I’m in the midst of rolling out a new virtual leadership series for a client. We start every series by exploring the three building blocks of successful virtual team leadership (literally, the ABC’s): Accelerating Trust, Building Social Capital and Creating a Level Playing Field. One major challenge comes up in every conversation: How to keep virtual team members engaged, enthusiastic, motivated and energized?
Rather than writing a bunch of tips to help you engage virtual team members, I thought I’d flip it around and give you tips for disengaging your virtual team members. After all, it’s summertime and we can all do with a little fun!
1. Allocate tasks that encourage independence.
- The less dependent people are on others, the more likely they’ll be to get their work done on time. Structure assignments so people can complete their work on their own. You know how some of these people just love to chat! Don’t give them any more reasons than you have to. Once they get on the horn, there’s no telling how much time they might fritter away.
2. Keep goals fuzzy for greater flexibility.
- You never want to be too explicit about team goals, in case you need to change them in a hurry. Better to give out a slew of tasks and deadlines conveying the appropriate sense of urgency, keeping people so focused on their deliverables that they won’t have time to figure out how their contributions fit together toward achieving group goals (if in fact, by some miracle, they do!). After all, it’s much easier to check off items on a task list than stepping back to see how actions support overall goals.
3. Don’t bother with team norms.
- People will just ignore them anyway. And you’ll have the unenviable job of insisting that everyone live by them. There’s no way you can stop John from multitasking on team calls, or Mary from sending hourly emails to everyone on the team, or Max from criticizing everything people have to say, so why even bother? Better to ignore dysfunctional behavior and hope it goes away on its own accord, or better yet, hope that someone else on the team takes care of it for you.
4. Check in with team members early and often.
- Don’t waste time asking about how people are doing or what you can help with. Cut to the chase and ask them when they’ll be done with their latest assignment. After all, you can’t see how they’re spending their days, and you want to make sure they’re focused in all the right places. Use IM, email, phone, text, and anything else you can think of to make sure they know you’re concerned about them (and the state of their projects). Some may call this micromanaging, but you know you’re just keeping tabs.
5. Dole out important information to certain people first.
- Start spreading the news with people you’re closest to. Grab a cup of coffee so you can give them the low-down and hear what they have to say. Catch the others up when you have time-maybe at next week’s team meeting, or in your Monday morning team email. They’ll probably find out the news from other people first, anyway. They can’t really expect you to take the time to call each one, can they?!
6. Emphasize efficiency and brevity on team calls.
- Keep meetings super-quick by discouraging questions and dismissing divergent perspectives. Who’s got time for a real conversation? Send out overly crammed agendas in advance, so no one will be tempted to bring up any out-of-bound topics. If people insist on bringing up issues or questions that you don’t want to cover, encourage them to send an email instead. (Of course, you’ll never have time to respond, but they’ll feel better getting it down in writing.)
7. Economize your communications.
- Your days are busy enough getting your own work done and catching up with people who work nearest you. How on earth can your remote team members expect you to be spending so much time with them? Instead of getting caught up in time-consuming calls, send emails or IMs. In extreme cases, especially where performance is lagging, set up a 1:1 meeting to provide needed coaching, but make sure they know this will be the exception and not the rule.
8. Cancel unnecessary meetings.
- Most of us need more meetings like a hole in the head, right? If you have team meetings or 1:1s scheduled, try using email or IMs instead. As a courtesy, cancel meetings at least an hour in advance, and let participants know you expect them to use this gift of time productively. Invite them to call you if they had something urgent to discuss. Use caller ID to ward off questions that are likely to be a big time sink for you.
9. Let the big talkers take over.
- Think of all the work you can get done while someone else takes over your team meeting. If some people keep quiet, they either just don’t have anything to say, or maybe they’re multitasking, too. You don’t want to pull teeth to force people to speak. It takes way too much energy. Plus, insisting on hearing from everyone will soak up too much time. Consider it a blessing that only a couple of people ever say anything.
10. Take advantage of always-on technology.
- Every team member has a smart phone, courtesy of the company, so it’s only fair you insist that they use it to get work done. Any time. From anywhere. With a smart phone, it’s easier than ever for people to slip away from a family dinner, soccer game or even a vacation, to access an important document, join a team call or answer an urgent question. Insist that people be accessible via IM or text around the clock, just in case. After all, working flexible hours goes both ways.
There are hundreds of ways, large and small, that virtual team leaders can alienate their employees without trying very hard. If you want to engage your team members, take a few of these tips, and try the converse. Another tip: Contact us to find out how Guided Insights can tailor an interactive workshop, onsite or online, to help your leaders inspire, motivate and engage virtual team members both near and far.
See related Communiqué articles: Cutting to the Chase: 8 Essential Steps for Faster, More Engaging Meetings, Recognize and address early signs of virtual team dysfunction, and Leading remote teams: Influencing without authority
Navigating through cultural differences on your virtual team? Start with Part 1 of our white paper: Collaborating Across Cultures