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Q&A on the Book Virtual Leadership

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Key Takeaways

  • Many virtual teams are run poorly. It is possible to develop your own virtual leadership and become skilled at virtual meetings, engage remote team members, and do great work together. 
  • Use virtual team methods when at least one person is remote, even if most of the other people are co-located. Establish group norms and communications, taking everyone’s preferences into account.
  • Don’t aim for command-and-control as your leadership style - it tends to backfire when used remotely! Instead, be a facilitative leader, helping team members to collaborate and each person to do the best job they can.
  • Trust is key. Focus on developing trust throughout the team - encourage people to get to know each other. As for yourself, be credible, reliable, authentic and fair.
  • Choose an appropriate mix of tools to support your team’s requirements for meeting up and sharing documents and discussions. Where possible, during live meetings, use video and shared screens (with drawing/annotation where you can), plus other engagement strategies.

The book Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams by Penny Pullan provides suggestions and practices for people working in or with virtual teams. It discusses leadership styles suitable for virtual or remote teams and explores what can be done to improve collaboration and communication and engage remote participants.

InfoQ readers can read the full table of contents, reviews and (once registered) the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Virtual Leadership on the publisher's book landing page. They can also order a copy at a 20% discount and with free post and packaging in the USA and UK at this page, using the code VLF20.

InfoQ interviewed Dr. Penny Pullan about the challenges of leading virtual teams, facilitative leadership, building and sustaining trust in teams, communication and collaboration tools, leading virtual meetings, increasing our effectiveness as virtual workers, and how virtual leaders can ensure that what has been agreed actually gets done.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Penny Pullan: I wrote the book because I noticed that most virtual meetings in the organizations I worked with were really poor, and that’s probably being generous! Remote team members often felt disconnected, disengaged and forgotten. It wasn’t that much better for the leaders. They often felt as if people were not interested. When they asked for input, there would often be only silence. Were people asleep? Were they all nodding in agreement? Could they not be bothered? On a conference call, there is no way of knowing!

My own virtual working started by accident in 2001. I was due to join to a huge program kick-off in New York, but my flight never took off. The date on my ticket was 13th September, and two days before, the 9/11 tragedy happened. I was grounded and had to lead this global program completely virtually, without meeting everyone first! It was like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool without armbands, but, luckily I swam!

Since then, I’ve worked virtually and found ways to make virtual meetings and teams work well, engaging people to work collaboratively in a way that was fun and that led to real work being delivered. It seems like a good idea to share these, so my third book was on the topic of Virtual Leadership. By the way, virtual leadership is for everyone on a virtual team, not just the designated leader! I explain in the book how virtual teams run so much better when everyone steps up and the leader actively facilitates the team to collaborate and produce great work together.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Pullan: I wrote the book for people who work with others and who can’t always meet in-person in the same room. Sometimes this is because they are based in different locations far away, or they might be working from home for a day or two. The book is for people who are part of one or more long-term virtual teams, as well as for those who just work with others occasionally.

It’s for those who lead virtual teams and those who are part of virtual teams. Even if you don’t consider yourself a leader, you will be able to make a lasting difference in the quality of your virtual work through developing your own virtual leadership.

Do you strive to work well with people spread around the globe, or even just around your locality? Do you wonder how to overcome the challenges and frustrations of virtual working? Do you want to see real and lasting benefits for your organization through your virtual work and that of your colleagues? If so, I wrote the book for you, whatever your role and whatever type of organization you work within. Of course, InfoQ caters to the software development community, and readers say that there is a lot in it that is really helpful there. While you are likely to be incredible with technology, it takes more than technology to make virtual teams work well! My background was as a software engineer initially, and many of the case studies are from situations involving IT.

InfoQ: It seems that more and more teams are spread over multiple locations, becoming virtual teams. What do you think drives this?

