Virtual leadership requires real leadership

I recently enjoyed a coffee with a treasurer of a major US firm in Dubai. She is a leader I admire (and in fact I'm trying to encourage her to write the next version of 'lean-in' or 'pull out' :) ).
We became involved in discussing how we both lead virtual teams located around the world and what we have learned.

There are obvious benefits to virtual teams, including increased productivity, the ability to better meet clients’ cross-border and on-the-ground needs and hiring the best talent, regardless of location. At the same time, there are new challenges with offices that are not really anywhere.

"You need to create a different work experience for virtual teams and not try and replicate the traditional office environment."
Tareq Muhmood, Managing Director, Global Diversified Industries, Global Banking, ANZ

People, traditionally, were able to sit in the same physical office area as their colleagues and able to see each other's faces daily. Office gatherings and casual conversations were a key moment of bonding. Team meetings, seeing the emotion of people's behaviour, all those immediate and human traits were a key part of the work experience.

So as people increasingly work in virtual teams, across borders and time zones, how can this be replicated?   

Well, the simple answer is... it can’t.

From my experience and that of many others I know, including my friend in Dubai, you need to create a different work experience for virtual teams and not try and replicate the traditional office environment.

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Many organisations have been responding to this new reality, recognising both the need and the power of creating an alternate sense of community with technology. Today, nearly four out of five companies use enterprise social networks (ESN).

ESNs or internal collaboration technologies like Yammer or Sitrion can prove to be a pretty engaging way of keeping the teams connected. 

Healthy communities encourage conversations, knowledge sharing, faster and more creative problem-solving as well as more efficient cross-functional collaboration. It also gives leaders such as myself the ability to connect better with their teams, to further strengthen this engagement by really listening, then responding by taking tangible actions. 

Yet beyond – or even without – these ESN tools, you can create virtual communities. More importantly, you can create a real sense of community within virtual teams. 

And that, I would argue, is the critical factor for success.

In addition to investing in ESNs using web-based communication tools, such as web-meetings and having regular conference calls, there are also various forms of informal communication available. Whatsapp or LinkedIn groups or other social collaboration tools could be an option. (Of course), we have to properly assess issues like risk and confidentiality, and ensure local regulators are happy with the use, when it comes to what we set up.

These groups can be used to share an interesting 'industry' article or just a humorous photo of a colleague wearing a funny piece of clothing or photos of a recent community fund raising event.

In the team I am part of, we have 30 people in a Whatsapp group. Every Friday, we have a photo sharing moment where we all share a photo of wherever we are. It is a fun way to create a casual connection with people you work with. Some people send photos of a city they are passing through, others have sent a photo of car they were in, one sent a photo of a phone while he was on a conference call.

Whatever is shared, it just helps keep a connection with someone else “in another part of the world” who is contributing to the same journey you are on.

Many, more tech savvy people will have other ways of connecting people using other forums - and the reality is that many exist - from WeChat in China, Line in Japan and Kakao in South Korea.   

Personally, my phone has become overloaded with such social apps. However, I find the hassle of having such apps is a small price to pay for staying in touch - and bringing the team together.

I'm sure many of you have experiences of leading, working and motivating a virtual team. I’d really enjoy you sharing your thoughts and experiences - I am sure I still have plenty to learn.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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