays the same.

Your onboarding process can be a simple checklist new hires can refer to, or you can make it more elaborate complete with introductory videos and manuals.

During the onboarding process, introduce the new hires to team leaders they can talk to if they have any questions or simply need advice about work. This will make them feel welcome and tell them they’re supported right from the beginning.

Consider putting together an employee handbook that communicates vital information like your business goals, culture, and guidelines. Providing such a document ensures that everyone on the team is on the same page and will reduce or eliminate the amount of guesswork over processes.

4. Invest in the Right Tools

Business owners are responsible for ensuring their employees are well-equipped with the tools they need to do their jobs, especially when they’re not working on similar hardware like company-issued laptops.

Remember that your virtual team members will be working from within different environments with different internet speeds and using various devices. So, it’s essential that you provide them with resources that make it easy for each of your virtual team members to do their jobs.

You also need to make sure that you have tools in place that will allow you to check and communicate with your virtual team members.

Tools like Asana, Slack, and GSuite make it easy for you and your team to collaborate on specific tasks, even if they’re working in different time zones and locations.

Think of technology as the glue that will hold your team together while they’re physically far apart. After choosing the right tools and platforms, establish guidelines and workflow processes so that you can maximize their features.

It’s also a good idea to shop around for tools that make security a priority as your team will work across different networks that could leave your data vulnerable.

Virtual Team Leadership Best Practices

Once you have the people, technology, and structure in place, the way you lead will be crucial, especially as your team will be geographically distant from each other.

When leaders apply the same tactics they use for face-to-face management toward virtual teams, it almost always fails. Not only do virtual teams need entirely different management approaches, but the prevailing global uncertainty also needs to be addressed.

Here are ways to lead your virtual team during these times:

1. Set Expectations Right from the Start

It’s a good idea to revisit team roles and responsibilities, whether it’s a new team or you’re transitioning an in-office one to a virtual setup. This refreshes everyone with their duties and helps them keep it in mind as they adjust to the new work setup.

Communicating your business’ goals and values to your virtual team gives them a sense of belonging and direction as they work apart from their teammates.

Along with setting expectations for deliverables and results, encourage your team to set boundaries between work and home as well as healthy routines that will keep them in tip-top shape physically and mentally.

Make sure your employees know there’s nothing more important to you than their safety and well-being. Employees, during these times, look to their leaders to protect them as well as the business.

2. Over Communicate with Your Team

You can never communicate too much when you’re managing a virtual team. According to Deloitte, virtual work lowers team engagement by 80%. You can keep them engaged by checking in on how they’re doing and making yourself available online.

While you should over-communicate, you should also be strategic about it. Put a structure in place. Setup communication guidelines that specify who should communicate what information, plus where and when it should be expressed.

Instead of constant back-and-forths that could disrupt your employee’s workflow, schedule regular meetings and catch-ups instead.

Overall morale might not be very high, but you can augment this with intentional informal gatherings. Encourage your team to put virtual happy hours or get-togethers in their calendar. They’re crucial for engagement and morale, but won’t likely happen organically without your intervention.

Always keep your employees informed the best you can with company news and decisions. Keeping them up to speed will reduce feelings of fear and anxiety over their jobs as they do their work.

Communication also shows transparency, which tells your virtual team that you are empathetic to their situation and have a genuine concern for them.

3. Know When to Let Go

Hand-in-hand with over-communication, you also need to know when to let go and let your employees do their work.

If you empower your virtual team members to take the initiative, you’ll be surprised by what they’ll accomplish. Distributing responsibility keeps your team leaders from getting burnt out.

“To lead a virtual team, you must first trust them. This is even more paramount in this kind of setup,” according to Jamie Sheldon, owner of parcel mail forward company MyUKMailbox.

“When you trust your team, you also avoid being the bottleneck that keeps them from keeping the wheels of your business turning.”

To ensure that your employees are productive and focused without you having to keep an eye on them, you can set up a buddy coaching system where team members pair off to check in with each other regularly.

4. Be Open to Feedback

Communication is a two-way street. When you check in with your employees and let them know vital information related to their work and the company, you should also listen if they have something to say.

Encourage your team to give you feedback, seek clarifications, and ask questions to minimize possible errors due to miscommunication.

When you show how open you are to feedback and input, you tell your employees that you’re willing to listen and be flexible to their needs during these uncertain times.

Respond authentically to feedback. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability even with your team. In these uncertain times, moments of humanity remind us of all of our shared experiences.

Key Takeaways

These are uncertain times, yes, but they don’t have to be scary times. Businesses can thrive virtually if business owners and leaders acknowledge the different virtual work challenges instead of trying to apply traditional strategies where they do not fit.

Now, more than ever, it is time to be agile in adopting new technologies and new leadership styles to adjust to the new normal.

Ensure you’re also mindful of what your virtual team members are going through in the New Normal. Business success is inextricable from your employee’s trust in you.


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