Leading a (Virtual) Team

Leading a team has been the most challenging, and the most fun, part of my job. At times I’ve had team members not actually in the same room as me – or even the same country, that makes it more challenging but the principles of managing a team remain the same. Here’s my take on it.

There’s a lot of discussion about working remotely particularly as Yahoo and IBM removed that option for their employees, however there’s research out there indicating that remote teams can be as productive or even more productive than co-located workers.

I’ve had remote workers in three different set-ups;

  •  remote, working from another location including one in another country (with a different time zone)
  • regular, working from home 1-2 days per week
  • occasional, working from a different location for an occasional short period, for one colleague it allowed him to be in Spain for the bachelor party and the wedding of his closest friend.

In all three cases there were good business reasons for the person’s choice of work pattern, and I always had a team who were mostly in the office together. In the case of the person working at home 1-2 days per week it saved a rather long commute.

In leading my teams I’ve always tried to provide; a clear purpose, clear work assignments, regular progress evaluations, a good relationship with me as the manager and a connection to the rest of the team.

Team in the Room Remote Team
A Clear Purpose -annual/quarterly conversation for whole team to discuss team purpose -annual/quarterly conversation for whole team to discuss team purpose
Clear Work Assignments -annual performance review sets high level deliverables
-project design sets short term deliverables
-annual performance review sets high level deliverables
-project design sets short term deliverables
-rolling email tally of tasks and progress
Evaluate Progress -1 on 1 meetings each week (or two weeks)
-publish project progress
-1 on 1 calls each week (or two weeks)
-publish project progress
Relationship with a Manager -1 on 1 meetings each week (or two weeks)  -1 on 1 call
-daily chat on messenger
Connection to Team -Bad music Friday
-Friday team lunch
-Team events
-virtual “watercooler”
-project with team
-bring remote worker into team events

As you can see it’s not much different to manage a remote worker, but as a manager, I needed to document things in more detail because I wasn’t seeing them each day, and I had to make a specific effort to have a chat for a social purpose, the chat could go into work territory but typically began with a mention of coffee.

HBR did some research into how to make virtual teams work that backs up my empirical conclusions, particularly the idea of having regular contact across the team and between team the manager and the remote colleague. Unsurprisingly communication is the key to making it work.

Personally, I like having the option of working remotely, it allows me to really focus on an assignment. It can also be convenient if I have a mid-day appointment. I know that the flexibility is appreciated by team members. I haven’t seen any change in the productivity of any individual.  As a manager I wouldn’t want to manage a team where everyone worked remotely all of the time. At some point it would be hard to maintain the connection with each team member and across the team. But with a team of motivated professionals the option to work remotely is positive for the team members and the team.

Image:  Teamwork  |  ThoroughlyReviewed  |   CC BY 2.0

Recruit for Attitude


“Your team is amazing” a colleague told me recently, of course I agreed. She then asked me why that was. I had to think for a moment, and I realised it’s largely because I’ve managed to recruit the right people. So her next question, naturally, was “how do you know who to choose”.

I’ll interview people who fit the “80% plus rule”. They need to meet 80% of the requirements listed in the job vacancy, and meet them solidly. There’s no point pretending that shopping at Amazon counts as online project management experience. The “plus” is they need to have done something remarkable; having a company on your CV which is a legend in online marketing helps, but so would winning a design award as a student.

So my interview list is made up of people who meet the knowledge + skills + performance test. After that I’m recruiting for attitude;

  • self motivated
  • interested in what they do
  • forward looking
  • happy

Yes, I recruit happy people. I’ve got to work with them, I don’t want a bunch of grumps. I want people who work hard, take responsibility, look forward, have a (mostly) positive attitude, and buckets of sense of humour.

So in an interview I will look for those characteristics – how they’ve handled bad stuff in the past, how they’ve processed it, are they positive about the future, can they laugh at themselves. Do they take fair responsibility for stuff that’s gone wrong, and perhaps more telling – for stuff that’s gone right.

One last thing I look at – how do the candidates treat the secretary. In my last recruiting round she brought each of the final candidates up for their second interview. The guy who was successful was not only courteous he talked to her about how long she’d been at the company, what she liked about her job. He let go of his own nerves and spoke to her like a person. She said he was the one to hire, and she was right.

I know my team are great, individually and together. I took part in recruiting all but one of them – it’d be odd if I thought otherwise.

image say yes