Pullan: You’re right that we’re living in an increasingly virtual world, with a range of strong global trends all playing their part:

  • There has been an explosion in the quantity and quality of collaboration technology. It’s freely available around the world. Of course, technology is just a start, but it’s a very necessary one!
  • Our societies have changed rapidly, with people using social media and other remote technology as part of everyday life.
  • Homeworking is becoming much more common, with many people working a day or two from home each week, and others doing this permanently. This saves on the wasted time, energy and hassle of commuting.
  • The threat of climate change, as well as the costs and hassles of business travel, mean that remote working is often taken up instead of travel.
  • If a business needs round-the-clock cover, it is possible to achieve this using teams spread around the world, who pass the baton from one team to the next in a ‘follow-the-sun’ approach.
  • The key for organizations is that they can bring together the best talent at the best price from anywhere in the world, which may include freelancers and partner companies, as well as their own employees. Software development is a field where this has happened a lot for many years since outsourcing started in the 1990s.

InfoQ: What are the main challenges of leading virtual teams?

Pullan: Some of the challenges of virtual teams are the same as those of co-located teams, just heightened. These include the need for clarity, commitment, skills and collaboration.

Some of the challenges are unique to virtual working:

  • It’s easy to be invisible and to drop off the radar. It’s important as a leader of a virtual team to monitor participation and to notice if anyone is in danger of disappearing. If this happens, then draw them back in.
  • Mixed teams with a few people remote and the others in a room are biased towards those in the room. It’s all too easy for people on the line to be forgotten as the people in the room have a good conversation. A virtual leader should create a level playing field as far as they can, making sure that everyone has a similar level of participation.
  • People tend to lose concentration after 60 to 90 minutes in remote meetings. Keep these meetings short and plan multiple meetings, rather than a day-long workshop!
  • In-person teams tend to get to know each other just through casual conversation while waiting for meetings to start or making coffee. As a leader, how can you create these ‘water-cooler’ moments for your virtual team members, so that people have informal conversations and build relationships?
  • It is harder to detect conflict and to deal with it when virtual. Team members find it easy to remain silent. As a leader, listen out for silence and for subtle indications of conflict, such as people appearing to go along with things but with reluctance in their voice.
  • Virtual meetings are often incredibly boring! When I survey people leading virtual teams, what is commonly raised is how hard is it to engage remote participants. But it’s not impossible! In the book I go through 11 different ways to draw people in and make your virtual meetings engaging rather than tedious. I’ll share some later in this interview.

InfoQ: Leaders are often worried about how to keep control in a virtual environment when they can't physically see their staff. What do you think about this?

Pullan: ‘Keep control’? Hmmm. I wonder how much your InfoQ readers like being kept ‘in control’. I suspect the answer is not very much! Interestingly, I find that old-fashioned leadership styles, such as command-and-control, really don’t work virtually. They don’t really work that well in-person either! They were designed for times when it was human labour that was needed, not brains.

With your readers, you have people with amazing talent whose brains are key to their output. Telling them what to do and monitoring them closely will just get their backs up. What I find works best with skilled, knowledge workers like developers is to engage them in what you are doing, sharing a vision of the final outcome. Agree what it is that you expect from them, along with the criteria that you’ll use to measure it as good. Then, get out of the way, unless, of course, they are new to the job or require support.

InfoQ: How can facilitative leadership look?

Pullan: The sort of facilitative leadership I’m talking about is ideal with skilled professionals. Instead of being an all-knowing leader who tells others what to do, a facilitative leader will help the group to work out collaboratively how to achieve the vision and then support each person to do the best job that they possibly can. It’s the opposite of micro-managing, but with support rather than isolation.

What might this look like in practice? Let’s imagine a virtual team, with a new developer, Bob, joining the team. Mary is his team lead.

