The need to develop leaders who can lead global virtual teams across the barriers of culture, language, distance, and technology has never been greater. Increased globalisation, massive technological advances and the Covid crisis of 2020 all point to the need to develop fully functioning remote teams and the leaders of the future will have to be fluent in cross-border, cross-functional and cross-cultural working.
Unfortunately, many organisations have left addressing the leadership skills gap in this area far too late and we are now faced with a world in which many global teams are led by people who are unprepared for the challenges of the role they find themselves in.
So, what do global virtual leaders really need to focus on?
Having been working on building global teams for two decades, it seems the challenges can be broken down into three distinct areas:
In this article I would like to look briefly at these three distinct areas.
Probably the biggest challenge faced by leaders of global virtual teams is the complete lack of spontaneity in the process – nothing happens by chance and therefore everything needs to be planned if there is to be any cohesion within team activities. Leaders can’t just hope that activities take place, keep an eye on things and jump in to help if things go wrong. It goes without saying that a leader has no visibility of what is happening in an office in another continent and in a completely different time zone.
The need for greater levels of planning and structure can put tremendous pressure on virtual team leaders and these pressures can build if things start to get badly out of hand. However, this need for planning and structure often contradicts the ‘hands off’ approach that many companies describe as ‘good’ leadership style. A global virtual leader must somehow strike a balance between control and autonomy.
Leaders also need to be aware that when people work remotely, they do not always get the full picture of why they are being asked to do what they are being asked to do. People at a distance simply lack the level of context granted to people in the centre and this can lead to a feeling of alienation and almost of becoming a ‘commodity’ with no skin in the game. Virtual leaders need to mitigate this risk by continually referring to the ‘why’ of everything. All the team needs all of the context all of the time if they are to be made to feel valued members.
Global virtual leaders also need to focus on developing clear lines of communication. If some team members use Slack, some others use WhatsApp, whilst a third group send emails everything quickly becomes messy – there will be no audit trail and issues will fall down cracks. The leader needs to agree with the team at the outset what are the accepted team technologies and what each technology is used for.
This is just a small snapshot of team issues a global virtual leader needs to focus on – the list is pretty long.
Remote leaders need to focus on getting the whole team to work as a team but should never forget that the team is made up of a few individuals who all have individual preferences and requirements. Remote team members often complain about feeling ignored and that their career opportunities are restricted as a result. The danger is that remote team members begin to resent their colleagues who work closer to the leader and whom they perceive to be getting preferential treatment.
With this is mind the virtual leader needs to have a clear plan around how each individual team member should be mentored and how feedback will be given. This process should be set out clearly and followed consistently – don’t tell team members what you are going to do and then deliver something completely different when the pressure starts to mount.
Treating each person as an individual requires getting to know them as people. It is easy for a leader of a virtual team member to form a good relationship with team members who might sit in the same office but much more different when people are working in a different country, in a different time zone and who have a different cultural background. Developing relationships over distance takes time and it takes application. Don’t say ‘happy birthday’ to somebody in the same office and then ignore remote team members; don’t wish local colleagues ‘happy vacation’ and then forget to do the same to distant ones. It all counts, and it all gets notices noticed.
It is also really critical that global virtual leaders organize their personal workload to ensure that they can focus on their own priorities and objectives. That seems an obvious statement but the challenges of running a global team whilst at the same time paying attention to the specific needs of each team member can sometimes prove overwhelming.
When global virtual teams are poorly managed the leader runs the risk of being contacted about everything regardless of how minor or critical an issue might be. Team member ‘cc’ the team leader into every communication and this leads to information overload and paralysis.
Virtual team leaders need to trust their team members and build trust within the team and only then can leaders really focus on their own key tasks. Leaders should actively plan their days with specific time set aside for team related issues and personal workload tasks. This may seem overly formulaic and structured, but it isn’t – the key aspect of good virtual leadership is in the planning and structure.
As people increasingly work from home, maintaining a healthy work-life balance becomes both more important and more difficult. Global virtual leaders need to encourage their team members to also strive towards a healthy work-life balance and this behaviour must be modeled by the leader. If the team see the leader regularly sending emails at midnight it gives a signal that this is expected within the team. Don’t do that – if you have to compose an email at midnight, schedule to send it the following morning (except in exceptional, critical circumstances.)
The challenges of virtual leadership are manifold and global virtual leaders need to put a great deal of thought and creativity into making the process a success for the team, themselves and the organisation. Global organisations cannot afford to let virtual leaders fail in their responsibilities and should be helping those leaders through ongoing personal development opportunities.
And this article doesn’t even address the challenges of working in a global virtual team from the cross-cultural perspective. This area brings additional layers of complexity and simply cannot be ignored. Global virtual leaders need global virtual leadership skills and they also need to develop global cultural fluency.