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Leading virtual teams – a toolkit

Deep dives | 20.07.2021

Leading virtual teams – a toolkit

Making the shift from face to face to virtual teamworking isn’t all about tech although that is important. Instead, the most effective virtual teams use strategies which are fit for purpose – not just a carbon copy of the way you’d lead a face to face team. Having a clear communication plan, building trust and engagement and establishing a sense of purpose are all vital to making your remote team effective.

Now, more than ever before, being able to work successfully as a team across multiple locations is paramount. While remote working has steadily been on the increase for a while, unprecedented events like the Coronavirus outbreak in March 2020 meant that organisations have had to up their virtual working game – and fast.

In this guide, we’ll share some of our knowledge, expertise and advice on leading and working virtually and how to set the scene for success.

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Getting your communication right 

From setting up your collaboration tool to agreeing on check regular check ins.

Establishing your roadmap 

It’s your job as a leader to ensure your organisation has these four things when it comes to remote working:

  1. The roadmap – where are you trying to get to and what are you trying to achieve as a team and an organisation? Lay out your purpose early on and make sure it’s prominent on any virtual channels you choose. 
  2. Agree on rules of the road – what rules do you need to establish to get people behaving in ways that achieve this goal? 
  3. Driving lessons – how will you communicate this to everyone in the organisation to ensure they all have the skills and knowledge necessary? 
  4. Driving test – how do you ensure your people use the technology as you intend? 

Agree regular check ins 

Decide how often, where and when you’d like to check in – regular communication becomes vitally important when you can’t just catch up by the coffee machine. As well as more formal one to ones, consider virtual coffee time where the team can socialise and ‘hang out’ online, WhatsApp groups for vital messaging/fun gifs (delete as appropriate for your team culture) or even team events like watching a movie together via NetflixParty or similar. Social check ins shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Pick a platform – but just one 

You need everyone on one platform. That’s a macro rule. Whether that’s Slack, Teams, Asana, Trello or any other tool, you need to agree that all core communication and conversation happens here. If it’s not on the platform - then it doesn’t exist.  Make sure that everyone is on it, has a profile picture loaded, and of course, knows how to use it.  

There are lots of other practical rules you can establish, such as conversational thread etiquette, and when it’s appropriate to use hashtags, emojis and pins.  

Use your webcams for more than meeting 

One of the key skills required to inspire and lead remote teams is the ability to record and share compelling, inspiring video messages quickly. While having your webcam on in meetings is a really nice way to both stay connected and maintain attention, you can also use video technology to share thoughts, updates and team news in a much more personal format than text. 

Be explicit about everything you say 

In a written environment, your tone of voice and body language are no longer available to you to communicate key messages, so you need to choose your words and punctuation carefully. Every adjective, full stop and exclamation mark matters. 

There might not be a ‘right’ style, but getting comfortable using images, emojis and gifs can help give you a broader range of communication tools and being extremely deliberate and explicit with words is critical. 

Be careful with private channels 

There are public and private channel settings on most collaboration platforms and being fair and transparent in using these is critical to mitigate any feelings of ‘in’ and ‘out’ group tensions. Of course, a channel where confidential financial information is being discussed will be restricted to certain individuals, but avoiding any unnecessary hierarchical restrictions will reduce the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ festering online, just as it did when you had the leadership team sat on one side of the office and everyone else on the other. 

Running virtual team sessions

In the past, virtual colleagues could often get overlooked in meetings where the majority of the team were office based. Now, you need to think virtual first. Here’s our checklist on running a great virtual team session. 