  1. In their first one-on-one video call, Mary asks Bob what he’d like to get out of his time working in this team. What skills would he like to develop and what experience would be useful as he progressed in his career? What help would Bob like from Mary, and what training and support would he need to be productive? Mary listens carefully and asks further questions to make sure that she understands. This helps Bob to feel welcomed and he listens just as intently as Mary shares the team’s objectives.
  2. In follow-up calls, to support Bob as he gets going on the first task, Mary asks open questions such as: ‘How are things going?’ and ‘How do you plan to get this done?’, along with ‘How can I help you to achieve your goals?’.
  3. When something goes wrong and Bob makes a mistake, Mary explores with Bob what is needed to put things right and to learn from it. She doesn’t blame him for going wrong. If there are things that the whole team needs to do differently, they discuss it together and come up with ideas on how to change.
  4. When things go well and Bob delivers a piece of work that meets expectations, Mary sends him a hand-written thank you card through the post. It makes him feel appreciated as part of his new team and even more engaged in the work.

InfoQ: What are the intangible aspects of identity, and how can we bring such aspects into virtual communication?

Pullan: Our identities consist of things that are easily seen, and other aspects which are more hidden and intangible. For example, when people see me give a keynote speech, they can immediately gather my generation, gender, ethnicity and appearance. The intangible aspects are more hidden. Priya Abraham, in her book ‘Cyberconnecting’, talks about the following intangible aspects: wellbeing, mobility, sociability, communications, geopolitics, lifelong learning, employability, inclusion. These are all things which virtual leaders can use to build common ground and rapport with others.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to build and sustain trust in virtual teams?

Pullan: Trust in virtual teams builds slowly. To build trust, act consistently and equitably across the virtual team and build relationships between individuals. Consider aspects of trust that come from personality, those which are cognitive and those related to the institution. Be credible, reliable and be authentic. Watch out though- if you’re seen as being primarily interested in yourself, this will damage trust.

InfoQ: What suggestions do you have for selecting appropriate communication and collaboration tools?

Pullan: There are a variety of tools available. It’s useful to split tools between those which bring remote people together at the same time (synchronous), and other tools which help remote people to work together at different times (asynchronous).

Synchronous tools include audio calls, shared screen discussions, and video. These are particularly useful when the team needs to ask questions, and get immediate answers and respond to them. Asynchronous tools include e-mail, recordings of meetings, transcriptions, and collaboration tools which provide shared spaces for discussions, project management tools, social media and survey tools. These tools are particularly useful when the team is spread across different time-zones, or when not everyone can join meetings live.

When choosing tools, think carefully about your requirements and ensure that you have the range of aspects that you need to cover your own situation. Bear in mind that sharing documents via e-mail, which is very common, leads to people not knowing if they have the latest version, and also not everyone may have access. If you use a tool as a repository for documents, ensure that you have someone who will curate the space and also that everyone knows what goes where. Otherwise, your tool will quickly become a mess and will be much less useful than it could be.

InfoQ: How can we keep people engaged in virtual meetings?

Pullan: In the book, I provide 11 different ways to engage remote people in virtual meetings. Here I only have space for a few ideas, so here goes:

  • Use visuals, especially moving visuals. Our brains are hardwired to think visually - we can take in huge amounts of information through our eyes, processing it in a split second. A visual gives people something shared to look at and adds a second sense to the discussion. To power this up even more, annotate slides as you talk through the points. I draw on shared screens in my virtual meetings and find that it keeps people focused, as they can see the changes in front of their eyes while I talk.
  • Use video, rather than just conference calls. While many people find that they don’t like the thought of being on camera during a meeting, in reality it is very helpful for people to be able to see one another. Video isn’t as rich as being present in person, but it does share some body language information which would be lost otherwise. Teams which use video for their meetings tend to have stronger relationships and deeper levels of trust, leading to better outcomes.
  • Use stories! I’m not talking about starting your meeting with ‘Once upon a time, …’ but using the narrative form. As humans, we’ve been sharing information through stories for thousands of years, so we find stories fascinating. We listen for the beginning, the middle and the end. It’s easy to remember the facts from an engaging story, in fact, it is effortless! I often tell the story of how I began to work virtually at the start of my keynote talks. I share how I had a ticket to fly to New York on 13th September 2001, but that this never happened, as 9/11 happened and we were grounded for months. At the very end of the talk, I ask what the date was on my ticket. To their amazement, people can remember the details of the date, without having to think at all! In virtual meetings, keeping people hooked into your meetings is really helpful, so have a go at using narrative rather than just telling people things in a list format.

