Recently, I met a learning and development director whose division leaders had given her a task: “Support the leaders of virtual teams, because they are struggling.”

When I asked her what they meant, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “They don’t know how to work with the technology.”

After a series of interviews with various stakeholders, I found the problem was not the technology but a more complex series of issues that were a combination of how the virtual leaders approached the team, how they applied leadership principles and how they managed their stakeholders — all from a distance.

If more L&D professionals understood the landscape of the virtual workforce, they could be more proactive in determining the type of interventions necessary when they receive a request from a business leader — for instance, how they understand the initial request and how they select the solution provider.

This article aims to bring insight into the different ways to view virtual leadership. Armed with these distinctions, L&D professionals can more effectively communicate with the people who request training, trainers, team coaches and other stakeholders.

Level 1: Technology Competence

The basis of virtual teams, remote work and any other form of modern communication is technology. Technology for remote communication and virtual working is improving quickly, and the options are vast. Using technology effectively relies on a few key concepts:

Training on the Technology Itself

When people do not know how to use the communication tools, they disengage. Often, you can address this issue through web-based, self-study tutorials.

Which Technology to Use and When

Often people use the wrong tool for the communication they’re delivering (e.g., using emails to discuss a complex issue), resulting in misunderstandings, frustration and wasted time. Virtual communication can be synchronous (at the same time) or asynchronous (not at the same time). It may be as simple as information transfer or as complex as bouncing ideas off each other for a complex problem. Creating an effective communication ecosystem in a team or company means aligning the tools with the communication intent.

Level 2: Leading a Virtual Team

Virtual teams are complex, and their success relies on more than just using the right technology. Team processes are intertwined with building team spirit, but there are other factors at play. People often think that fixing the process is all that they need to do, but issues like distance and cultural differences also impact how the team builds trust, interacts and performs. Here are two key factors for building successful virtual teams:

Team Processes (Such as Running Effective Meetings)

Team meetings are one communication moment in the team ecosystem that can make a difference in how the team feels about and engages with each other. Ask yourself these questions to ascertain if your virtual team meetings are effective:

  • Do they open with a ritual to welcome each other to the meeting?
  • How does the team ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute?
  • Does the team rotate the meeting chairperson?

Experiment to see what works. Teams have many other processes to consider — performance management, task allocation and workflow, brainstorming, etc. Doing them well, virtually, impacts team performance.

Building the Virtual Team: Understanding the Psychological Impact of Distance and Culture

Distance and cultural differences can prevent team members from fully connecting with each other. Once team leaders and members understand these dynamics, they can build bridges and improve performance.

For instance, hybrid teams, where at least one location has more than one person, can be challenging to collaboration because of the tension between subgroups that form by location. With this challenge in mind, team leaders can adapt how they organize work, run meetings or build the team identity. Eventually, these actions can create a positive team culture that leverages a diversity of ideas — the big advantage of distributed teams.

Level 3: Leading a Connected Organization

The irony of technology is that while team members complain about the limitations of communicating using technology, on an organizational level, it opens up a new level of transparency and connection. By using social networks inside companies, employees can reach across geographies, hierarchies and departments to share information or contribute to product development.

Transparency Across Platforms

Technology provides leaders with a transparent and all-access communication platform that they can use to connect with and inspire employees across geographies and business units. However, this transparency creates vulnerability. How can organizations harness this interconnectedness while creating a safe environment for everyone?

In addition, it is important to consider whether leaders are authentic enough to inspire and lead an organization whose hierarchy is flattened by digital communication channels.

Strategy in the Digital Age

Technology offers groundbreaking strategic opportunities to improve communication. The world is changing quickly, and technology is disrupting industries, supply chains and customer service. L&D can support the organization in developing the capacity to be agile, responsive and experimental.