The global pandemic has thrown a metaphorical spanner in the works when it comes to remote working. A mere few months ago, lawyers, accountants, and consultants were busy meeting deadlines, leading and managing their teams, and winning business without having to think much about it. Fast forward about 14 weeks and everything has changed; firms have had to become virtual and professionals have had to experience a steep learning curve when it comes to leading a completely virtual team. Most mid to large firms now are not expecting to get all their employees back into the office until 2021 and possibly for the foreseeable. And from what I have heard many firms are undertaking large projects to understand how a model where virtual working becomes the norm would work for their firm. The days of getting everyone in the office together most of the time are likely to be well and truly over.

There are many hurdles to overcome when managing distributed teams and now this skill has become essential, so this fact begs the question: how do the leadership needs of virtual teams differ from face to face teams? To lead and manage a remote team, you need to make certain adjustments and you can only do this when you know the differences between a virtual team vs face to face team.

How do the leadership needs of virtual teams differ from face to face teams?

There are many differences when comparing a virtual team vs face to face team, but these key differences below are crucial to success. These factors are what will enable you to adapt your leadership so that you can manage a virtual team effectively.

1) Team members need help to develop ‘working from home’ skills

When it comes to traditional or face to face teams, employees are largely selected based on their functional skills; in virtual teams, they are largely selected based on core competencies that are in addition to these skills. While we all know that the goal of hiring is to get the right people on board, the situation that many lawyers, accountants, and consultants find themselves in now is that they are trying to get a well-oiled traditional team to become just as efficient as a virtual team. Not everyone has honed their leadership skills managing from their office audit teams out on site. As you can imagine, this is hard enough without having to keep meeting deadlines and trying to adapt their leadership style at the same time too!

So bringing it back to the question then, how do the leadership needs of virtual teams differ from face to face teams? To manage your team effectively over this transition period, you need to help your employees build the skills that are essential for working from home. Skills such as managing ambiguity, proactive networking, exceptional time-management and self-discipline, and on top of that, the ability to learn new technologies and collaborate across a distance. It doesn’t matter whether your team members are the most skilled people at what they do if they aren’t able to perform in a virtual team environment, so you need to help them develop these skills.

2) A flatter organisation structure and more support works best for virtual teams

While authority and hierarchies may support traditional teams and result in increased performance, remote working needs a flatter organisation structure. This is a key difference between a virtual team vs face to face team.

To survive this massive adjustment period where working on-site just isn’t an option, professionals will need to adjust their structures to one that is more supportive of remote work. All team members (regardless of the hierarchy) will need to pull together to create a virtual culture that encourages creativity and collaboration, and one that delivers results. This will involve much higher levels of communication and support to overcome the challenges that are arising from social distancing.

While this will be a massive adjustment for many, adapting your structure and leadership and increasing the level of support during this time is critical to success. (Help your team members create a new routine when working from home)

3) A transformative leadership style is more effective

An experimental study by Purvanova and Bono found that transformational leaders’ behaviours were positively linked to performance in virtual teams than face to face teams. What this means is that in a virtual setting, where leaders use only computer-mediated communication, employees respond better and therefore perform higher when their leaders increased their transformational leadership style.

Transformational leadership is defined as “a leadership approach that causes change in individuals and social systems. In its ideal form, it creates valuable and positive change in the followers with the end goal of developing followers into leaders.” To put it simply, transformational leadership is taking a more democratic and coaching approach to leading a team rather than the traditional ‘command and control’ type.

According to the study, leaders who increase their transformational leadership behaviours in virtual teams achieve higher levels of team performance. Therefore, if you’re currently struggling to lead your team virtually, try to take a step back from traditional methods, delegate not just tasks but authority too, and work with your team rather than just managing them.

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4) More efficient and effective communication is essential

If you’re asking yourself “how do the leadership needs of virtual teams differ from face to face teams?” you must think about communication. It should come as no surprise that virtual teams struggle more with misunderstandings or gaps in communication, so how can you compensate for this?