InfoQ: How can we prepare and chair meetings for idea generation or innovation?

Pullan: To prepare for any meeting, make sure you are clear on the Magic 6 aspects:

  • We are here to… What is your purpose for this meeting? This should be high level, say 7-10 words.
  • Today we will… Here you go into the more detailed objectives for your meeting. I would suggest a maximum of five.
  • Our plan is… Make the timing clear here, including start and end times.
  • Who’s doing what… What roles are different people playing? Who is being timekeeper? Who is recording actions?
  • How we work together… What are our agreed ground rules for our meeting? Some examples for virtual meetings include stating your name at the start of any contributions you make; mute if you’re in a noisy environment; only one person speaking at any time…
  • What happens next… What are you going to be leaving this session with? What happens next?

For an idea generation, remote meetings can work very well. The key is to give everyone the chance to write down their own ideas and to be able to share their ideas anonymously, or via a trusted, neutral person to collate and share. There are specific tools available for this - for example, tools that use virtual post-it notes. With every idea generation, give people time to think on their own before coming together to build up a shared set of ideas. Much of this could be done asynchronously too.

InfoQ: What's your advice for increasing our effectiveness as virtual workers?

Pullan: There are lots of things that can help, some of which I’ve given above, like using my Magic 6 for your meetings. Some other things to consider include the following:

  • Interruptions - Each time a team member is interrupted, they will be pulled out of focusing on their work. It can take up to twenty minutes to get back to the same level of focus. Developers certainly spend much of their time thinking deeply and focused. So consider how team members contact each other. Perhaps your team can agree times when they are open to others contacting them, and times when they don’t want to be disturbed.
  • Stop for breaks - While some people think that remote and home workers can spend a lot of time lazing around, the truth is often the opposite. It’s easy to work long hours if no-one can see that you’ve started before anyone else and that you’re still going into the night. If your remote colleagues are based in countries that are up before you, then starting early appears to make sense, but if you stay online to speak with your colleagues whose working day starts at lunchtime, then you’re working too hard and need to stop and replenish.
  • Group norms - What are your remote team’s norms for use of e-mail? What about communications - who needs to know what by when and how often? What’s expected of you in terms of behavior? Setting these up at the start of working together will make life easier for everyone.

InfoQ: How can virtual leaders ensure that what has been agreed actually gets done?

Pullan: Especially with developers, how do you know how much work team members have done? It’s tricky even when you’re co-located. I can remember asking colleagues how far they’d gotten, to be told ‘90%’. The trouble was that this stayed at 90% for many days afterward! Since then, I’ve found it more useful to have just three options: not started, 50% or 100%.

A key part of ensuring delivery in a virtual team is that team members feel accountable for their actions and responsible for their own performance and progress. Make sure that people understand what is expected of them, now and in the longer term. Make sure your door is open to them and welcome challenges, provide support, give guidance and help them with issues raised. A culture of ‘no surprises’ is a good one to set up so that people don’t hide problems. You can observe what’s happening through status reports, virtual meetings, and the actual work produced. Just don’t forget that work is not finished 100% until it meets the criteria you’ve set and agreed together at the start.

All the best with your virtual teams!

About the Book Author

Dr. Penny Pullan is an author and consultant in the field of virtual leadership, specializing in complex change projects involving virtual teams. She founded Making Projects Work Ltd, whose clients include multinationals from drug companies to banks. Her free Virtual Working Summit is in its tenth year, with thousands of participants from around the world.

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