Leading and Managing Virtual Teams

Posted on September 15, 2010

Leading and Managing Virtual Teams

How to Lead and Manage Virtual Teams

How to Lead and Manage Virtual Teams

A manager is brought into his boss’s office and told he is going to be assigned to a new project. This is not a surprise; his success leading previous teams has translated into responsibility for increasingly important and complex projects. He likes a new challenge. He asks who, of the staff in the Boston office, will be assigned to his team. His boss explains that for this new project he will lead a team whose members are based in Boston, Buenos Aires, Bangalore, Beijing, and Brussels and, due to limited budget, his team will only come together face-to-face once during the projected year-long project.The manager pauses to reflect on this. He has never been in charge of managing a remote team before but the expectation is that he will be a success based on his past experience. As someone who closely monitors the work of his team and relies heavily on frequent face-to-face communication, he is not without his concerns.

Sound familiar?

This manager is one of many who have been thrown into the world of global workforce management – and sometimes without any formal training on how to manage a virtual team. As organizations expand internationally, the number of virtual, global teams continues to multiply. Managers are given the responsibility to lead teams and processes that span time zones with team members whose work styles are shaped by various country, corporate and functional cultures. How can leaders of such teams build trust, communicate effectively and drive performance when they cannot just walk down the hall and stop by the cubicles or their team members or call impromptu team meetings when the team faces a challenge?

We have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of virtual team leaders across industries and geographies. Through this interaction, we have observed that the leaders of these virtual teams face similar challenges. Now, more than ever, the leaders of virtual, global teams are in the spotlight, and feeling the pressure to show results at rates consistent with, if not exceeding, those of co-located teams of the past. Leaders of virtual teams often must adjust their leadership styles to build trust and relationships among team members and, at the same time, be able to truly take advantage of working across time zones to meet their business goals more efficiently. In this article, we will explore some of the trends and challenges of managing a remote team and suggest some specific strategies for increasing team leaders’ effectiveness in facing these challenges.

Business Trends in Globalization 

ManagingVirtual3As organizations become increasingly global, they recognize the need to leverage their international presence to better meet the needs of customers, create economies of scale, increase efficiency, and optimize the talent of new and existing employees regardless of where in the world they are based. Team leaders must be equipped with new skill sets and a mindset for effectively managing a global workforce while keeping their geographically dispersed team members connected, informed, and motivated. Many organizations are managed by geography in the early stages of international expansion for the ease of operation and familiarity with the local market. Being organized by geography was also much more practical in the past when many of the current communication technologies either did not exist or were too expensive to be utilized widely.Today, however, as companies expand, the limitations of being organized by geography become clear. Among the challenges are a lack of synergy across geographies; lack of ability to leverage the talent of employees in various sites; and duplication of efforts — especially in the areas of “shared services” such as finance, human resources and information technology. As a result, many companies have begun reorganizing away from geographically-led efforts. The vast majority of team leaders with whom we have worked with in recent years have been tasked with managing remote employees after such reorganization.

Virtual teams enable organizations to combine the talents of their expanded organization to meet the increasingly competitive pressures of the marketplace. Nevertheless, research indicates that these diverse virtual teams, while having the potential to be far more effective in their outcomes than co-located and more homogeneous teams, more often experience a high degree of ineffectiveness. This creates pressure on the managers who lead these teams.

Challenges: Leadership Style

We each have a style of leadership that is most comfortable. Often our leadership style is a reflection of our cultural conditioning, past experiences and qualities that we admire in the people that lead us. What is surprising to many team leaders is that their management style that has been successful when leading co-located teams does not necessarily translate to effectively managing remote employees, training virtual workers, or working with remote team members effectively.

In our experience, success in managing remote teams is linked to two main factors:

1. the dynamic of virtual communication; and

2. the impact of cultural differences between the team leader and the team members.

If the manager is someone who is used to closely monitoring the work of his team members and imparting new skills by working side by side with them, he often struggles significantly when he works in a virtual management situation, feeling as if he is not in touch and cannot hold team members accountable for their work. Team leaders may also find that their management style, based on certain cultural assumptions, may not align with the various team members’ expectations of leadership. In our work with team leaders, we have explored the differences between team members and team leaders along five dimensions of difference:

    • independent (individualistic) and interdependent (group oriented)
    • egalitarian and status orientation
    • risk and restraint orientation
    • direct and indirect communication styles
    • task or relationship orientation

Differences along these dimensions can be a reflection of country, functional, regional, corporate, and other cultures. This might be best illustrated with a graphic of a “team profile” provided below. Individual, country, and team GlobeSmart Profiles are generated by Aperian Global’s GlobeSmart® online learning tool upon completion of the questionnaire.

In this illustration, the “team leader” is represented as “My Profile”, and one can see some significant differences between the work style of the team leader and the other team members. He is more interdependent than his team members, more indirect, more task-oriented, and more long-term oriented. This could influence, among other things, how he communicates both face-to-face and virtually, and what he sees as immediate priorities for the team. When a team leader can better understand his own work style and how it is similar to and different from team members and how that impacts team performance, he can then build concrete strategies for bridging the gap and managing remotely. These strategies foster the skill of “style switching” which has proven critical in leading virtual, global teams. As the leader increases his skill in bridging the differences and modifying his leadership style, he builds the ability to leverage the diversity in the team as an asset.

