Jeffrey Hull's picture Submitted by Jeffrey Hull March 19, 2020 - 1:54pm

As many of us move quickly to create “social distance” and work from home for what may be a lengthy period, virtual teamwork, which has already become relatively common with international teams, has become an imperative for leaders everywhere. In this real-world case study, I had the opportunity to develop some specific tips that have worked well for my clients – and may be useful for coaches to share.  Staying engaged, motivated and optimistic in stressful times is hard enough face-to-face, but can be particularly challenging in cyberspace.

I hope this example is valuable – as we all learn to stay “connected” and keep community-feeling and support alive in these challenging times.

When I first met Sophia, she had just been promoted to head a research and development team at the U.S. headquarters of a major pharmaceutical firm and felt a bit apprehensive about managing her new team of six researchers, only one of which was co-located with her in PA. The other team members were in different countries: Netherlands, France, Sri Lanka, Ireland, and Brazil.  She not only felt a bit anxious about how to keep them engaged — but wondered how to make them feel like a team at all, given their multiple locations and diverse cultural backgrounds.  She told me that when she had first come to the U.S. from Romania many years ago, she had struggled to maintain a long distance relationship with her then boyfriend. “It was tough,” she recalled, “keeping a sense of aliveness and passion when we were so far apart.”  Yet, somehow she managed it as they are now both U.S. permanent residents, married, with a soon-to-be-scientist toddler in tow.  

Research indicates that what leaders need to do to make a virtual team successful is similar to co-located teams—have a clear vision and goals, align on processes, tasks, and roles; have clear communication guidelines—with the caveat that virtual leaders must be highly attuned listeners. With multiple distance factors at play—physical, operational, cultural—it is incumbent upon leaders to bring awareness and sensitivity to individual differences in order to ensure balance and equity in team participation. Peer-to-peer relationships are equally important as well. A formal buddy system or mentoring program can be a good way to encourage team members to support each other and build camaraderie beyond group settings.

Yet, despite all the best practices and high tech wizardry that can instantly bring people together from all corners of the globe, anyone who has tried to keep the fires of passion (e.g. engagement) alive over long distance for any period of time knows that even the best routines can get stale and feel clunky after a while.  So when Sophia and I talked about her success at keeping her relationship alive during the multi-year separation, we came up with the following list of tips to help her keep the spark alive:  

  1. Inject Spontaneity

    The theory behind the 1980’s management fad known as MBWA or “management by walking around” made famous by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, is still relevant today. Spontaneous check-ins to inquire how your people are feeling – and doing – done with sensitivity to time zones and deadlines—never goes out of style.  As noted above, building team engagement requires disciplined and structured approaches to meetings and milestones. That’s why it is even more essential for leaders to remember to “cross the chasm” on occasion by setting up video chats that actually have no agenda other than to share how things are going – by both parties.

  2. Get Personal

    A continuation of the above, it is essential that leaders take the time to build a sense of community with team members no matter they live. Leveraging today’s global workforce, is in fact, all about embracing diversity, multi-culturalism, and community – which requires one simple goal: get to know your people. One of my clients starts each of her staff meetings with a 5 minute “show and tell” video check-in.

    One member of the team is asked (on a rotating basis) to share on video a bit of office life, or home life, or share a story about family, hobbies, kids, that brings the team a birds-eye view of how their far flung colleague lives. Another option that can help build camaraderie is a facilitated online “retreat” where team members learn about their varying styles and work modes.  

    One of my financial services clients conducted an Enneagram workshop with team members from around the world on ZOOM – and the feedback was stellar: people learned about the wide range of “types,” their preferred ways of working and collaborating, and had a great deal of fun in the process. Private social media groups on Whatsapp or other customized applications (e.g. Energage, Drumup, Voicestorm) can also be a good way to encourage team members to share bits and pieces of their personal stories and live events – creating the “water cooler” atmosphere a co-located team takes for granted—in cyber-space.

  3. Practice Cultural Humility

    The days when team members from countries other than the U.S. had to “act American” in their style if they wanted to succeed in a trans-national context are fortunately on the wane. As I point out in my new book Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World, awareness of diverse cultural values is increasing along with the emergent recognition that not everyone need be an “alpha” (charismatic, directive, authoritative) in order to lead effectively.

    Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia introduced the term “cultural humility” in 1998 with their studies of multi-cultural health care systems. Their work translates perfectly to virtual team leadership as there is a huge pay-off when a leader not only acknowledges the variety and uniqueness of different cultures that staff members bring, but demonstrates humility, and curiosity about different cultural norms.

    Just one example: a team leader I coached had a number of Korean engineers working long distance on a strategic project and struggled at first with their tendency to be highly deferential and, to his listening, ambiguous in their response to questions.  He made the mistake of initially believing the issue was language – a common mistake. Only when he took the time to learn about the Korean cultural principle known as “Nunchi” (best understood as Korean style EQ: sensitivity to lineage and hierarchy, respect for elders, value of indirect communication), was he able to truly understand – and accommodate without judgment – the work mode of these employees.

  4. Maintain Positive Regard

    Harvard professor Amy Edmondson has studied group dynamics extensively and concluded that in order to get the best out of everyone on a team, leaders need to foster “psychological safety” — an atmosphere where people do not fear retribution for missteps and where failures are viewed as opportunities to learn not to blame.

    In long distance situations, to accomplish this leaders need to sweat the details – pay attention to vocal and facial (on video) cues of distress, frustration, anxiety or dismissiveness. Learn to be inquisitive and curious, rather than judgmental, when something doesn’t feel right. In studies of successful romantic partnerships, a high quotient of positive regard – where the positive interactions far outweigh the negative—has been shown to keep couples together during the ups and downs of a long relationship. Remember: the vast majority of employees have positive intent and don’t consciously want to derail their team’s success.

  5. Acknowledge and Celebrate

    In December 2018, the consulting firm A.T. Kearney surveyed the workplace experience of over 500 employees in multi-national companies located in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-Pacific. They determined that the level of engagement – what partner Alex Liu calls “joy” at work – is directly correlated to how much staff contributions are acknowledged—and celebrated. The bottom line: kudos are important. Neuroscience studies of what’s called the PEA “positive emotional attractor” indicate that positive feedback, gratitude, and recognition light up that part of the brain (in fMRI scans) connected with the release of “happiness” hormones: dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.  Social media apps and private communication tools like Slack are ideal places to surprise team members with acknowledgement, even small gifts (e.g. buy a gift certificate to an employee’s favorite restaurant and post it on his or her social media profile) that send oxygen to the flame of desire, signaling: you matter.

    Engagement, whether the romantic kind or the work life kind, is not just about disciplined practices and regular communication (although these are a must), it is also about sharing the human journey together — ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies—with vulnerability, openness and trust.  Human are social beings by nature, and in addition to all the good science behind team practices, the best leaders never forget that motivation, and performance, is generated not just in the head, but in the heart.

Jeffrey Hull, Ph.D. BCC is CEO of Leadershift, Inc. a leadership development consultancy based in New York City and author of the best-selling book, FLEX: The Art and Science of Leadership in A Changing World, from Penguin-Random House. Dr. Hull is a Clinical Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School and adjunct Professor of Leadership at New York University. He is also the Director of Education at the Institute of Coaching, a Harvard Medical School Affiliate. Dr Hull has been featured in Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, Investors Business Daily, and a wide range of media. He can be reached at