Leading Virtual Teams – Part 1: Leading Virtually Through Curiosity, Innovation, and Learning

Contributor: John Medcof, Director General, Transferable 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.

How to set up a virtual team

We deliberately decided to set up our team as a virtual team. Having that intentionality means that you proactively think about what you can do. But this was all new to me—I was learning too. I had never managed a virtual team before this year. I hadn't even worked with a virtual team member or had a virtual employee on a team.

In the past, I had always relied on informal interactions—walking around the floor, being present, and jumping into people's cubicles for informal conversations. This allowed me to get a sense of how everyone was doing, and see when people might be feeling particularly inspired, or maybe stressed, and when a visit might be helpful. The biggest thing I've had to wrap my head around in building a virtual team was how to recreate something like that.

How to connect as a virtual team

It's all about communication. Our work is fundamentally about human connection. Creating space to support one another and learn from one another is hugely important. This means:

And it's not just about making communications tools available in a structured way. It can be doing things to create a culture where people feel they can reach out by texting or calling you at any time. Part of it is having the tools in place, but just as important is building an environment where everybody feels comfortable reaching out at any time about anything.

Communication is key

No one can say that virtual communication is the same as face-to-face communication, but it doesn't have to be better or worse. It could just be that they're different. When you're working remotely with team members, you think about communication in a different way than you do when you're with them in person, but it can be just as rich. You can be just as connected with someone virtually as you can be with someone who is physically present.

One specific example that comes to mind is when the Senior Advisor in the Director General's office accepted a short-term assignment in the Vice-President's office. We needed to find someone who could take on that role during her absence, and we found a virtual team member to do it.

None of us were sure that this job could be done virtually—even the individual in question. The Senior Advisor and the Director General have to work so closely together and be able to reach each other on a moment's notice to deal with urgencies and priorities. But we absolutely made it work. It just meant working and communicating in a different way.

In fact, because we intentionally took the approach to "get in touch whenever you need to and do it through any of these channels at any time," it actually worked really well.

Being collaborative and creative

The competencies that are important to the success of a virtual team are the same regardless of whether you're in a leadership role or a member of the team. First and foremost, it's about understanding that in our work, so much comes down to human connections. It's about placing value on human interaction and collaboration—on things like empathy, emotional intelligence, and listening.

Commitment to being open and communicative is important. Working remotely involves a different kind of collaboration than the kind we're used to. Intentionally finding ways to work with different people and collaborating—being hyper-collaborators—is key to making up some of the distance between team members that could otherwise become an impediment.

I think creativity and innovation are especially important. We went into this, and figured out how to do it, while we were doing it. What's been great is to see how people look for new ways of doing things. The default options that many of us rely on when it comes to leading a conversation or interacting with teammates work best in an environment where people are collocated. When you take that away, it inspires people to think differently.

When the tools you're used to having are not available to you, it pushes you to think differently about your objectives. "How can I do this if I don't have my usual tools?" That sort of necessity fosters innovation. Curiosity and innovation are key competencies that can help you thrive on a virtual team. Or this will at least be the case until we get really good at it!

Leading virtual teams

It's important to establish a principles-driven approach to how you're going to interact and connect as a team. That way, when you're in a space where you are trying new things and you know that some of it is going to work and some of it is not, people embrace that spirit of experimentation. You want to create an environment where people have the psychological safety to try something and know that, whether or not it works, it'll be okay because they're doing it for the right reasons.

Our first all-virtual meeting was a foundational moment for us in becoming a virtual team. When we started, most of the team was physically collocated and a couple of people worked virtually. We would have our team meetings in a boardroom and would invite the others to join in remotely. When we made the decision to intentionally and deliberately become a virtual team, we started to add employees who were not physically located at the School's main office. More and more people joined the meetings online.

As the numbers grew, it became obvious that there was a meeting happening in the room. The people who participated virtually were able to join in, but their experience was different. And I would say they were at a disadvantage in terms of being able to fully participate in the meeting. They were small heads on a screen, and there were many of them. It's hard to read social cues when you are participating virtually, or you read them in a different way than you do when you're in a room with people.

At some point, members of the team expressed that it wasn't a level playing field when half the group were physically together and the other half were participating virtually. So we made the decision to have everyone log in to the meeting and participate virtually. Every single member of the team participated as a virtual worker, even if they were physically located in the same building or office area—including my colleague who was sitting in the office right beside me.

What was beautiful was that it immediately levelled the playing field. Right away, everyone was on an equal footing in terms of their ability to participate in the meeting and navigate the interpersonal dynamics in the same way. People jumped in and started using the chat function, and that created a whole kind of rich connectivity in the meeting.

When you're speaking or presenting at these meetings, you manage the conversation a bit differently because you are now talking to everybody in one virtual space. You don't default to having your eyes on the people in the room, rather than on the people who are participating virtually and whose faces may or may not be on the screen.

To me, that was a foundational moment. We weren't a fully virtual team until we started holding our meetings in a fully virtual way.

My advice to leaders supporting virtual teams

We're trying out a whole bunch of things. Some days it's working and some days it's not. And that's okay. We accept that it won't be perfect, but we make our decisions and approach our work in a way that is values-driven—those values being largely human.

To me, our holiday party was a great example. We wanted to try to do something inclusive and recreate that feeling of togetherness. The folks on the team who volunteered to organize the party deliberately looked for activities that might work for a virtual team. Some of what we did worked really well, and other things didn't. Some of those things were in our control, and some of them weren't, such as some of the technology challenges we faced.

I truly believe that diversity is one of our greatest strengths. It's one of the things that will help us grow as we learn from each other. The creation of our team as a virtual team came from everybody—not from one individual, or from four people who have "E" and "X" in their title. I think that applies a lot to who we are and what we do. 

Building virtual multidisciplinary teams is the way work is heading in the public service, I think. In an era where trust in governments and institutions is declining, it is increasingly important for the Government of Canada to be visible across the country and for all of our work to be informed by regional perspectives. This also means shifting away from a model where knowledge work happens in one part of Canada and operational work happens in the others. Navigating new space is always complex, but I think we can learn and share our learning as we do it.

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