Leading Virtual Teams – Part 2: Leading Virtually by Communicating and Collaborating with Intent

Contributor: Alexandra Keys, Director, Enabling Skills, Canada School of Public Service
Published: July 13, 2020


How can teams thrive while working virtually? And how might those with executive responsibilities support this process? Here are some of my experiences and insights about what has worked for our team here at the School.

My first goal was to build connections

The primary thought I had coming into a virtual team, as both a member and a leader, was about connection: wanting to focus on connections and wondering how to connect with people and get to know them when working virtually.

I knew that the Transferable Skills team focused on leading from a human-centred perspective, and that's something I hold to dearly as well. I wanted to jump into leading from this perspective while convening and interacting in a virtual environment.

Communicating and collaborating are key

Communication is the biggest challenge, by far. I see a number of aspects:

I think the competencies around how you communicate and develop relationships with others are essential. In our work, no matter whether we're working virtually or in person, adaptability to new situations and new priorities has always been important. This importance is amplified in a virtual realm.

Working as a virtual team creates more opportunities to talk about how we work together—and in a good way. When you're physically working together day to day, I think you take fewer opportunities to talk about how things are going from a communication and collaboration perspective.

One of the most beautiful things about virtual work is that we end up talking about how we work together, how we communicate, and how we collaborate. It provides incredible opportunities to work in fun and collaborative ways. One of the greatest benefits of virtual work is the increased thought around how we talk to each other and how we work together.

Adaptability, and some great platforms, help us deliver on priorities

The virtual approach, I think, is highly dependent on the nature of the team, the nature of the work, the type of work, and how you choose to go about getting the work done. So you base adaptability on where the team is at in terms of their experience working together so far, the personalities on the team, the type of work you do, and how you work. By type of work I mean are you working towards different longer-term deliverables, or are you working on fast-paced short deadlines?

More practically, it's about creating the platforms and the ease of communication. When I joined the team, I was surprised at the variety of views on what works best in terms of different tools. Navigating that has been really interesting. To me, finding a technology for video conferencing was important.

We have also been exploring various ways to track our progress on projects and manage information sharing between team members and with the broader organization. For example, we've been experimenting with virtual whiteboards for various projects. I'd like to create a virtual wall of wins, shared experiences and fun things we've done together, as we do on actual walls when we physically work together.

Clear channels of communication are critical. I believe that if there are too many channels, things get lost, and it discourages communication. Having very specific channels, and as few channels as possible, maximizes participation and collaboration and a feeling of connection.

Building trust and openness is the foundation of strong relationships

Considerations here range from philosophical to practical. Practically, the first thing is to find a video conferencing technology that you and the team feel comfortable with. Face-to-face interaction via technology is very important to be able to connect with people and understand what they're saying.

Creating the time and space for one-on-one discussions, as well as team discussions, is also really important.

Finally, being open about your time and your calendar is critical. In an in-person situation, people can see what you're doing on a day-to-day basis—working at your desk, walking in and out of the workspace, attending meetings. When you're working virtually, those movements are not visible.

Showing your trust and establishing open conversations about trust is the foundation of these virtual relationships.

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