Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Leading Virtual Teams

Volume: November 2010

By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com

Bob has been leading teams for over 20 years. He enjoys leading people and seeing teams succeed. Last year Bob was asked to lead a new, nine-person operations team being formed by his company. As usual, Bob was charged with delivering standout results. The only difference between Bob’s previous teams and his new assignment was that he was the only person located at corporate headquarters. Everyone else was sprinkled around the globe – six in the United States, and three in Western Europe. Due to his tenure with the company, Bob knew most of his team members and they got along just fine. He did a good job of getting to know the two team members who were new to him. As his work unit started operations, Bob felt comfortable. While this was the first time that any of the team members had worked in a virtual environment, everyone expressed confidence and comfort with the arrangement. Bob had many tasks to accomplish, as did each member of his team. If everyone focused on their individual deliverables, Bob’s assignment would be a piece of cake.

At first the team performed well. Bob received everyone’s assignments, collated the results, turned in the final deliverable, and voila, positive results. Bob communicated with individual team members as needed and occasionally held team teleconferences. Since it was a virtual team, Bob saw little need for much team interaction. Everyone seemed happy to focus on their individual silo. By the end of the first quarter Bob had received no complaints from his team, or from his bosses. By the end of the second quarter however, team performance slipped. Several people began to miss deadlines and work began to get sloppy. Bob found himself working seven days a week to clean up mistakes and missed assignments. Most of his conversations with team members were corrective in nature and Bob’s tone of voice that was frustrated or angry.

Before things got too out of hand, Bob began to research the topic of leading virtual teams. The information Bob uncovered surprised and shocked the socks off him. Bob found out the following:

  1. Virtual teams place even greater demands on team leaders than traditional on-site teams, demanding 50% more time investment (Dyer, Dyer, & Dyer, 2007).
  2. When leading virtually, miscommunication increases because a leader is not privy to important nonverbal cues that register unease, confusion, agreement or disagreement (O’Brien, 2010). 
  3. People involved in virtual meetings often feel a lowered sense of accountability. During in-person meetings team members show up - physically and mentally. They tend to be more prepared and participative (O’Brien, 2010).
  4. During virtual meetings, team members may do things they would not do in person, such as checking sports scores or having side conversations (Stack, 2010).
  5. For virtual teams that are connected across time and space by electronic media, the relationship function is even more critical that in traditional on-site teams (Northouse, 2010). 
  6. The leader of a virtual team must understand the causes of silence, misunderstanding, and slights, without any of the usual signs to guide them. Also, virtual teams experience slower development of trust, cohesion, and shared goals (Orvis & Lassiter, 2008).
  7. When leading virtual teams it is critically important to build a team relationship before focusing on tasks or problems facing the team.

After reviewing his research for the third time, Bob sat back in his chair and wiped his brow. He had much work to do. He sought advice from his boss and others regarding what behaviors and actions he should embrace as the leader of a virtual team. The initial response Bob received is shown below.

  1. View your role as a collaborative facilitator. In other words, seek to orchestrate the team. Also, during team meetings frame questions that call for team members to interact and solve issues/opportunities together
  2. Hold succinct meetings that are crisp and well-planned. Use an agenda that is distributed in advance of the meeting, and begin/end the meeting on time.
  3. Workplace teambuilding. Often times, leaders think of teambuilding only when people are actually onsite. Realize that it is even more important to conduct workplace teambuilding with distance teams. An example: 
    • Conduct a teleconference exercise during which team members predict via a detailed description, each other’s work environment. The closest to the actual work environment wins a small prize. Note: this exercise will help you determine who is a jokester, who is a pragmatist, and who does not give a darn.
  4. Get visual. Skype or use other technologies that allow team members to gain a visual image of other team members.  
  5. Set expectations of everyone’s behavior during teleconferences and videoconferences. Some items to consider: 
    • Each team member will be expected to ask at least one question.
    • Engagement. Expect people to pay attention (they will do this if you deliver a meeting that is well thought out).
    • Single-task. Studies have shown that multi-tasking is not all is it cracked up to be. It is particularly wasteful during teleconferences. Challenge your team members to have enough self-discipline to single-task during virtual team meetings. 
  6. Accountability. Agree to a system that will allow team members to hold each other accountable for various tasks and behaviors. Also, have agreed upon rewards and repercussions for achievement or missing the mark.
  7. Communicate frequently (does this one even have to be listed?).

Bottom Line: In order for leaders of virtual teams to be successful they need to spend more time leading than they would with a traditional, in-person team. These leaders must be creative, conduct succinct meetings, and communicate in a manner that connects with far away team members. Building and growing skill sets has never been more important, especially for the virtual leader!


Doug Van Dyke is a leadership and collaboration consultant, executive coach, and strategic planner. He is also the author of Leadership Simplified – THE Field Guide for Savvy Leaders.  Doug’s audios and videos are also available at www.leadershipsimplified.com. To learn more about consulting services, coaching, and training, or to have Doug help your team work together better, contact him today at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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