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One of the most dominant trends in the workplace is the rise of the virtual team. Whether by design or necessity, more and more people are working outside the office but on the same sorts of multi-person long term projects with the same demands for teamwork as always.For insight, we spoke to Katherine Graham-Leviss, the founder of XBInsights, a data-based talent assessment and coaching company which itself has a network of coaches that work virtually.
By far the most important thing is that managers know the members of their virtual teams, and put the time in to know how they like to communicate in that environment. They can use that information to motivate them and avoid the behavioural pitfalls that occur in a virtual environment.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
How can employers motivate employees when they have less face time?
There are a couple of consistencies that I see in this, and one, it’s really about communications skills. Oftentimes people don’t have good communication skills and its a real issue, and the other thing that I see, it’s tough virtually for executives that we deal with to keep their finger on the pulse of what people are doing without constantly calling people. I think that communication piece is really critical.
The kind of work that I do and where I really get involved is in that communication piece and really helping leaders understand each of their direct reports’ real communications preferences and needs, because once they understand those things, they can be much more effective in reading, guiding, directing, and motivating each individual. I think it’s really up to the leader or the manager to really understand those communication preferences of each individual and put those into action.
Are there certain communications issues that execs have that are amplified in a virtual setting?
I think that there are a couple of things that happen. So for example, a lot of times, there’s email communication in a virtual environment. Email communications get misread. Things aren’t conveyed in the proper way because you can’t see the body language of people and the visual cues, and so a lot of times information will be miscommunicated. Especially, and this is probably more obvious, in situations where there may be conflict.
Are there particular steps that can be taken to avoid Miscommunication?
Some people prefer — and are comfortable with — email communication. Others need verbal communication and interaction. And others need a combination of both of those things, and so the work that I do is really around understanding the communication preferences of each individual and what works best for each individual, because we’ve found that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work.
So the best thing to motivate and boost morale is being aware of individual preferences?
That’s right. You have to a have a communication strategy that really caters to each individual in order to be truly effective.
Is there a particular communications strategy that’s best for motivating virtual teams?
I will tell you that if you have any visual communication technology, it’s really much more effective. In the absence of more high tech options, a lot of our teams are using Skype and any technology like that where they can get some of that visual communication and interaction. …[O]ur team does of a lot of forward work, so we tend to be good listeners, good phone communicators, but not everybody is. As a matter of fact, most people aren’t. And so, any time you can take advantage of that type of technology, you should, more and more. My team is asked to do global coaching and we use that technology in the absence of any high tech stuff.
Are there additional issues with high maintenance team members with less face time?
My definition of a high maintenance employee would also be somebody who’s a high performer. In that case what happens is you have to really clearly communicate the expectations and be on the same page with them. What they tend to do is anything to get the results. They’ll break the rules, they’ll plow over other people. They’re so driven that they tend not to think about how other people might be thinking or receiving the way in which they communicate, and that’s why I think that it’s so important — for that person in particular — that there’s consistent and open communication with very clear feedback and expectations. The issue with those kinds of people is that they don’t want to be evaluated on the process, they want to be evaluated on the fact that they got the result, so they like autonomy, but there’s got to be some clear communication and guidelines so they don’t create a mess.
Once leaders understand that they have to set those guidelines and those boundaries then even managing high maintenance, high performance employees becomes easier.
How can you find the best people for a virtual team and keep them motivated?
I think that not everybody’s built to work virtually. A lot of our coaches who have been with me 9 and 10 years work out of their homes. And there are some who need to go to an office every day, so we’ve set up offices even though as a team we work virtually, because they need to go to that office; it’s too difficult for them to work in their home setting. A lot of times we’re looking at scientific assessment data because we’re using our profile system to hire people. The data can point to, not will somebody work well in a virtual team, but can they work well independently, and what is it that they really need. Some people really need that people interaction, some people need that structure. If they’re in a virtual environment and we know those things, we can better set them up for success.
So find the data, know your people, and build some structure for them?
That’s right. And find some consistency in how you interact with them.
How do you plan with having to work unexpectedly as a virtual team?
I see this one all the time. I have a client — we were just talking about this — that there are certain people who are very good at multitasking and they can work [on] the road, but what ends up happening when you have a team doing that and they’re out of the office a lot is that everybody has their own individual agendas, and there’s a lack of communication and all of the consistent team types of communication fall to the wayside because everybody’s travelling. It really becomes a big issue. And with a lack of a plan and a strategy and check ins and checkpoints and virtual staff communications that [are] mandatory, it really becomes a problem, so there’s got to be a communication plan for how people are expected to interact and show up and communicate when everybody’s on the road.
So when it comes to keeping a virtual team motivated, structure can be even more important?