How To Lead In A Virtual World?

Introduction

The question we’re going to be thinking about today is about how can you lead effectively in a world where people are no longer in the same room, or in the same office and yet have to accomplish incredibly complex activities, working together in an interdependent way?

This got me thinking about leading in a virtual world. How do you do this? What are the challenges? What happens when people are no longer together? How do you be effective in this context?

Why Is Leading in a Virtual World Important?

So why is leading in a virtual world such an important topic today? Increasingly, because of advances in communication technology. Laptops are very affordable, you can access the internet anywhere, and the kind of work many of us are doing can be done anytime, anyplace, we don’t have to come to the office. What this means is that it’s given rise to an incredible variety of work arrangements. Let me just talk about two. Work from home or telecommuting, where people who would otherwise work together in a co-located fashion decide to spend the day, or maybe more a week working at home or maybe in a cafe instead of coming into the office. Another arrangement is virtual teams, globally distributed teams, where people who are in different places are brought together to work on the same team precisely because the experts on a given topic may not always be in the same office as you. They may be in China, they may be in India, and they may be in California. They may be in different locations, and instead of bringing experts to one location, you have experts come in virtually and try to get work done. Often this work is complex, rich work. It’s not modular work, it’s not work that has been piecemeal distributed to people in different places. This is complex collaborative, interdependent work. Understanding how to manage this new work arrangement is really critical for all of us.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CONCERNS A LEADER SHOULD HAVE ABOUT MANAGING OR LEADING IN A VIRTUAL WORLD?

So I think there are two broad challenges, one is an informational challenge because you’re working with people across distance and often across time zones. What this means is that you may not be able to communicate in a synchronous fashion. You may be using email or some kind of text-based communication to coordinate pretty complex work. Even if you’re able to work synchronously, whether it’s over the phone or over the video, you don’t really get the richness of information that you can communicate in a face-to-face context. So for example, you don’t see my intensity or my passion as clearly over video or distance as you might in a face-to-face context. I can look into your eyes, I can shake your hand, we can have a meal together, and all that provides a rich variety of very intangible information that is very hard to communicate, even over Skype, even over video. So there’s a lot of information exchange that happens in face-to-face communication that does not happen when you’re working over a distance when you’re working virtually. As you span time zones, and as you span cultural contexts, there are bigger information gaps that are harder to span using virtual communication technology. So simply because of this, because of the technology and the constraints that it imposes, there is an informational gap.

But more importantly, there is also sort of a motivation gap or an energy gap, or a relationship gap, if you will. It’s hard to build relationships, it’s hard to be energizing and motivating when you’re working across a large distance. Imagine you’re a manager and you have an employee and every day you come to work and you acknowledge the employee by saying hello, hi, how are you, how are things. Even though that might be a simple interaction that could be very meaningful and motivating for the employee because the employee now feels that you notice them. You know they are working hard. And so that in itself can be motivating. Something as simple as this may not be available in a virtual context. How do you acknowledge an employee in a virtual context? How do you give the employee a sense that I know you’re working hard and I care for you and if you have any trouble you’re welcome to come to talk to me? It’s hard to provide that intangible feeling of comfort or security over a distance, and so what it means is creating a sense of camaraderie, creating a sense of I care for you, creating a sense of motivation and engagement. It’s harder when people are not together. So, you have informational gaps that you need to span, and you have relationship motivational issues that you need to work through to be effective in this virtual context.

HOW TO LEAD IN A VIRTUAL WORLD?

I think the first thing that would help is to be aware that what works in a co-located face-to-face context may or may not translate to a virtual context, and that you have to account for it in some way. So you have to account for the fact that you’re working through less informationally rich channels of communication, and you have to account for the fact that what may seem very simple, a pat on the back, a sign of encouragement, a smile, or even an acknowledgment of some sort may be very difficult to do in a virtual context. The fact that you’ve now consciously worked at filling those relational, motivational, and informational gaps, once you’re aware of that, you have a shot at addressing and figuring out how you can address it in your specific context. So, being just aware that leading in a virtual world, requires adjustments is a first step towards being effective in this context.

The second idea is to build a relationship before letting people work away from you. So if you’re a manager and you have employees working from home, before they begin working from home it might be a good idea if they work with you in the office closed for maybe a month or two. So you get to know their work styles they get to know your work styles, and you build a basic trust, you build a basic relationship before you send them off at a distance to work from home. Or ultimately, if you’re managing employees that want to work from home, you can say let’s start the year off working from home, one or two days a week and you’re in the office three or four days a week. And then over time, maybe in six months or eight months you let them work from home for larger spans of time. So, that way there is a transition, a smooth transition where a relationship, a working relationship is being built, a trust has been built before they go off into the distance. If you’re a leader of a virtual team if you have to put together a team of people who are in different places, the first thing to realize is that before the team does task work before it goes about doing its job, it needs to come together as a team. So teamwork must precede task work. What that means is, that people who are at far-flung distances must come together in some form. Ideally face to face, maybe for a week, maybe for two weeks, work on something that they can get a sense of accomplishment out of. So they work on a small task. They get a quick whim that cements them as a team, which creates a basic trust that can then be used as a basis for allowing them to work together in a distributive fashion.

Leaders matter more in a virtual context than in a co-located context. So if you’re a group of people working together in a co-located context, you have each other for company, you have each other for camaraderie. You don’t have that in a virtual context. And so the team leader can become that critical glue that brings members together. The team leader can be critical to making people feel that they’re included in the team, making them come together as a team, and as a result, can be far more effective in that context than they would ever be in a co-located context. In fact, there is some research that suggests that co-location must be some kind of leadership substitute, meaning when you’re co-located the leader is less important but as you become more distributed the leader becomes more critical in making sure that people feel included and feel like a team.

Recharging the Relationship

There is only so much that a single face-to-face interaction can accomplish, or getting together for like two weeks can accomplish. The team meets to come back periodically to recharge and renew their relationships with one another.

In a virtual context, team viability which is the ability and the willingness of the team to stick together over a long period of time is extremely critical because it’s very hard building a team in a virtual context. Once it’s built, organizations need to think and leaders need to think carefully about keeping the team together so that the relational learning and the learning in terms of coordination that they’ve got can be transferred to a different project. The team is not spending time reforming itself as a team with a new set of people. So it’s important for the team to come together periodically, but it’s also important to keep intact over a long period of time across multiple projects to maximize the gains that you can get from the team. So as a leader you need to be thinking ahead and saying okay, not only do I need to build this team for this project, but how can I keep this team, at least a core set of team members together as we move on to the next project. So, that would be a very important thing to consider in this virtual context.

So, it’s kind of like building a building. You don’t want to build a building for a project and then abandon the building. You don’t want to build a team for a project and then abandon the team. You want to make sure you can take advantage of what you’ve built, and get more out of the investment you’ve made in getting that virtual team to work together more effectively.

Till next time,

Kunal Chopra

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