  • Try to run the session ONLY online. If ALL the audience is available in person, you could run it face-to-face. BUT if anyone needs to attend virtually, you should make it a wholly online event (eg run via Teams).  
  • Book a room to run the session – do not run a virtual session in a noisy office area. 
  • Have each participant use their own headset and microphone even if they are in the same room – the audio will be better than a shared microphone. There’s nothing worse than missing half the conversation because someone is sat too far away from the microphone. 
  • Get a co-presenter (aka producer) if possible – you can reach out to the group and run the session, while the producer manages the recording, monitors the audio quality, and lines up the next poll etc. They can also provide support to people who have technical issues, and put people on mute when they need to be. And they can keep an eye on the chat – drawing out key questions and comments and ensuring they are read into the recording. 
  • Prepare thoroughly and set up early – upload everything in good time and practise beforehand with the technology you are using so you are familiar with its functionality. You do not want to be figuring out how things work when you have a dozen people waiting for you to do something! Also, do not try to cover too much – a maximum of one content slide every two minutes is a good general rule. 
  • Start on time – it’s very dull for your remote audience to listen to people getting themselves organised – or to listen to silence. 
  • Encourage people to stay on mute and use the chat – so check the chat regularly, and invite people to come off mute if they want to expand their question/point 
  • Avoid handovers – if multiple people are presenting, either present from one machine, or if you really have to, practise handing over control between each other, so it is seamless during the presentation. 
  • Think radio – any kind of silence is always to be avoided (especially at the start) so you should imagine you are someone on radio: keep talking and keep your audience informed about what is happening at all times. ALWAYS make sure you talk directly into the microphone. 
  • If you are using a single microphone, position it sensibly – make sure it is away from laptop or projector fans, and that anybody who is speaking is sitting near it (or move the microphone to where people are – but people who are presenting need to sit near each other). 
  • Explain silence – when the meeting is starting, make it clear whether people should be expecting to hear something or not yet – maybe a slide saying ‘no audio yet – and please put yourself on mute’, or consider playing some music before the webinar starts so people can check if they can hear audio. Also, don’t have internal conversations while you are preparing if the mic is switched on – it can sound unprofessional. 
  • Remember it is a two-way process – if you don’t have a producer, regularly pause your presentation to review and address the chat comments (you don’t want dead space at the end as you look back though the chat). If you have a producer, you should still do this (as it shows you are involving your audience and can lead to interesting side conversations). If things are being slowed down by a lot of typing, encourage the person to come off mute and talk into their microphone. 
  • Remember some people will be watching a recording – so be very clear and read out in full any questions or comments people have put in the chats. 
  • Make the most of your voice – it is the only thing you have in the virtual world, with no eye contact and body language, you need to come over as dynamic and welcoming through the voice alone. Don’t rush it but keep the energy levels up. If you miss the cues from seeing your audience responding, use the chat – for instance, ask the audience to ‘use the emoticons to let me know what you think’. 
  • Remember all they see is the slide you are showing – so don’t start talking about something that’s not there. The answer? Make sure you have a slide to cover everything you are going to say or do. Use your slides to signpost the session. Plan to pose a question? Put it on a slide (even if it is going to be a poll question). It helps virtual participants know what is going on. 
  • Remember bandwidth – slide transitions, animations, and videos, may not work very well. And don’t go too fast – the audience may not be seeing what you’re seeing if there’s a small delay. 
  • Keep it simple – it is always worth keeping things as simple as possible in a virtual session as there are fewer ways in which you can control attention. There is a danger that participants can get lost or overwhelmed. 
  • If it’s a meeting – people don’t find it easy to interrupt, so again, use the chat so people can make points or ask questions. If you are chairing, ask for input/questions by going round the virtual room so everyone is clear when they have a chance to speak 

If you have no choice but to run a session that is a mix of people in the room, and people online, then you must pay extra care to the points above: 

  • You must ensure that you give equal time to questions from online as to from the floor 
  • If people ask questions or make comments in the room, they should be repeated so they appear in a recording and so everyone can hear them. Conversations within the room should be kept to a minimum; equally, any conversation in the chat should be shared back with the room 
  • The presenter should avoid pointing to things on the screen, or turning their back to the microphone 
  • Anybody in the room who says something, should say it into a microphone to avoid the delay while people online wait to hear what they are saying 
  • Say who people are as they talk or as you refer to them 

Other ideas for virtual meetings 

Here are some other ideas from the internet about running effective virtual meetings: 

