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Keep it real: seven principles for leading virtual or hybrid teams

11 Oct 2021 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, director of our Leading Virtual and Disconnected Teams programme, shares seven principles for leading virtual or hybrid teams. Keep it real!

1.  Virtual teams, real people

‘Keep it real’ through your leadership by showing genuine concern for individuals, taking an interest in both the work and the things that matter around  the work, and tuning into people’s emotional needs.

The team may be virtual, but they are still real people – real people with all their talents, passions, faults and frailties. The person on the screen, the small rectangle amongst a cluster of other small rectangles, is still a real person. And whilst it may sound obvious, we must at every stage force ourselves to remember this. Our experience with a constellation of screens, from small mobile phones and wearable devices through to large flatscreen TVs and digital billboards, has led to repressed levels of psychological engagement. There is an unreality about life on the screen, whether the content is presented as fact or fiction, live or recorded, and we are conditioned to experience it ‘at a safe distance’ and with a pause or off button close to hand. There is a profound sense of alienation that comes with this which we can easily but unknowingly carry across into our online screen relationships with team members and colleagues. Never forget, and never stop being curious and concerned about the rich life that exists for every individual around and beyond the screen.

2.  Beware two tier teams

Bring a ‘one-team mindset’ to every aspect of your leadership.

There is an expression that most of us will be familiar with which concerns ‘being seen at work’. And, for bias to exist and grow, sometimes this is all that is needed. There are various terms for this including passive face time bias and proximity bias where we unconsciously associate the people we ‘see at work’ with qualities such as commitment, dependability and responsibility. This largely unconscious bias operates without even the need for direct engagement or conversation. Leaders have a responsibility to work against this bias, to resist misleading associations, and to model values that encourage a one-team ethos. Things like work location, frequency of contact and mode of engagement should not arbitrarily influence the opportunities available to colleagues or team relationships. For virtual and hybrid leadership to be open, effective and inclusive, out of sight must never mean out of mind.

leading virtual teams

3.  Deliberate and intentional inclusion

When diverse team members are working from multiple locations, inclusion cannot be ‘left to chance’.

Large, complex organisations, even the most enlightened, have within them a range of boundaries, borders and barriers. Even those co-located in well-designed and highly conducive work settings can experience destructive silos, in-groups to which they do not belong and structural exclusion. Compound this with disbursed campus environments, the boundaries of time and distance that come with multiple work locations, and the mixed focus of hybrid home and office teams, and the potential for some colleagues to become detached, isolated or marginalised becomes considerable. In these circumstances inclusion simply cannot be left to chance. Sitting back and waiting for the exceptions is never a responsible approach to managing diversity, and for hybrid teams expecting individuals to ‘speak up’ or ‘struggle on’ is both unkind and destructive. The mindset of deliberate and intentional inclusion involves proactively asking who has not been heard, who has not been seen and whose voice is missing.

4.  It takes TRUST to tango

High levels of performance on truly interdependent tasks and goals involves leaps of faith, creative conflict and openness and vulnerability. None of this is possible without the ‘firm foundation’ of trust.

The sadness of the matter is that trust diminishes in the virtual world. Why? Well, the key reason is that it is harder to build and maintain relationships. This links with the quality and frequency of communication and the diminished capacity many virtual team members experience for building deeper connections with colleagues that go beyond the task at hand. For leaders the direction of travel can be towards more transactional forms of engagement. This can be to do with choosing methods of communication that are seen as fast and easy, such as email (not a good medium for ambiguous or emotional content), or it can be the lack of opportunities to really socialise decisions. A thirty-minute Zoom call that appears to end in agreement is simply not enough for the kind of visiting, revisiting, toing and froing, meaning making and lobbying that is actually the lifeblood of really good, durable decisions. This also accounts for the unexpected conflict that can arise when leaders assume agreement when working with virtual and hybrid teams.

The foundation of everything we do in teams and organisations is trust, and this comes in two forms. Firstly, transactional or cognitive trust, a trust of the head that can be quickly established based on someone’s technical ability or track-record. Secondly, affective or emotional trust, a trust of the heart that comes about more slowly through empathy, closeness and feelings of genuine concern. Transactional trust can come and go quite rapidly, whereas relational trust takes time to build but is more enduring once established. High performing teams have a good balance of the two, and emotionally intelligent leaders know to invest in the longer game of relational trust for a more resilient, creative and engaged team environment. The thing to watch for, therefore, when working with virtual and hybrid teams is an increasing drift towards more transactional forms of engagement.

5.  Forget favouritism

Why is your go-to person your go-to person? What is really going on when the same individual is at every meeting, regardless of what they have to contribute? And is it, perhaps, becoming convenient to miss a few people out because of the ‘perceived barriers of distance/technology’?

