Working in virtual space.

Neal Gandhi, CEO of UK based Quickstart Global, claims that a bad manager becomes a miserable manager when leading remotely, while conversely: a good manager becomes an excellent manager in virtual space.

Why is that?

We often talk about a so-called ‘virtual team’ although there is nothing virtual about a team that may be geographically dispersed but has a well-defined task to deliver with high expectations from senior management. 

The team, its work and the deliverables are indeed very real and tangible.

So, let’s talk about remote or geographically dispersed teams instead, a reality that is part of the day to day work in a growing number of organisations that operate across geographical boundaries, but also within a country across different locations.

Richard Branson’s words from some years ago seem like a forecast of today’s workplace “One day, offices will be a thing of the past”.

The remote team and it’s leader

At Nomadic IBP we share the optimistic view of the capabilities of remote teams, based on a large number of clients we have worked with.

For instance, after 8 weeks of training (one session per week) we often see that a strong bond between participants has been formed. Saying goodbye can be emotional and both business and personal relationships have been cemented.

Our own team of trainers and support staff is a ‘collection of kitchen tables’ around the world and team members tend to bond closely with peers and forget the fact that we collaborate only virtually.

We hear many of our clients say that working remotely is ‘second best’ after working together in the same space and that nothing builds trust and leads to a better team productivity than being together face to face in the same location.

In their eyes, working ‘virtually’ is only done when distance, travel time, travel cost are making it impossible to work in the same place. It is remarkable how strong this view sits with some organisations, across different industries (e.g. IT, cosmetics) and geographies (Europe, USA, Asia), whereas other organisations adopt the benefits of virtual working almost effortlessly (examples from manufacturing, IT).

We cannot discover any patterns in this and would like to see research done into this area of resistance vs. adoption of virtual teamwork as a way forward.

There is a perception that virtual meetings areof ‘second best’ is often used as an excuse for not managing a remote team in a competent manner (I think you have to turn this from a personal statement into more of a challenge that needs to be addressed), and perhaps a longing back to the days before technology enabled us to build high performing teams without face to face contact.

Our experience at Nomadic IBP is that face to face contact is often overrated and that competent leaders know how to build high performing teams without it. This connects with Gandhi’s ‘magnifying principle’, stating that good leaders (who can build meaningful work relationships in a face to face setting) become excellent leaders in virtual space (and know how to build these relationships remotely, without face to face contact). Having said that, the need for face to face contact varies largely across cultures. The global leader is aware of these differences and adapts to the different needs and habits.

Harvard Business Review made the same point already in 2012 by publishing the article ‘Virtual teams can outperform traditional teams’ (K. Ferrazzi). This article inspired Nomadic IBP to take a positive look at remote working and identify which leadership competencies bring remote teams to high performance. As virtual teamwork is becoming more and more the norm, this statement is becoming less revolutionary than it was in 2012.

So, what about this magnifying principle that Neal Gandhi talks about?

In a traditional, collocated (in one place) team, a team leader needs to be observant as to what is going on in the team, looking at both performance (task) and interpersonal aspects (people). The leader needs skills such as listening, observation, communication, empathy and conflict management, just to name a few.

In a remote team, contact is probably less frequent and takes place through technology. Trust is at the heart of leadership, as the leader cannot measure input (# of hours in the office) but only output (results).

The team leader needs to be extra sensitive –across distance and via technology- to notice what is being said, either overtly or between the lines, what is not being said (interpreting silence) and able to pick up ambiguous signals.

Building a high performing team based on competence and trust becomes more complicated over distance and requires a higher level of team building skills. Imagine a small amount of irritations creeping into a project team. In a collocated setting this is relatively easy to spot, address and defuse.

In a remote team the irritations may be expressed less explicitly and the team leader needs to have a highly tuned antenna to pick these up and address them before they transform into full blown conflict, or worse, disengagement from the team.

Cultural differences add that extra layer of complexity to the remote team, as does the fact that many remote team members are part of multiple teams and often give their primary loyalty to the ‘home’ team. Especially if the hierarchical boss is located there.

What does the ‘magnifying principle’ mean for leaders of remote teams?

The good news is that good leaders can become excellent leaders when managing remotely.

They need to emphasize certain leadership competencies more than they have done in a ‘traditional’ setting. These are the key ones:

–        Trust as a starting point, instead of control

–        Recruiting team members that flourish in an autonomous setting

–        Performance management based on results

–        Conflict management

–        Building and maintaining relationships

–        A solid command of communication technology

–        Facilitation skills: ability to chair interactive meetings

–        Leveraging cultural diversity

–        Resilience: able to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.

In future blogs, we will zoom in on each of these leadership competencies.

W.L. Gore is an organisation that has taken a strategic approach to building high performing dispersed teams. Founded in their unique corporate culture of collaboration in small, highly autonomous units, they trained leaders in translating their leadership skills from a collocated into a remote setting.

In conclusion: are leaders in your organisation equipped to lead remotely? Do they know what differentiates ‘traditional’ leadership from remote leadership? Being aware of these differences and how leadership skills are magnified in virtual space, helps to boost virtual team productivity.

Nomadic IBP trains leaders of remote teams as well as team members.

We make virtual working work. We train the trainer, we train the leader and we train the team in 20 languages on 5 continents

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