Leading In Virtual Reality
Updated: Jul 8
Back in 1981, the talented country singer Barbara Mandrell released her hit song, "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool," which reached the number one spot on the US Billboard Hot Country Singles charts. The title of the song resonates with me, not because I'm a big fan of country music (with the notable exception of Zac Brown) but because in 1996, I joined a company working entirely from home. There was no central office. As part of the leadership team early on, we were able to successfully grow that company to several hundred team members – and yes, nearly all of them working full-time from their home offices. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, some thought we were crazy, but (whether that was true or not), we proved that it could work!
In the current global environment with governments doing all they can to stop the spread of COVID-19, telecommuting has and will continue to become not only popular but necessary for many employees. For some, this is a significant, even disruptive change, and social media is full of funny pictures and anecdotes of workers adjusting to a work environment surrounded by children, pets, and other distractions they don't typically have in the office. For me, however, the past 20+ years of leading a sizeable virtual team was just daily life. While I wouldn't have traded any of it for a commute to the city and a bigger paycheck, there are some things to understand, especially if you're a team leader and this is new for you.
Rather than rattle off a list of the top X tips of how to successfully run a virtual team, like every other self-proclaimed expert on telecommuting, I'm going to impart some virtual reality, both good and bad, and then talk about the most important aspect of being successful in this brave new world. Simply put, if left alone, some team members will always find a way to be more productive in a virtual environment, while some will find a way to game the system. If that sounds harsh, please understand that for more than two decades, I have experienced the best and the worst sides of leading teams in a virtual environment. In the end, I fully admit that in the few times it didn't work well (leaders, please listen up), it was a leadership failure, and I accept my share of that. As pioneers running a virtual company well before it was en vogue, we didn't have a playbook, and naturally, we learned best by making mistakes. Therefore, if you're still reading this, please allow me to impart some wisdom we learned in the trenches.
The single best piece of advice I can give is to focus on the people, focus on the people, and focus on the people. When it comes to your remote team, they will need to feel even more connected to and supported by the organization than if they were driving to the office. When working full-time from a home office, it's incredibly easy over time to feel disconnected, isolated, and in the worst case, even forgotten. Over-communication has to be the norm from leadership. Technology can and does help, but people still need to hear a human voice every so often.
As leaders, it's your job to remind your team that what they do matters, and that their personal performance makes a difference in contributing to the mission. It's your job to keep your team feeling connected to the mothership, and supported by the larger organization. When any of this breaks down, trouble follows because a disconnected team member is soon a disengaged team member who now a less-productive team member, or worse. These are the ones who will hurt your team's performance. Therefore, make sure you have managers with people skills (emotional intelligence) who are actively engaging with their teams, and are well equipped to do so in a virtual environment.
One of the greatest mistakes leaders make is underestimating the difference a home office environment makes. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because someone was known to be productive in a traditional office environment, they will be likewise in a virtual environment. I wish it worked out that way, but it does not. I have seen stars fall, and it's never pretty. There are many reasons for this, some of them listed in the above paragraph, and while some of the loss in productivity can be attributed to the individual integrity of the team member, the responsibility for identifying and correcting poor performance will always rest firmly on the shoulders of leadership. That's what we signed up for.
I could spend a lot more time talking about the connective technologies and appropriate procedures that will help set virtual teams up for success, but all of that is secondary to getting the people aspect right. Leading well in a virtual environment means setting appropriate individual and team goals, measuring progress, and providing constant feedback. It's about being aware when people are struggling and assisting them. It's also about over-communicating the mission, the organization values, and by all means, letting your team see the scoreboard and understand what the current fruit of their labor is. These are all more challenging in a virtual environment, but they're all vital in connecting your remote team to the organization.
There are many tremendous and apparent benefits to a virtual workforce. At the same time, it's not something to go into with blinders on. To anyone heading down this path for the first time, or looking to expand the scope of their remote workforce, I hope you found this helpful and, above all, I wish you much success!