Leading virtual teams

@Shakee Messina

A great leader is agile and resilient. During these times of great uncertainty—where businesses, the economy, and the health of the global population are at risk—great leaders have to step up and set themselves apart.

With the shift to digital in full swing for many companies worldwide, it’s great leaders’ moment to shine, guiding their virtual teams through the crisis with compassion and conviction.

IE University recently organized a webinar about just that. Led by Sergey Gorbatov, Professor of Leadership and Human Resources at IE Business School, the session kicked off by going back to basics and discussing innate human instinct.

Meeting your teams’ needs

According to Sergey, humans crave three social elements in order to feel stable:

  1. Attention and approval (or “getting along”)
  2. Status and power (or “getting ahead”)
  3. Predictability (or “finding meaning”)

When these factors are upended, our mental health takes a hit, experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. And as one might guess, a global crisis of this magnitude is sure to upend some of those elements. As a leader, it’s crucial to reinforce these needs among team members.

Sergey gives the example of Gennaro Arma, captain of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was famously quarantined in a Japanese dock after 700 passengers were exposed to COVID-19. The Italian captain made headlines for his swift and courageous response to the outbreak, and was even awarded Italy’s highest honor, the Order of Merit, by President Sergio Mattarella. At the most basic level, what Captain Arma did was satisfy those three universal human needs.

  • Getting along: Arma consistently used humor and encouragement to keep spirits high, slipping notes of positivity under the doors of quarantined passengers. He stayed lighthearted, reportedly peppering his speech with Italian words and mocking his own English accent.
  • Getting ahead: The captain delegated unfamiliar duties to crew members, allowing them to step up to a higher role and even coordinate with Japanese authorities. Arma referred to his crew as “his gladiators” and gave them constant emotional support. Arma himself was the last person to leave the ship.
  • Finding meaning: Arma kept the whole ship informed of any updates he received—virtually. While they were all confined in the same space, each passenger was isolated in their own cabin, so the captain communicated with them via radio, internet, and notes slipped under the doors. Arma kept a calm and cool head, and relayed any predictions for the coming days as soon as he could.

How do we apply these lessons to the sharp shift in context we’re experiencing now? In response to a context shift, there must always be a mindset shift.

Team members are surely feeling isolated and disconnected from society, so it’s your job to shift from simply leading the team, to being the team’s “base,” fostering a sense of safety and community. Members are also sure to feel frustrated with their work due to a slowdown of output and decision-making. Take this opportunity to “create the environment for your team members to run fast,” says Sergey. Finally, with the flood of information and uncertainty, it’s your time to make sense of it all, connecting the dots and communicating them to your team. Having one strong, consistent source of information will create a security net for team members.

Lead by example

None of this will work if you aren’t setting a good example yourself. Your behavior as a leader is more crucial than ever, with your team looking to you for extra guidance.

Let’s start with the obvious: be there for your people. According to Sergey, “phantom leaders,” or leaders that are absent either physically or virtually, have more of a negative effect on the team than leaders who show up but make mistakes. Be present, be transparent, and be accessible.

Next, find ways to demonstrate empathy. Show that you really hear your team’s concerns, and validate them. Ask them about their family and friends, what they did over the weekend, what their goals are. Encourage video calls—work-related or not. Observe your team members’ environments when on video chats, and use those clues to find common interests.

Sergey says that the first thing he always advises leaders to do is to celebrate small victories. Shout-out team members enthusiastically about specific wins, big or small. This recognition not only boosts morale, but it elevates that person’s status, increasing their sense of achievement and power.

The last consideration Sergey mentions about behavior is choosing your words and actions wisely. With hyper-reduced physical interactions with team members, we must be more deliberate when we do have them. Rather than chatting intermittently throughout the day at the office, we may just have one 30-minute video call. Plan that time strategically, be efficient, and make every word count.

hands together

The most human thing

It’s not all about grandiose leadership decisions and strategy. To lead virtual teams successfully, we must put an even stronger emphasis on human connection.

Most people who are still working during the crisis are working from their homes. If as a leader, your job was to ensure positive working conditions in the office, why wouldn’t that be the case for remote work? Check in with your team members to make sure they have everything they need: a clean and suitable work space, strong internet connection, and a schedule that includes frequent breaks, stretching, and healthy eating.

Sergey wrapped up the webinar asking the audience which need was hardest to fulfill: getting along, getting ahead, or finding meaning. The unanimous answer was finding meaning. So if there’s one lesson you take from this, let it be empathy. Connect with people, be honest and vulnerable, and make them feel safe and secure. If you do, you’re sure to be remembered as a great leader, just like Captain Gennaro Arma.