The shape of organizations worldwide is changing. Virtual (or dispersed) teams are almost more common than not these days. In fact, according to the 2013 Global Workplace Analytics survey, between 2005 and 2013, the number of employees who worked virtually grew by 80 percent.

There are plenty of reasons for this rapid growth--extended market opportunity; increased efficiency, productivity, innovation, and synergy; access to a wider pool of talent; better effort, performance gains, and job satisfaction; and more cost savings.

But for all the positives, there are a lot negatives that come with not sharing a physical space with your team and colleagues. Participants in a 2012 Society for Human Resource Management survey cited time differences, distribution of work, differences in cultural norms, and technology as barriers to success to these types of teams. The truth is, no one has truly figured out how to smoothly lead a dispersed team, but we're getting closer.

Leaders are discovering innovative ways to rally and connect teams no matter how far away they are from each other.

Here are three actions successful leaders are taking to lead successful teams--no matter how far flung.

Create context.

Context is the foundation from which we derive meaning from what other people say. In the past, members of a team would see each other every day, know what was going on in each other's personal and professional lives, and be aware of each other's thoughts on happenings large and small. In today's virtual or dispersed environment--not so much. Often, team members are essentially strangers to one another and may feel disconnected from the overall team or company vision.

So leaders need to help individuals and teams in the virtual work force see the reason why they need to care about the project and their part in it. They need to be sure to voice the overall vision and share the company, team, and individual goals. They need to be explicit about why the team is working together and how it aligns with business goals.

Leaders need to pinpoint how each team member will collaborate and what's in it for reach region, area, or individual. If the leader doesn't know, they need to hold a conversation and ask their team members why this project is important to them. What benefit do they see to themselves and others? And, then they need to ensure needs and desires are being met.

Cultivate community.

People work harder when they feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Thus, an effective virtual team leader works to create a team community and identity. This can be done with physical objects, like T-shirts or pictures. And it doesn't have to be expensive or fancy. I had a colleague in San Francisco who had a dressed up banana for the team mascot. People loved it!

Or it can be done with more creative concepts, such as developing a project slogan or name. For instance, if your project is dealing with the government or is particularly sensitive, you could call it "Project House of Cards." Or people could be given nicknames based on their roles or strengths.

It's also very important for leaders to create expectations around communication. What's going to be your main mode of talking with one another--chat, Slack, phone, or email? Will you always use video for conference calls? Do you have contact hours to accommodate team members who work in different time zones? Is the team expected to meet face-to-face once a quarter?

Leaders also should provide guidelines to support the team's well-being. For example, don't schedule meetings in the middle of the night for those who live half way around the world. Or don't ping a teammate with an urgent request on a weekend. This is very important for fostering a culture of respect, as well as one that supports balance between work and life.

Celebrate wins.

Unfortunately, in a lot of organizations, you only hear from others when there's bad news or criticism. But this type of culture is a death knell to morale and productivity. An effective way to lead virtual teams is to ensure all successes are celebrated. You can even devise a systematic way to celebrate them with a weekly award or special meeting.

In addition to creating an environment where wins are shared, effective leaders also make clear how to advocate for these wins. They promote their team members to others within the organization and help their teams learn how to promote themselves.

The positives of leading virtual teams far outweigh the negatives--and by taking these three actions, there will be far fewer bumps along the road.

Published on: May 25, 2017