Trust. Clarity. Vision. Focus on these to make your virtual team more effective. Do what it takes to get  team members to trust you and each other. Be clear about what each needs to do – specifically. Then make sure the parts fit together in line with the overall vision.

Allsteel’s National Architectural and Design Manager A.J. Paron-Wildes took me through this thinking on the plane to this year’s HATCH. When I saw her last year, she was hoping for a promotion. She got it in March, used First-Time Leader to help accelerate her onboarding into her new role and now has a virtual team of 20 designers spread across the country that others are begging to join. None of this is surprising as A.J. oozes inspiration and enablement from every pore.

Start by building trust

“Trust is huge on a virtual team. If you’re interacting by phone you can’t see their faces or read their body language.” Without the advantage of physical presence, you have to trust peoples’ intent. While trust is earned over time, A.J. explained to me that 89% of virtual teams will fail to be effective if they don’t meet live at the start. Live meetings help relationships start well and nurture and grow them over time.

Because of this A.J. insists that her full team meet live at least twice a year. Then she takes time to meet with her team members as she travels from city to city.

Most importantly, A.J. knows that the best way to build trust is to be trustworthy. She makes sure that if someone on her team needs her, she will be there and give them a straight answer. People can call her any time, day or night, weekday or weekend. She explained to me that people call her on weekends only 5% of the time. But it’s important to her people to know that they could call her.


Provide level-appropriate clarity

Clarity is truly in the eyes of the beholder. The clarity people need at one level is woefully inadequate at different levels. As A.J. put it, “You can’t just give them the big picture and expect them to get there. You need to give them the steps.”

For example, it’s not good enough to tell some people that their “spending is too high”. Edicts don’t work for all. Some need direction around where you want them to cut their spending. Or, it’s not good enough to tell people you want “more visibility in CRM”. Some need to know what they are supposed to be doing now.

A.J. knows this point is magnified with a virtual team. So she errs on the side of more clarity and detail versus less.


Envision how the parts fit together

Vision isn’t good enough. People don’t care about your vision. They care about how they fit with your vision, envisioning themselves in a better place.

A.J.’s team is made up of people doing similar things in different contexts. It’s important that they are all moving in the same direction in line with the brand. Allsteel’s brand is about “helping people solve their problems so that their workplace strategy matches their business strategy.”

For example, one internet retailer prides itself on its ability to “churn and change” rapidly as the market changes. A.J.’s team helped them design a “kit of parts” for their offices so they could move walls and desks around easily to flex as their needs changed.


Implications for you

Accept that leading virtual teams is both different and more challenging than managing live teams.

  1. Start by building trust. Ideally, live and face-to-face first. Then by being trustworthy yourself over time.
  2. Dial up clarity around specifics for your virtual players. They can’t look over to see what you’re doing and what you think. Be a little more directive than normal.
  3. Make sure your team members can see how what they are doing fits with the overall vision.