These are hard questions. However, favouritism shown by leaders is toxic to teams. In virtual and hybrid teams this toxicity can become severe and alienating. The reality is that some leaders are more inclined towards favouritism than others. Normally, though, this is mitigated by the wide variety of contrasting social dynamics that take place within the workplace. The favoured individual, or the favoured few, have to engage with, relate to and even compete amongst others in the social group as part of a much more complex and, importantly, visible network of interactions.

These social balances operate much less well when a team is disbursed with different modes of engagement, some in person and some virtual. Hierarchies can begin to appear in terms of how and when team members participate in collaborative dialogues, with some pushing themselves forward and others waiting to be invited. Those in leadership roles can also, often unintentionally, find that they are influenced increasingly by those in the team that they are drawn to based on various kinds of interpersonal affinity. If this escalates the unfairness can become profound, damaging and even discriminatory. Leaders should, therefore, forget favouritism and work against it in everything they do, including eschewing the micropolitical ‘games’ that some leadership teams find so absorbing.

6.  Meetings of the right kind can be transformational

Aim to make every meeting ‘something special’. Meetings are how we collaboratively invent the future, whether the decisions made are large or small, so why not add a little magic.

If that sounds either cringeworthy or a lot to ask, then keep in mind that for some ‘virtual’ or home-based colleagues diarised meetings may be their only form of social engagement with the team. And even if people say that they want short, focused and efficient meetings, don’t let this sense of busyness be the only thing driving your approach. The truth is, for many teams small talk is a big deal, whether they appreciate it or not. It is difficult, however, to replicate through virtual and online engagement the kinds of fluid spaces that are so important for informal exchanges, meaning making, social bonding and interpersonal connectivity. As many of us instinctively know, the time before the meeting, the time around the meeting, and the time outside the meeting often provides the opportunities for deeper relational engagement. These are the transformational spaces and interactions where the social groundwork is done for really great collaborative initiatives.

In the wonderfully titled book by David Pearl, Will there be donuts? (2012), the distinction is made between ‘nearly meetings’ and ‘really meetings’. The journey through the Covid-19 pandemic has seen meetings become more and more transactional, with the free-form social elements increasingly squeezed out by tight business agendas. As a result, when we click ‘end meeting for all’ the unsatisfactory sense of the nearly meeting pervades across the internet and the team. Adding a little magic may involve nothing more than smiling, projecting some personal energy and talking about something you find inspiring, or it could be a more elaborate process of team engagement, either way it is a better and more human alternative. The ‘business of the meeting’ should not be allowed to take over and exclude all of the other recognised and important elements of team interaction.

A final challenge for leaders in terms of one-to-one meetings in particular is to have as many meetings without agendas as you do with. Coming back to ‘real people’, having meetings that are just an opportunity to talk, listen, show empathy and relate is crucial for staff engagement, and a great way to balance your support across hybrid teams. It is also a gateway into deliberate and intentional inclusion.

7.  Bring everything back to purpose

Learn to speak the language of purpose. Setting aside all of the utilitarian measures and metrics, the thing which has the potential to transcend our differences in teams and organisations is purpose. What do we stand for and ‘what are we here to achieve?’

If there is one thing a team or organisation needs it is purpose (with well associated values). Across our diversity, in all of its forms, including the differences brought about by virtual and hybrid working, the thing which can unite us, spark our creativity and focus our collective energies is purpose. Alongside understanding context, expressing purpose is the first job of leadership. To create a greater sense of unity across a disbursed team, or a team with varying levels of direct engagement, a well communicated shared task combined with a clear underpinning purpose and a mutual appreciation of roles is really the strongest recipe for success you can have. This is a powerful basis for collective commitment.

The other side of leadership is the compassion for people. Not for any abstract or ulterior reason, just compassion for people as people. Combine the two, compassion for people with passion for purpose and you have a truly wholehearted approach to leadership. Take either one away and the picture and the impact becomes diminished:

  • The wholehearted leader – passionate about purpose and compassionate about people,
  • The half-hearted leader – passionate about purpose or compassionate about people, but not both,
  • The break-your heart leader – no genuine passion and no sincere compassion, but in it for themselves.

So, learn to speak the language of purpose, and around it show your compassion for people. In all situations, but particularly when working with teams, departments or organisations with complex configurations, this is the single most important principle for leading across actual or perceived boundaries of time, distance, location and diversity.

Find out more about Leading Virtual and Disconnected Teams, delivered online in three half-day modules.

Bookings are open for the next two cohorts beginning 4 November 21 and 2 March 22

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