Businessman looking social network structureWhether you’re working with a team spread out across worldwide locations, team members who telework or off-site vendors, an important skill for a great leader is to be successful working with virtual teams.

Working with virtual teams means more than just the challenge of different locations. You will also be challenged with differences in time zones, cultures, language and configuration (which team members are where); each impacts your team dynamics and ability to perform and excel. Let’s take a minute to talk about the effects of distance. When you understand these well, you can improve your leadership skills for virtual teams.

Perceptions. Distance affects how you feel about team members. Not only is there a locational distance but a social distance, where you feel like it’s “us vs. them”. Simply put, people don’t identify with the team. Research has even found that it “invokes a competitive, coalitional mentality that exacerbates [conflicts and coordination].”

Mutual Knowledge. What you know about people is affected by distance, called “the mutual knowledge problem”; without a shared understanding of what team members do and how they do it, collaboration suffers. For teams with mutual knowledge, they save time because they are on the same page with what the work is and how it’s going to be done. Teams without shared understanding run into task-based conflicts; they disagree about the work being done.

As the leader, if you can take into account both how you feel about team members and what you know about them, you can improve your skills of guiding disbursed teams.

Tips for success:

  1. Remember that global, distributed, virtual teams are made up of people.

  2. Ask team members to continually put themselves in the shoes of each other.

  3. Set a team goal: Make it CLEAR, CHALLENGING, CONSEQUENTIAL and COMMON.

  4. Talk about the problems of perception and mutual knowledge; be transparent.

  5. Reinforce the team’s shared purpose.

  6. Share information about context at each location (structure, politics, personal life events).

  7. Regularly check-in.

Remember that virtual teams are made up of people just like any other team. People create conflict, but they’re also your best resource for resolution. Collaboration isn’t magic, but it does take some effort.