Leading Virtual Teams – Part 3: Leading Virtually by Building Communications and Cohesion

Contributor: Monique Ramdhan, Director, Leadership Fundamentals, 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.

Our team is passionate about leadership and supporting teams that are working virtually

I lead a team of amazing people who support the leadership journey of leaders at all levels of the public service. To do so, we design, develop, and offer courses on topics such as coaching, change management, leadership, engagement, and succeeding as a virtual team.

We ourselves are a virtual team, which is a strength. We are able to share our experiences and various perspectives on being a virtual team to support learners across the country. Most of all, we are passionate about leadership and about supporting colleagues along their leadership journey.

I stepped into leading a virtual team without a point of reference for how to do so

My biggest uncertainty was about how to lead a virtual team. I have never been part of a distributed team, so I didn't have a point of reference for leading one.

I worried that I wouldn't be able to lead this team effectively. How do you create cohesiveness and a sense of belonging when team members are thousands of kilometres away? Canada is a big country. 

We talk about how to communicate, and find ways to have formal and informal discussions

Good communication is key to having a high-functioning virtual team. It's important to:

I would encourage people working as a virtual team to develop a communications charter for their team. It's a great way to start a conversation about how each team member, and the group as a whole, will communicate. The level of detail and use of the charter will depend on the team, but opening the conversation helps to identify what resonates most.

My team's charter is a living document. We're still finalizing a first iteration, and the charter will evolve as the team grows and develops in maturity. 

We use a number of tools to communicate throughout the week. These tools help us gel and build strong relationships. We use Teams for meetings, the phone to connect one on one, and email to share information and facilitate decisions.

Open and transparent relationships and a cohesive team identity are key to success

Leading a virtual team is just like leading a team that is physically collocated. The key in both situations is to develop open and transparent relationships with team members and to build a team identity.

Establishing how we would communicate required a few conversations. When we first became a team, we talked about the frequency of meetings. There were a range of views—some people preferred to meet weekly, others preferred fewer meetings. We settled on weekly meetings to help the team gel and share information. Team members have a range of expertise and competencies, so we try to learn from each other as much as possible.  

We also found it's important to create opportunities for team members to connect informally. We host watercooler chats every Friday to give people a chance to connect on a more personal level.

For me, the people on my team are my priority. If team members are feeling confident, empowered, valued, and part of a bigger team where they can contribute to their fullest potential, then everything else falls into place. I spend a lot of time building relationships across the team and with each individual, and I encourage team members to do the same.

Technology really helps us to connect

What surprised me is that the technology does enable us to work as if we are all together. It feels as though you are sitting together in the same room where you can see body language and hear the tone in people's voices. The technology allows us to develop and maintain great working relationships.

Find ways to balance your time and support people in connecting with one another

There are two challenges that I can think of. As a leader on a virtual team, I try to be available as much as possible. Since we are not all in the same time zone, I often stay a bit later to connect with team members. I am learning to set boundaries with myself to balance team needs and my own time. Someone recently suggested that I reduce my open-door policy to specific times in the day. I am going to try that to see if that will help me better manage my time.

Secondly, I worked actively to help team members gel so that people feel connected and able to reach out to colleagues. I paired more experienced team members with those who were new to the team. I created the space for team members to coach and informally mentor others. Team members are now self-organizing sessions on topics such as learning design and growth mindset. It's energizing to hear that these activities are happening!

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