How to coach a virtual team

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Where on Earth are my team?
Where on Earth are my team?

Firstly, let’s establish what we mean by a virtual team. It is:

  • A collection of people physically separated by location and/or time
  • A network of people who are able to work together and interact using advances in technology
  • Often temporary, consisting of people with a range of skills and experiences who work in different locations to achieve a specific task in a set time period
  • Rarely 100% virtual and may sometimes meet

Virtual teams are proving to be a great way of meeting some modern business challenges. While organisations have always operated in different locations, people are increasingly being asked to work together across locations and share responsibility for a product or result. Global corporations have emerged, spanning a range of industries or services operating globally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on different continents and across time zones. Customers’ higher expectations mean that the pressure is on to deliver products to market often within tight deadlines. Relationships with customers, suppliers and stakeholders are increasingly based on co-operation and collaboration and strategic alliances and partnerships have become more common.

This means that knowledge is undoubtedly key and possibly the most important resource for our new economy. When organisations downsized in the 80s and 90s they lost a lot of their knowledge and it’s happening again now. Knowledge management thus becomes crucial to meet the challenge of tackling the complexity of today’s products and product cycles. While knowledge will always be a source of power, the emphasis now is on sharing what we know both within the whole organisation and, where appropriate, with others, rather than keeping it to ourselves. But, of course, knowledge is only useful if we can do something with it.

So virtual teams are a great way of disseminating k knowledge in the complex world of work today, but there are many challenges in coaching such teams to work effectively, not least of which is managing the almost inevitable cultural differences that will exist in a team comprised of people from different locations or organisations. People from different countries and cultures will have their own view of the world and ways of doing things. When setting up a virtual team it’s easy to overlook this and end up unknowingly causing offence. All cultures and complex and it’s so easy to generalise and make assumptions with little or no evidence to back them up. When working with different cultures it pays to stand back and consider any assumptions you are making. Check them out and, if necessary, make adjustments.

If the team is to be successful, it really does pay to meet face to face at the start. This enables the team to:

  • Get to know each other and build relationships
  • Talk through the project and work out the best way of tackling it
  • Set ground rules and agreed ways of operating
  • Agree on ways of communicating and the technology to be used
  • Carry out any necessary training
  • Plan the next steps

Whatever the financial and logistical difficulties, it’s worth making the strongest possible case for a face to face meeting and for everyone to try to attend. High performing teams work at high levels of trust and the team members will have a hard time trusting each other if they have not met.

If a meeting is not possible try a combination of email and web or video conferencing. In the early stages put your efforts into getting to know each other socially rather than focussing totally on work. Be prepared to raise the subject of trust, discuss what it means and work at getting a common understanding. Coach for involvement from all team members to increase the chances of trust developing.

In the absence of the regular social contact associated with conventional teams, look for other ways of promoting team development and relationship building. Ideas include:

  • Working out ways of sharing when people are available and their contact information
  • Talking to each other outside of formal meetings
  • Varying the communication tools used
  • Allowing for, and accepting, cultural differences

Don’t fall into the trap of believing the challenges of working with a virtual team can be solved by technology. It’s people that make for successful teams, not computers. Your contact with each other may be remote but always remember that you are dealing with human beings who have feelings, needs, hopes and aspirations. Treat people with respect, involve them, take care with your communications and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Don’t operate in virtual teams in ways that would be unacceptable if everyone was in the same room. Try to avoid an over reliance on email and pick up the phone wherever possible.

Never underestimate the power of a simple thank you. Not only when things are going well, but also in the difficult times. It’s so easy to feel isolated in a virtual team.

Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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