Due to communication issues, virtual teams can suffer from delays in fixing a problem or reaching a consensus. This can be due to distance or time zone differences as you can’t just pull the whole team into a meeting like you can in a traditional setting, so as a result, quick decisions and problem-solving are harder to achieve. With the use of the right apps and software, you need to streamline your channels to minimise these issues. Make sure you have the right practice management software in place to provide and receive frequent status updates; you will also need a shared database which everyone can access and see all the necessary information, and you will need to agree on deadlines and schedule regular team meetings.

A lot of managers also don’t realise just how much information is being exchanged during ‘informal discussions’ while in the office and how this contributes to creativity. To account for this, create an informal group thread where team members can engage in more casual conversation.

5) Everyone will need the appropriate tools and training to be successful

Every team, whether co-located or distributed, needs the appropriate training and the right tools to be able to work effectively. When it comes to virtual teams, however, this is absolutely crucial.

Within a firm, the training process is more established, systems are streamlined and the tools to support them are usually already in place. When it comes to virtual teams, especially when in this situation you haven’t had the time to prepare for it, you may have to do this alongside creating new daily structures and meeting deadlines which just makes it that much harder.

There are many tools available today to aid remote working, you just need to invest the initial time to find what works best for your team and to train them on how to use it. Remember that productivity cartoon where the cavemen are trying to drag a crate with square wheels and they turn down the suggestion of circle wheels because they are ‘too busy?’ Bear this in mind when you’re trying to implement new software! While any change is going to take up a lot of your time and effort initially, it will serve to make the whole team more efficient and your life easier. You will probably find that your firm’s IT department has decided on what software you have to use to collaborate virtually. However, if you have a choice apps and software such as Zoom, Go-To-Meeting, Slack, Teams, and Monday.com, are all commonplace among virtual teams and all serve to bridge that distance. Remember, if the tools aren’t there to support your team, then the team can’t be successful.

6) Relationships will need to be built differently

Looking at the key differences of a virtual team vs face to face team, relationships are a big one. It makes sense, of course, since traditional team members meet in the workplace every day so it’s easier to develop those close social ties; they strike a rapport with each other when they interact face-to-face while virtual team interactions are more task-focused. With a lack of verbal cues and gestures in a virtual setting, it is this limitation in personalisation that makes it harder for relationships to develop among virtual team members.

While it is true that it is easier to build relationships in the office, this doesn’t necessarily mean that relationships will develop. People are different and being around each other for the majority of the day, 5 days a week can be a challenge in itself. In the case where team members don’t get on for whatever reason, this perceived distance between them can cause a team to suffer just as much as actual distance could.

So what is the take away from this? Relationships and trust take time and effort, regardless of whether the team are sitting together or are distributed across the globe. While it may take more effort to build relationships in a virtual team, relationships can be just as strong or stronger even despite the distance so all the effort is worth it.

7) For productivity and growth, everyone will need to have a shared vision and understanding

Every team needs to have a shared purpose and it must achieve a shared understanding. If it doesn’t, then you will experience problems with performance, cohesion, and growth. Again, this is perhaps easier to achieve in a traditional setting where actual communication is taking place, so when you are leading a virtual team, you will need to make a conscious effort to build this vision and instil it together.

A shared understanding can’t be accomplished with documentation alone. What I mean by this is that outlining the vision for your part of the firm and team values in a document and emailing them to your team won’t be enough. You need to be having the right conversations, reminding them of where they fit into your part of the firm and why what they are doing is important, as well as instilling these values in everything that the team is doing. More often than not, good documentation is often the result of good conversations so have these conversations intentionally. If you develop a shared purpose and understanding as a team, this will make a massive difference to your productivity, performance, and growth moving forwards.

Use these key factors to master virtual leadership

As we said at the start of this article, to lead and manage a remote team successfully, you need to know the differences between a virtual team vs face to face team so that you can make the right adjustments.

If you help your employees develop the right skills, work with them instead of purely managing them, and support them with the right tools and training, you’ll soon be the type of leader that they need and you will have a strong team who trust each other and perform well. I don’t know about you, but that’s the dream!

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