A virtual manager is more than a figurehead, email address or phone number. Research has shown that the specific relationship a virtual team manager develops with his or her team members matters a great deal when it comes to steering a virtual team toward success. An effective team manager will build trust, encourage motivation, and produce wonderful results within their team; conversely, a weak team manager who does not possess essential managerial competencies could create a fragmented team who doesn’t see much of success at all. Having said all that, we should go into a bit more detail. What are the specific managerial competencies of an effective virtual manager?
The first essential managerial competency is frequent and effective communication. Regular communication and follow ups are crucial in any kind of team, virtual or not. In fact, the US military is now changing the way it communicates. This is due to the growing access employees have to alternative and sometimes conflicting information. Multiple sources of information can leave employees confused and less productive; therefore, the military is beginning to disseminate information more quickly in an effort to ensure the information has been received and understood.
Virtual managers should do the same; for example, after new information has been presented at a meeting, the manager should ensure everyone has understood what has been said. You might think an effective way to accomplish this would be to raise the general question: “Does everyone understand what has been discussed here today?” However, shy team members may be reluctant to speak up, even if they do not clearly understand the new information presented in the meeting. More effectives way to gauge understanding is after each agenda item include: recapping what was said or asking a team member to summarize their understanding of the discussion. Another idea is to follow up via email or a phone call, where team members may feel more comfortable asking questions.
In addition to regularly communicating and following up with the questions and problems raised by their team, virtual managers must provide clear team direction and should set individual goals that team members understand. A well defined direction and set of goals enable virtual team members to regulate and monitor their own performance. This is especially important in a virtual team where it is arguably more difficult for a virtual manager to keep tabs on the activities of their team members. A well defined direction also reinforces the importance of particular tasks and projects so that a team member does not end up placing them on the backburner.
The proof that the above are essential managerial competencies comes from first hand sources. In a research study specifically developed to evaluate virtual team effectiveness, 13 virtual teams, made up of 5 to 7 team members from 3 universities located in in Europe, Mexico, and the US, were created. A project was then assigned, and at its close, managers were asked to assess themselves and team members were asked to assess their team manager and overall experience. Team members who rated their team managers as highly effective has this to say:
“Our team leader was very effective in directing our teams’ activities. She contacted us promptly with her ideas concerning the electronic commerce project. She responded quickly to questions and comments that the team members had”.
“Carlos was an extremely effective team leader in our virtual team project. He provided us with a clean and precise outline of goals, he spoke/wrote excellent English and he answered our questions promptly”.
Conversely, team members who rated their team leader negatively commented:
“I had a hard time getting any direction from him [leader].”
“He gave us deadlines without asking us how much time we needed, or whether it was even reasonable. Them, he wouldn’t care about the deadlines – indirectly creating an attitude that timing was not important.”
To summarize, it is important for virtual managers to build strong relationships with their team members that are characterized by frequent, effective communication. Effective communication involves the rapid dissemination of information and a thorough follow up session. Additionally, virtual managers should set a clearly defined direction and set of goals in order to keep team members focused and motivated Keeping the lines of communication open is also crucial in effective virtual teams: virtual managers should reply quickly to questions and issues raised by the team. If you possess all of these managerial competencies, you’re well on your way to creating a highly effective virtual team.