Last reviewed 20 October 2017

In this article about high-performing teams, virtual team coach and trainer Jude Tavanyar looks at what it takes for a remote team to achieve, or actually surpass their goals — even when its members have never actually met face to face.

Digitalisation and global communication demand new skills of team leaders

The potential power and business reach of any high-performing team is a topic that has been extensively covered for some 40 years or more. From Dr Bruce Tuckman’s well-known five-phase model of team development process, from norming, storming, forming, performing, through to adjourning (or reflection on learnings), through key research into the working practices of high-performing teams. Katzenbach and Smith in a 2015 Harvard Business article remind us that, alongside the basics of relevant skills, clear goals, tightly-defined accountabilities and an openly communicative approach, truly high-performing teams need significant challenges to show their strengths, opportunities to galvanise them into action and a culture that supports collaborative (rather more than individualistic) achievement. It seems that teams of all kinds, sizes and purposes continue to be seen as the most important working unit in any successful organisation.

Nothing new here, perhaps. These are aspects of team effectiveness that have been under the microscope for some years. However, what has changed — or at least steadily evolved — in recent years is the corporate culture in which teams currently function in the UK and elsewhere, with its significant emphasis on volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) presenting, as numerous studies indicate, very considerable challenges to the sustainability of team performance in businesses across the world.

And alongside that, the business team now operates in an age where digital communication and globalisation has revolutionised the workplace, and the face-to-face meeting bringing together geographically-spread employees is increasingly viewed as an expensive luxury when a (sometimes bewildering) plethora of communications channels and social media now readily exist to enable instant contact across distance, 24 hours a day, no matter in which continent you and your colleagues find yourselves.

Not surprising then that teams of all kinds, in SMEs through to major national organisations, are under pressure as never before. Rapid adaptation to ever changing circumstances is critical, alongside resilience to withstand the challenge of cut-throat competition, and never knowing quite what lies around the corner. And while the rapid pace of technological revolution has enabled extraordinary savings in time, travel cost, and accommodation, and the flexibility and ease of scheduling that applies when your clients, partners, and colleagues can be contacted 24/7 add further elements to the list of benefits offered by remote teamwork and communication, it remains the case that while we may now think remote team leadership requires an important set of skills, ones which will be increasingly valuable in a global economy, we still don’t have too much clue about exactly what is required to be successful at it.

Why remote team leadership sometimes fails

Anecdotal research suggests that remote team leaders often fall short of success with their teams because they do not take the job seriously enough, or simply do not know what new skills are required of them — as if showing up on video conferencing technology or computer screen to run meetings from time to time might be enough to compensate for a lack of experience. Furthermore, remote team meetings often suffer as much from a lack of structure or clear cut purpose, a balanced agenda and actionable outcomes as their face-to-face counterparts — perhaps more so, given that they are so much easier to schedule than a face-to-face meeting requiring travel across distance.

Other remote leaders may fail to motivate and direct their teams to deliver their best work because they dread the loss of managerial control that task designation across distance necessitates. Simply put, inexperienced remote leaders often become over-formal and controlling at team meetings, going straight into “task mode”, checking up on what others have been doing with their time rather than noticing achievements or spending any time building relationships, and generally ignoring the need to create the kind of friendly, sociable and relaxed atmosphere which enables trust to develop, understanding and collaboration to thrive, and mutual commitment to common goals to be engaged as the team’s work gets underway.

The worrying news is that currently only around 30% of remote teams achieve their business goals, for the kinds of reasons stated above. However, there is an upside, which is that those which have the skills and knowledge to function well across distance almost always outperform their face-to-face equivalents.

The key competencies of remote team leadership

Remote teamwork then, far from being only a second-rate way to collaborate when physical presence in the same room is difficult or impossible, can be seen to be a competitive advantage for businesses of all kinds, not only because it potentially saves a vast amount of cost and travel time, but because it opens up entirely new ways of leading, communicating and collaborating effectively.

The reality is, there is a kind of “amplification principle” apparent in remote leadership. If you are a poor leader of “co-located” teams (those working on the same geographical site), your shortcomings are likely to be even more obvious in cyber space. And conversely, strong leadership face to face can translate into excellence across distance, which is why face-to-face leaders need training and coaching to help them occupy the new territory, to develop their strengths further and set to work on leadership challenges.

Commentators Cune and Fogelberg highlight key competencies for the successful remote team leader, and although being technologically savvy is one of them, it is far from the only point. They speak about “virtual etiquette” — having an agreed set of communication rules about how meetings are conducted across distance, and about how to engage trust and build collaboration in meetings. They also talk about processes such as the all-important “check in” with each team member personally so that people are able to express feelings as well as ideas, and the benefits of adopting an inclusive approach to suit different personality preferences by using written and audio features interactively on internet platforms, and of knowing what technology is likely to best suit the purposes of the communication (clue: email is great for sharing information, less so for delivering bad news).

Letting go of a measure of control, and focusing on outcome more than task completion process are key attributes, as are intercultural competencies, and flexibility and time management skills as never before. Poorly managed, assumptions, divisions and conflict can proliferate across distance. A remote team leader’s ability to enable availability on a platform like Skype or WebEx for the kind of quick, impromptu meeting which provides an update, offers encouraging feedback, or sets the record straight on a confused or inaccurate message can have considerable impact at preventing demotivation, disengagement and sometimes under performance in an anxious or over-stretched team member.

Last, self-awareness is key, alongside the ability to create processes and activities that help people feel comfortable, valued and included so that they can give their analytical and creative best. This requires a measure of psychological mindedness, and also of humility. Being able to ask at times about the impact you are making, to suggest feedback mechanisms which suit different personality preferences, and require people to focus on self-reflection as well as task completion in order to highlight the most helpful individual behaviours and collaborative processes to support their team — these are the skills you need to take performance from average to excellent in remote leadership.