Managing the risks of virtuality

Virtual teams are a fact of modern business. Organizations must adapt or risk mass management burn-out, warns Richard Finn

Around the world, the number of people who work in virtual teams is increasing every year. In the US, there are an estimated 2.9m virtual workers, up 61% since 2005; in the UK, there are reportedly 1.3m full-time virtual workers, with another 3.7m part-time.

The attractions of virtuality are clear. Virtual teams can be highly creative. They can bring together experts from all around the world and increase geographic coverage – for example, for a sales team. But there are significant possible downsides: loss of trust, isolation, disengagement, and hidden performance issues. Too few organizations and leaders have adapted to this relatively new fact of business life. It’s high time they did.

Consider a typical global manufacturing and sales company. It has over 50,000 employees, with production facilities all over the world, customer and distribution centres in many countries, and sales and service technicians wherever they have products, for each of their brands. Senior executives have global responsibilities and sales technicians often have country-wide coverage. It’s the sort of distributed structure commonly found among today’s global manufacturing and service companies. It makes extensive use of virtuality. But in doing so, it stretches and tests almost every good leadership practice. Performance conversations, coaching, engagement, teambuilding: you name it, they are all very different in the virtual environment. They’re also much more difficult to do well.

Take span of control. Traditionally, five or six subordinates per manager has been seen as ideal, but some firms now give managers 15-20 direct reports, particularly in a virtual environment. That quadruples the management task.

In fact, it might be more than that. Leading a virtual team member takes much more time – or should do, if it’s to be done well. There has to be more preparation for every one-to-one coaching session. Performance conversations have to be longer to ensure alignment. Understanding has to be checked and feelings surfaced. Sustaining values and culture is much harder when employees are dispersed and diverse. And performance management becomes harder. It’s tempting to resort to management by objectives, neglecting the more effective route of regular coaching conversations which cover behaviour and ethics, as well as output.

A new approach

This all means that many managers are struggling to find the time needed to lead their virtual teams. Companies risk mass burn-out among their over-stretched managers. What might boards and the C-suite do about it?

First, boards must recognize the costs of going virtual. Leaders need more time for talking to their people and influencing their ecosystems. Spans of control often need to be reduced. And travel budgets cannot be the first across-the-board cut when business gets tough.

Performance needs to be made more visible. Assessment, coaching and performance conversations need to be shared by the manager with someone closer to the employee. A triangular relationship between the employee, their manager and a nominated local supporter is one way of creating greater performance visibility.

There also has to be serious investment in technology and a strategy for internal communications. Many communication systems are at best unreliable. They need to be accompanied by clear protocols on when and how to use them. Even simple teleconferences often lack the most basic protocols, like saying your name before contributing.

Virtuality should also feed into competency models and selection decisions. Organizations should look closely at the competencies required of virtual leaders and virtual employees alike, and select on the basis of the results. Extroverts may find it hard to put in the time and effort needed to make virtual line relationships work. Being independent, self-disciplined and able to cope with isolation are critical for virtual environments.

Boards also have to look at the implications for employee engagement. Virtual working means that managers need frequent pulse checks of their people’s engagement, not just the typical annual or biannual survey.

Another implication is that leaders need to redouble their efforts to create a purpose- and values-aligned culture across the organization. Virtuality kills culture through isolation and the inability of employees to see their leaders demonstrating the values.

Finally, there has to be a recognition of the fact that virtuality creates huge costs in life-work balance. Senior executives and some middle managers are forced to travel extensively, and they pay the price in terms of their health and family time. Organizations should consider more generous holiday and sabbatical entitlements for virtual leaders.

Managing virtual teams

What can you do, as the leader of a virtual team, to maintain high performance? Here are my six top tips.

  1. Adapt your style and how you spend time to meet the realities of virtual working. Talk more about feelings; ask more questions seeking facts and information; invite more feedback.
  2. Invest in relationships. Build personal chat into calls.
  3. Plan and prepare even more for one-to-one conversations, meetings and the selection of new team members.
  4. Be culturally sensitive on the timing of meetings and language used.
  5. Ensure there is a collective purpose firmly in place for the team and invest in discussion about personal goals, to ensure alignment with company strategy.
  6. Arrange a local supporter to assist you in activities that require observation or immediacy.

Virtual working is not new. What is new is the extent to which businesses depend upon it. Making it work well means being more respectful of the sacrifices that managers are making, and investing in the practices that support them.

— Richard Finn is an experienced consultant who has advised senior executives in global organizations