In the world of global business, it’s likely you’re going to have to learn how to master the art of digital leadership at some point — whether that’s to manage an entire team of displaced freelancers, to communicate with other offices, or to outsource specific roles.
The word virtual sounds pretty scary. Speaking to a friend of mine, he said the idea of a virtual workforce made him feel panicked about “a lack of control”, in other words, he envisioned an army of computers taking over every aspect of his life.
So let’s just make something clear here, the virtual employees that I’m talking about are not robots, they’re real people who work remotely. That’s something important to bear in mind, as on many levels it’s not so different from working with regular employees.
It’s true that it is more difficult to connect with and trust someone who you mainly communicate with over email or on the phone, which is why I strongly advise everybody to “meet” with their virtual assistant on FaceTime or Skype at least once a week. If you’re trying to successfully build a sense of cohesion in a team that’s split between virtual and non-virtual employees this is even more crucial.
In the Harvard Business Review, Mark Mortensen identifies social distance as one of the central factors that can affect team dynamics as it can trigger a sense of “them vs. us”, he notes that “a shared sense of context, a shared understanding of not only what you do but how you do it and why, is a key driver of your ability to coordinate and collaborate.”
So as a leader it’s your job to unite the team through a shared vision, that they can understand not just as an abstraction, but individually too. Employees need their roles defined, just as they need to be able to understand how everyone else fits into the bigger picture. This will help to create a more effective working structure especially if you can include virtual employees in team meetings via Skype so that they contribute to discussions and update the office on their progress and achievements.
It can also be helpful to establish social platforms where your team can interact and get to know each other digitally. A Facebook group can work well, but if you want something more professional Trello is a really great, easy to use application that functions almost like a scrapbook for projects.
You can create boards so that others can easily track your progress, set up customised workflows, checklists, deadlines and discussion boards. It helps to ensure that everyone has access to the same information and doesn’t start to feel anxious about not being in the loop or falling behind.
When you’re leading a virtual team it’s impossible and dangerous to try to micromanage, as it will just cause you more stress and create an atmosphere of distrust. If you’ve hired the right people, you have to let them just get on with their job without you checking in every five minutes. Usually people work with virtual employees to lessen their responsibilities, not to increase them.
However, for the relationship to work successfully you have to be very clear about your expectations and the tasks you set. That means detailed instructions and examples where possible. In the early stages of working with a virtual employee, you will have to take the time to integrate them into your company culture, and to introduce them to your way of working. Whilst you might not have the time to do that yourself, it can be beneficial to set them up with an in-house mentor who they can turn to for help.
I’ve seen a lot of companies fail to successfully integrate virtual employees into their teams because of they haven’t had the right tools in place. Think about it like this: when you hire an in-house employee you provide them with a desk, a computer and a pack of stationary, when you hire a virtual employee you need to set them up with a digital working space.
It’s a lot cheaper and easier than renting office space, but it does need some thought. Thankfully, there have been some great developments recently in collaborative technologies, so you should be spoilt for choice and most experienced virtual employees are usually well placed to recommend applications based on the client.
However, as Michael D. Watkins points out in his article for the Harvard Business Review, “if the team has to struggle to get connected, or wastes time making elements of the collaboration suite work, it undermines the whole endeavor.” Don’t be lured in by a long list of features, always opt of the apps that are the easiest to understand and that will integrate your existing software where possible. It will save you time and frustration.
You still need 1:1s
Even though your virtual employees might be based halfway across the world, they will still need and greatly benefit from your one to one attention. Establish a regular time to relay feedback and listen to their concerns. Invest time in their growth as an individual so that they not only feel valued as a team member, but can also hone their skills and direct their energy into their particular areas of interest. These meetings can also be a good way of ironing out any snags which might be affecting productivity, such as communication issues or ineffective processes.
Ultimately, effective virtual leadership, like any kind of leadership, is about getting to know the individuals and finding a way for them to work together harmoniously as a team. Your virtual employees need to be put on the same level as your other employees right from the start and if you keep communication channels open, you should be set to reap the rewards of working with a truly global team.