3 things you need to know to lead a virtual team

3 things you need to know to lead a virtual team

Your business is thriving and your team is growing, and you may be wondering about expanding into the virtual team world. There certainly are clear benefits, including a larger hiring pipeline and no office overhead, but leading a virtual team can be tricky. We learned from a few virtual bumps as our firm, Xcelerate Business Solutions, grew from a local team of four that met for staff meetings in our living room to a team of 17 completely virtual stakeholders spread across the country.

Here are three things we learned:

1. Culture is still “king” and now even more important than ever.

Every company has a culture – whether you are intentional about creating it or not – and it has been said, “culture is king.” A traditional office setting or our living room for staff meetings was useful at first, but as we expanded virtually, the way we maintained our culture had to be completely overhauled.

In our living room, we saw each other’s body language, and if a joke was cracked, everyone laughed. At our first virtual team meeting, we had eight faces staring back at our screen and no one seemed to be laughing at our jokes. Even worse, when we asked a question, all we heard were crickets. The informality of our living room made for easy connections, but on video, people were less likely to respond, thinking someone else will.

We tried not to change our home-grown, organically developed culture; just the way we communicated it. First, we codified the culture into four short, easy-to-remember cultural values. Next, we developed a stakeholder onboarding process that included videos, trainings and job shadowing elements to instill that culture. Then, we embedded it into every aspect of the company. One of our values is “virtual, but together.” This is not an easy one to maintain in the chat and email world we live in, so we decided to spend money to fly our team to one place at least once a year to meet up in person. We have discovered that a relational trust built in person can be maintained in the cloud, but is much harder to create and build.

2. Clarity of vision and direction ensures the team continues to move toward a common goal.

When we were an in-person team, we could “wing” some of our strategy because we were constantly together, but as we grew, a more simplified plan was needed so we could just “run the play.”

We began by developing our playbook – a two-page strategic plan updated monthly, reviewed on tri-mesters (our corporate rhythm) and reconstructed annually. There are many versions out there, but we used one developed by a company called Crankset Group. This isn’t a three-ring binder of lofty goals that sits on a shelf somewhere collecting dust; instead, it is a Google sheet shared with the entire team that completely focuses on results and dictates our direction. If it isn’t in the playbook, we don’t do it, unless we update the plan. We ensure its continuous use by basing our profit share payout for each stakeholder on how much of the strategic plan they had a part in completing. This playbook is the topic of every team meeting and embedded in the top of the document is … you guessed it … our four cultural values.

3. A results-only focus allows us to trust our team.

Many traditional office settings unintentionally create an environment where having your butt in a seat in front of a computer is what matters. This requires a manager to make sure those employees are showing up and doing what they are told. This is not only unproductive in a virtual environment, but also just plain silly.

We cannot measure how many hours someone is sitting in front of his or her computer, but we can measure what gets done. This began with mapping out consistent processes for every client, based on our contractual obligations, to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. Then, we found a workflow management system, Karbon, to ensure that the processes we created are measurable. Next, we created a results-based pay structure to ensure stakeholder motivation toward what we believe matters most.

This freed them up to work whenever they wanted and as long as they needed to get the job done. It also eliminated the need for middle managers to make sure their support staff were doing their work. Instead, we have self-managed teams that elect their own leads based on results. They can take vacation whenever they want, as long as they can manage the results. This is handy because most of our team consists of work-at-home moms who have other important responsibilities.

These three things have helped us scale our company in ways we never dreamed were possible, without sacrificing service to our clients and company values. We believe our value and results-driven orientation will keep us strong and healthy as we continue to grow. Hopefully, something we have learned along the way can help you navigate the tricky, but rewarding waters of leading a virtual team.