I see it all the time, regardless the size or type of organization, when it comes to project team leaders, some produce exceptional results in a virtual environment, while others seriously struggle to deliver.
For both groups, the leaders are all different. They play different roles. They have different personalities, approaches, opinions and processes. One thing they have in common, for the most part, is access to the same tools, including phones, email, webinar tools or even all-in-one services, like IBM Notes or Skype for Business. In the last year alone, services like Slack and Facebook’s Workplace have taken off. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg concerning communication tools available to leaders in organizations of all sizes, across all industries.
The technology is out there and enough organization’s are taking advantage of it. However, the difference between the teams that actually benefit from it and those that don’t usually comes down to leaders’ attitude toward such tools. Some team leaders complain about the lack of human contact. Or they claim that it’s to hard to train everyone to use the technology or impossible to force people to actually use it. They focus on the negatives, and that attitude sets the tone for the rest of the team. One the other hand, many leaders realize that technology can improve communication, increase productivity, and make life all-round simpler for every member on the team. That, too, sets the tone.
The success of virtual teamwork starts and ends with leaders’ attitude
Some teams succeed in a remote environment; others fail miserably. Just as with technology, it’s not necessarily the tools (i.e., processes and technology), that determines a team’s success, it’s how those tools are put to use (if they’re used at all) to reach goals. Actually, it’s more than that: It goes back to motivation, intent and the leader’s attitude.
Let’s take a really common example. If you are the kind of manager who is uncomfortable delivering bad news, it becomes very tempting to fire it off in an email. You don’t have to look anyone in the eye or listen to people’s complaints. It’s clean (for you, at any rate). It’s fast. However, as easy as it is for you, it’s tremendously damaging to team dynamics. While as a virtual team leader, you likely can’t pull everyone into an actual conference room, which is the ideal way to address the situation, hiding behind email is the worst possible option. It’s the easy way out, and the “tool” may ultimately work, but it’s definitely not going to produce the best possible outcome.
The purpose of any tool is to improve communication
Effective leadership is all about communication, and it requires a constant balance between richness (the number of ways we can transmit and receive communication in a given exchange) and scope (getting the message out to the most people in the most expeditious way). When you choose the right tool at the right time, you can communicate effectively even across distance. However, when you choose not to use a tool “because it is hard to use,” or you choose another because it is easiest on you (but not for everyone else), you and your team must deal with the negative consequences, including misunderstandings, lost productivity, mistakes, conflict and more.
The right tool for the job may not be your first pick
To use a simple analogy, I don’t care how good your needle-nosed pliers are or how handy you are with them, if you need to drive in a nail you’re probably in trouble. Pliers aren’t going to get the job done. You’ve got to pick up that hammer, no matter how you feel about it.
In the same light, if you need to listen, gain input and answer concerns, a one-way webinar or town hall conference call with limited interaction will not get the job done. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with your platform. You might simply have to do smaller, more interactive sessions to help your team understand and digest the situation.
Additionally, using email to break bad news might seem appropriate if you need to share information to everyone quickly. Still, you likely need to add a component like a Q&A forum, or a team chat or a Facebook-style page to address concerns, let people vent and share information.
You must look at the purpose and desired outcome of your communication, choose the right tool and execute that communication well. If all three of those things don’t happen, more than likely, you won’t be happy with the outcome. That, of course, means that you and your team must understand the communication need, be aware of the tools at your disposal, know how to use them, and choose to make the effort to use them well.
I’ll leave you with one last thought about virtual teams and remote work. First, it’s not easy to work effectively when you aren’t in physical proximity. Second, it’s not impossible. Once you accept both those facts, it actually becomes easier to address performance and communication problems.
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