Challenges: Relationship Building and Trust 

ManagingVirtual2As global teams are formed, issues emerge such as how to divide work between sites and how to handle organizational resistance. Often, individuals believe their jobs are threatened; they experience a loss of control over the overall success of their work, and they fear the possibility of being relocated internationally. These initial feelings of alienation make building strong relationships and building trust within teams even more difficult. When teams are co-located, they are able to build relationships informally through their daily activities. With global, virtual teams the lack of this “relationship building time” is especially challenging for team members whose work style is more relationship than task oriented. In their recent article on “Creating and Sustaining Trust in Virtual Teams”, Greenberg, Greenberg and Antonucci outline two specific kinds of trust:

1. Cognitive trust: based on rational assessment of activities, function of a person’s integrity and ability

2. Affective trust: based on social bonds developed in a reciprocal relationship – emotional ties.

Both of these kinds of trust are a challenge to establish in the virtual context. Cognitive trust is often built over time as team members build a “track record” of success in following through on tasks. If the knowledge of these accomplishments is not shared with virtual team members equally, these teams may build cognitive trust at a slower rate than co-located teams. In some cases, cognitive trust may actually be hurt through “misinformation” or “misinterpretation “of facts. There may be a disparity in working contexts across multiple locations such that team members are unaware of the impact of situational, technical, resourcing and other challenges that their fellow team members face when trying to complete their tasks (Greenberg, 2007). There are specific strategies that team leaders can implement to increase the level of trust and the strength of relationships in their teams. Farrell, in an article about the integration of different functions in teams, discusses the concept of “anomie”–or a state of confusion of roles, mission etc– in the early stages of team development (Farrell, 2001). One of the best strategies for team leaders in building cognitive trust is to create a clear vision, and roles related to that vision, that bind a team together. The team leader can also contribute to cognitive trust by giving team members “data” on why the team members were chosen to be a part of the team, information about the qualifications.These steps toward establishing cognitive trust are especially critical when “affective trust” has not yet been built within a team. Because affective trust depends on informal interaction between team members, it, too, is a challenge of virtual team management.

Challenges: Leveraging Time Zones for Business Efficiency 

When members of virtual, global teams are asked about the challenges they face, one of the most common areas cited is time zones. Gone are the days of cleaning out their e-mail inbox at night and finding it in the same state in the morning. A constant flow of communication at all hours of the day and night is the norm.Team members face the challenges of creating work life balance while scheduling conference calls at midnight to accommodate team members in different locations. Yet, these time zone differences can be a team’s greatest asset if they can be used to enable a project or goal to progress consistently as it is passed from team members in one time zone to another. One of the greatest challenges leaders face in enabling this to occur is streamlining the “handoffs” from one team member to another. Also critical to the success of this ”follow the sun” management is leveraging to full capacity the brief overlaps in the working hours of the team members.

Best practices for leaders to better manage this challenge include:

1. Well-documented processes that enable team members to understand the “context” of what has happened in the process prior to their involvement, and to anticipate what will happen in the process when they pass it on to another team member;

2. Well-defined decision-making sequence so it is clear who should be involved in what types of decisions (since some members of the team will be working while other team members are not on the job);

3. Clarification of who needs to be consulted about what and informed of decisions that affect the overall work of the team.

Holmstrom, Fitzgerald, Agergalk and Cochuir, in their article, “Agile Practices Reduce Distance in Global Software,” stressed that the methods that were most successful in dispersed teams were those that emphasized speed and simplicity. Successful methods were characterized by short, iterative cycles of development driven by product features, periods of reflection and introspection, collaborative decision making and incorporation of rapid feedback. While their findings were based on observations in the software development industry, they seem to apply to the various industries in which our client companies operate, e.g. manufacturing, technology, biotech and pharmaceuticals, and financial services. The more well-documented and streamlined the processes; the more effective the team will be at taking advantage of working around the clock.


We have seen a trend in companies moving away from being organized by geography and reorganizing based on either by product or in the case of shared services, by function. In addition, as companies globalize, there is the realization that with today’s virtual communication technology, the best talent for a particular project does not have to be bound by geography.There is a solid business case for increasing the number of virtual, global teams. The challenge of leading these teams effectively is still a concern for many. On the other hand, it has been documented that when led effectively, virtual global teams can far exceed domestic teams in terms of efficiency, innovation, outcomes, and the likelihood of meeting the needs of customers.So, back to our manager who has just been given responsibility for a team in Boston, Buenos Aires, Bangalore, Beijing, and Brussels… Will he be successful? Much of his success will lie in his ability to overcome the challenges of virtual leadership. Many teams have reached high levels of performance through the capacity of their leaders to modify their leadership style, to build strong relationships and trust despite geographic obstacles, and to leverage time zones as an asset.

Aperian Global has more than 25 years’ experience helping individuals and teams gain the support they need to succeed in a global, virtual environment. Our full suite of training programs includes Team Effectiveness solutions, which are designed to help your team work effectively together and to leverage cultural, generational, and functional differences so they become an asset. Contact us today to learn more!

Farrell, M.P., Schmitt, M.H., & Heinemann, G.D. (2001). Informal roles and the
stages of interdisciplinary team development. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 15(3), 281-295. 
Greenberg, P.S., Greenberg, R.H., & Antonucci, Y.L. (2007). Creating and sustaining
trust in virtual teams. Business Horizons, 50, 325-333.
Holmström, H., Fitzgerald, B., Agerfalk, P.J., & O’Conchuir, E. (2006). Agile
Practices Reduce Distance in Global Software Development. Information Systems Management, 23(3), 7-19.


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