By Darleen DeRosa
Your organization has a tight deadline to meet for an important client, and it’s all hands on deck for your department managers and their teams. However, one of the managers assigns several critical tasks to a team member located in Australia. A few days before the deadline, it becomes apparent that the work wasn’t done properly and important elements are missing. Due to the 14-hour time difference, the manager and team member are unable to connect in a timely manner. Your company misses the deadline, leading to disappointment for your client.
Unfortunately, this scenario may sound all too familiar for those who manage virtual teams.
Adapting to A Changing Workplace
Thanks to technology, a growing number of US businesses are allowing employees to work remotely. In fact, about half of the US workforce has a job that is compatible with working from home at least part of the time, and 20-25 percent of them do so with some frequency, according to the latest telecommuting statistics from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. This number is expected to grow—in 2016, 34 percent of business leaders predicted half of their company’s full-time workforce will be working remotely by 2020.
The virtual workplace has big benefits for both employees and businesses. Remote employees are generally more satisfied with their work-life balance, more productive, and produce higher quality work. Companies also benefit from reduced overhead costs and less employee turnover.
Strong virtual leadership can make the difference between a virtual team that runs like a well-oiled machine and one that constantly drops the ball. Companies that are committed to offering employees virtual work arrangements also need to invest in training so managers can effectively lead from a distance.
The Challenges for Virtual Leaders
Managing remote employees has its own unique challenges. Communication is hard enough when everyone works together in an office. When employees and managers work remotely, they face additional obstacles like a lack of visual cues, working around multiple time zones and handling technology issues. In our work with large and mid-sized companies across a variety of industries, we’ve found virtual leaders often feel unprepared to manage a remote team. In fact, in our Virtual Team Study, 20 percent of virtual leaders cited a lack of skills training as a key challenge.
Strong Virtual Leadership Improves Team Performance
Virtual leaders who are trained to manage the challenges specific to remote work are more likely to avoid these pitfalls. In fact, studies show strong virtual leadership directly correlates with strong team performance. According to the Corporate Leadership Council, companies with top-tier leadership teams outperform their competitors by nearly 19 percent. Employees who have a clear understanding of their manager’s expectations and are held accountable consistently produce higher quality work.
Management Skills for Virtual Leaders
Training programs developed specifically for virtual leaders provide managers with the tools they need to build trust within their team and develop communication skills that a remote team needs to be successful. Training helps managers improve accountability, delegate work, and establish systems that support virtual work. For example, managers learn how to have difficult conversations despite the lack of visual cues and feedback. Additionally, managers learn techniques to deliver consistent feedback and coach people from a distance.
Virtual leaders also need to develop expertise in establishing processes for sharing information, problem solving and decision making (we recommend decision-making skills training). They need to have a plan in place to help remote employees work efficiently and ensure everyone follows a consistent process. Training can help virtual leaders learn to structure their team’s daily operations to maximize productivity.
Leadership Development Training for Virtual Leaders
To become truly effective, virtual leaders also need to develop competencies that go beyond tactical skills. That includes the ability to think critically and make good decisions and the ability to motivate and inspire employees. For instance, when employees spend the majority of their time at home, it can be hard for them to feel like they’re part of a team. They need to be constantly reminded of the greater goal and see how their work ties in to company objectives. Leaders can take a proactive approach to this by offering more frequent feedback via technology tools, for instance, and hosting semiannual or quarterly in-person meetings.
Training programs can educate virtual leaders on the need to be deliberate and intentional about engaging remote employees and help them develop practical skills, such as the ability to communicate from a distance and offer constructive feedback.
To learn more about how to provide your leaders with the tools to address the unique challenges of working remotely, check out this guide, The Business Case for Training Virtual Leaders.
Darleen DeRosa is a Managing Partner at OnPoint Consulting, an organizational consulting firm that specializes in leadership development and succession planning. She has more than 15 years of management consulting experience and deep expertise in succession management, executive assessment and virtual leadership, having worked with clients including Accenture, Deloitte, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline.