As more companies are considering the option of allowing their employees to telecommute (see the recent flurry of news about telecommuting), there is an increasing need to understand how leading in virtual teams is different from leading in face-to-face teams. In many cases, people have challenged the idea that leading in virtual teams is different from leading in face-to-face situations. I believe that leadership in virtual teams is different in at least two key ways:
- In order to achieve the same level of effectiveness as in face-to-face teams, virtual team leadership takes a lot more effort.
- Relationship building requires effort.
- More mechanisms are needed to foster teamwork.
- In virtual teams, there is a greater level of shared leadership.
- Members are equals.
- Build ownership.
I will now elaborate on these points.
The extra effort in leading a virtual team arises partly from the need to build relationships. Because of the difficulty in coordinating synchronous (same-time) meetings, we end up relying a lot on email communication. The problem with email is that it tends to be task oriented. We tend to get to the task right away and the social conversation that is so critical for building relationships doesn’t happen. The leader of a virtual team has to work on building relationships in a virtual team starting at the very outset of a virtual team’s life. The leader of a face-to-face team does not have to do much by the way of relationship building because members of a face-to-face team may know each other from before or they often have a shared context (e.g., same company, same campus, same weather, same city, similar values, similar expectations, projects they may have worked on together in the past, etc.) which facilitates communication. When people who share a context get together, they have something other than the immediate task that gets social conversation going among them. The leader of a virtual team, on the other hand, has to find or create a shared context that enables team members to see that they are similar in some important aspects to others in their team. A feeling of similarity to another individual spawns feelings of liking that individual and gets social conversation going. If the leader is unable to find a shared context, then that leader may have to build familiarity among team members; familiarity with others is also known to lead to liking them. Building familiarity or a feeling of perceived similarity (or both) can be done using ice-breaker exercises and by the leader taking the time to learn about other members.
Leading a virtual team requires extra effort also due to the level of structure that has to be created to foster teamwork. In the case of a face-to-face team, a leader has many face-to-face opportunities for fostering teamwork. By walking over to team members’ offices or when running into them in the office building, a leader can build relationships with team members by engaging in social chit-chat, coordinate important work, help team members with issue, or put subtle pressure on member to move the project along. Not only are such casual opportunities lost in the case of a virtual team, the need for promoting teamwork becomes even more acute in the case of a virtual team. Research indicates that as proximity among team members decreases, the level of teamwork decreases naturally. One of the reasons because of which this may happen is that distance reduces the immediacy of threat from failure to deliver on your commitments (see this paper). Therefore, in virtual teams, team members have to be reminded more often to contribute. Another reason why teamwork has to be promoted even more in a virtual team than in a face-to-face team is because it (i.e., teamwork) is needed even more in a virtual team. Virtual teams are often working on innovative projects that are not possible with face-to-face teams; research indicates that as the level of project innovativeness goes up, the requirement for teamwork also goes up. Thus, the leader of a virtual team has to be proactive and create a structure that fosters teamwork and helps the team regulate itself.
Creating the structure required for promoting teamwork begins with precise communication of the team’s project and its mission and the core roles of team members at the project’s outset. This is followed by the creation of opportunities to help team members get acquainted with one another and the creation of a team compact. As part of the process of creating a team compact, team members create rules of engagement which make explicit the what, when, who, and how of decision-making and communication within the team. Among the things covered by the rules of engagement are the nature and frequency of communication, communication media to be used, the values that the team will live by, the response times for messages, how conflict will be resolved, and how the decisions will be made, including who makes what decisions. Structure can also stem from conducting After Action Reviews (AARs). Periodic AARs help team members learn from experience on the project if they should change the course on the project and if they should engage each other differently as the project moves forward. Structure alleviates the need for trust, at least the relational or affective kind, by substituting for it. Recent research indicates that trust becomes less relevant for how we interpret the lack of communication from others if there is an existing structure to regulate interactions within a team. In the presence of structure, team members understand that there is a mechanism in place to address lapses in communication.
Leading in a virtual team requires shared leadership. First of all, virtual teams are often composed of experts who add an equal amount of value to the team. In such a situation, having a leadership structure in which everyone shares leadership works much better than a hierarchical leadership structure. Furthermore, the structure that I refer to above works better if it comes from the team. That is, the team has to take ownership for its structure. Members of a team are more likely to take ownership of the structure if they have a say in the direction of the team. I have seen ownership occurring in teams when team members assume leadership for different aspects of the team (e.g., in a web application development software team, one member becomes the database lead, another becomes the security lead, a third becomes the interface lead, and so on). Shared leadership does not mean that everyone has an equal say all the time – it simply means that someone has more say than the others for different aspects of the task or at different times during the task. We see a good illustration of shared leadership in massive multi-player online games, such as the World of Warcraft (see a recent Harvard Business Review article about leadership in such games).
In summary, I am saying that leading in a virtual team can take more effort than leading face-to-face teams and might require a different kind of effort than most leaders are used to expending. But if a leader understands the challenges specific to virtual team leadership, achieving success in a virtual team is well within reach.
RELATED POSTS: Overcoming Virtual Team Challenges: After Action Review, Helping Your Virtual Team Take Ownership of the Team’s Project