The more virtual we get, the more human we need to be

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Written by Matt Bolton-Alarcon on 13 August 2014

I have been training leaders on different approaches to innovation and creativity for 10 years now, and there’s one particular question that is now regularly popping up in our workshops.  It is: “How do you collaborate better in virtual teams?” It is a damn good question and will become increasingly important as the world of work demands more of us to work in teams that may rarely meet with each other in person.

First of all, let’s deal with the value of virtual teams. Overall I believe that they are a good thing. They allow for more flexibility and are less costly than ones which require lots of face-to-face meetings. You can also call and arrange meetings much faster with a virtual team than with traditional teams, which is extremely valuable when you’re up against deadlines.

There have been many studies that show that teams made up of people from diverse cultural backgrounds will create stronger ideas than a bunch of people who look the same and, by and large, think the same as well.

In a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2012, nearly half (46 per cent) of organisations polled use virtual teams. As big organisations seek to become even more efficient and agile this number will only increase and therefore a leader of the future will need to know how to lead a virtual team.

However, virtual teams will always be behind traditional teams in terms of their development. Without realising it we develop so much as a team just by being in the same room together. Impromptu moments, as simple as “Who wants a cup of tea?”, “How was your weekend?”, “Can England ever win the World Cup again?” can all create a bond between a team that spends physical time together. Obviously you can create something similar ‘virtually’ but it’s always a bit forced. Also, being able to grab ten minutes with somebody to quickly blurt out some of your thinking happens much more readily when you’re in close proximity. But the biggest thing is when you’re in a room collaborating, planning, you can read people’s body language. You can answer our most favoured question “What’s needed here?” because you’re more sensitised to the group around you.

So, how can you make your virtual team as all-singing, all-dancing as a team that spend every moment of the working day together?  I have spoken to a few of my clients and had a good think myself and put together a few tips to make your virtual team rocking rather than rolling.

1. It’s all about human vs machine

The biggest thing to recognise is that, like with any team, you have to work very hard on connection and engagement. The machine of telepresence, live messaging will help you be efficient but great teams are not just about this, they are about togetherness. So, as a leader you have to show empathy with people and be tuned in. One of my Unilever clients says that the when she’s on conference calls with her virtual team she is listening to the tone as much as the content people are sharing. That’s how you can find out what’s really going on.

2. Drink wine and break bread together

In order to get your team fully engaged it’s important they spend some quality time together in one room. I would recommend having very little ‘business’ to do when you do get together, and spend most of the time having fabulous shared experiences, anything from cooking to walking to partying. Even though we work together a fair bit, we run Upping Your Elvis as a virtual team, with no central office. Therefore, when all of us get together we have maybe two or three big things to discuss but most of our time together is spent messing about by the sea, paddle boarding, foraging for food, drinking cider and reconnecting as a team. Now this can often feel flippant when your finance director is breathing down your neck but it’s this time that pays off when the proverbial poo hits the fan such as an unrealistic deadline you all have to meet. If you’ve been through good times together then the tough times are a whole lot easier.

3, Plan interactions as if they’re live

When you’re running a meeting in boardroom 101b and there are 20 people coming you put yourself under the right amount of pressure to deliver a brilliant session. You think about how you come across, your opening set up, how you frame the challenge and how you plan to get everyone talking and connecting at the beginning of the meeting. You also get people to interact with the content and not just look at you ranting monotonously at them with a Powerpoint clicker. I hope that’s how you plan. All of these disciplines are needed for any virtual team meeting. They can still be sociable and interactive with an engaging leader, but all too often I think people don’t get that sense of adrenalin because it doesn’t feel as live at the end of a phone line. I also recommend standing up to deliver the set up - smile, put a bit of extra bounce in your voice. People won’t realise you’re doing it but I can guarantee your energy will make you more engaging.   

4. The communication balancing act

All my clients say that communication is key in virtual teams. Too little communication leads to disengagement - you’re just not in people’s heads enough. Too much communication and people start to resent you for it.

I think you have to consider every single communication that goes out as if you were an internal comms director. Are you reminding people regularly about the purpose of the team/ the work? Have you considered the different first languages of people in the team? Are you thinking of what everyone needs to know versus what just a few need to hear about? If you do this, it may save you sending out three or four follow up emails that become necessary to pull together the unraveling mess. I also think it’s about picking up the phone for little chats, the equivalent of a cup of tea conversation, just to check that people are clear and fully engaged.

5.  No fester and feedback

Have feedback as a regular part of any team interaction.  Ask these questions: “what’s working well?” and “what could be better going forward?” and ask them in every single virtual meeting. As leader, you have to be a role model for this then others will follow. You can sense people festering in an office but it’s very hard to sense that on the phone. But we all know that something as little as an email that has been misconstrued can lead to team mutiny, so you must have a charter stating that no stone is left unturned when it comes to feedback. It is also best practice for any team. The moment the team stops learning is a dangerous moment.

So, there definitely are virtues in virtual teams but the teams themselves do need some serious leading to make them work at the best they can. What are your best bits of advice for virtual teams?  Do share…

Matt Bolton-Alarcon is a partner at Upping Your Elvis. He can be contacted at

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