  • Have a chat window open — this allows people to post extra info or give updates when something goes wrong. It is frustrating to speak when nobody hears you and you can’t even tell them that it doesn’t work. A text chat next to the conf call hardly ever fails to work and is a good feedback mechanism 
  • Give each person time on the agenda. Along with collaborative problem solving, giving each person time on the agenda fosters greater collaboration and helps get input from all the team members. Here’s how it works: In advance of the session, have team members write up an issue they’ve been struggling with and bring it to the table, one at a time. Each team member then gets five minutes on the agenda to discuss his or her issue. The group then goes around the meeting so everyone gets a chance to either ask a question about it or pass. After the team member answers everyone’s questions, people then get an opportunity to offer advice in the “I might suggest” format, or pass. Then, you move on to the next issue. It’s a very effective use of a collaboration technique that could easily be managed in a virtual environment. 
  • Have the agenda editable to everyone available during the meeting — this way people can edit and note down things that have been said. This is beneficial as it acts as a script for those who couldn’t attend and it also means that you can ensure people remotely on the call are on the ball and not watching TV 
  • Assign a Yoda. Candor is difficult even for co-located teams, but it’s the number one gauge of team productivity. To keep people engaged during virtual meetings, appoint a “Yoda.” Like the wise Jedi master in Star Wars, the Yoda keeps team members in line and makes sure everyone stays active and on topic. The Yoda keeps honesty from boiling over into disrespect by being courageous and calling out any inappropriate behaviors. At critical points during the meeting, the leader should turn to the Yoda and ask, “So, what’s going on here that nobody’s talking about?” This allows the Yoda to express the candor of the group and encourage risk-taking. 
  • Formalise the water cooler. Have you ever been in a meeting, and just when it ends, everybody walks out and vents their frustrations next to the water cooler? Make the water cooler conversation the formal ending of the virtual meeting, instead. Five to 10 minutes before the meeting ends, do what everybody would’ve done after the physical meeting – but do it in the meeting and make sure it’s transparent and conscious, processing people’s real feelings. How? Have everyone go around and say what they would’ve done differently in the meeting. This is like the final “Yoda” moment – it’s the “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment. This is the time when you say what you disagreed with, what you’re challenged with, what you’re concerned about, what you didn’t like, etc. All of the water-cooler-type conversation happens right now, or it never happens again. And if does happen later, you’re violating the ethics of the team. 

Keeping teams engaged 

Working virtually gives teams back flexibility to work to how they’re most productive – which does help with engagement. However, it also comes with its fair share of challenges. Being geographically distant from each other means moments of ‘micro communication’ by the watercooler are often lost, and clarity of purpose and goal setting become even more important. 

Some ways you can help keep virtual teams engaged: 

  • Build and share your vision with the team 
  • Make what you’re doing as a team, on a project or with an individual piece of work crystal clear. What are you trying to achieve? How will you get there? What are the actions needed to achieve it? 
  • Regular communication 
  • In a virtual environment, you can’t really overcommunicate as a leader. Agree with individuals how often and how they’d like to check in, whether that’s daily messaging on your collaboration tool, an email update or a weekly video call. Find what works for each individual and their working style. 
  • Share personal information (as appropriate) e.g. holiday plans 
  • All work and no play makes a virtual team a very sad place. We’re social beings – so sharing news, celebrations and holiday snaps keeps us connected and fosters engagement. 
  • Have team members work on projects together 
  • Don’t stick to silos – allocate work where team members must communicate with each other as well as the team leader. 
  • Schedule regular meetings (virtual or face-to-face) with interesting meeting formats 
  • Informal catch up on the phone while you walk in the park? Video call in a quiet space to discuss objectives and feedback? Pick a format that’s appropriate for your meeting content. 

Building trust 

When working solely online, trust becomes vitally important. A leader needs to trust in their team to get things done, whatever their working pattern, and teams need to trust their leader to share their vision and goals and be transparent with their planning and feedback. So how do you build a high trust team? 

Building ‘swift’ trust 

  • Competence - Trust based on a perception that team members are competent, and so will not let me down 
  • Openness with information - Trust based on the observation that other team members share information important to the team proactively and clearly 
  • Integrity - Trust based on the observation that other team members maintain promises, are team-orientated, and behave towards me in accordance with a moral code 
  • Reciprocity - Trust based on the observation that other team members are trusting and co-operative towards me 

Deeper trust 

  • Compatibility - Trust based on background, values, approaches, interests, and objectives held in common 
  • Goodwill - Trust based on the belief that other team members are concerned about my overall welfare 
  • Predictability - Trust based on the observation that the behaviour of team members is consistent over time and in different contexts 
  • Well-being - Trust arising from the feeling that I have nothing to fear from other members of the team 
  • Inclusion - Trust based on the observation that other team members actively include me in their social and work activities 
  • Accessibility - Trust based on the observation that other team members share their true feelings and I can relate to them on a personal level 

Rules and goal setting in virtual teams

It’s important in a virtual team to establish a common purpose or vision, while also framing the work you’re attempting to undertake in relation of to team members’ individual needs and ambitions. Here are a few tips on establishing the rules for a strong virtual team and setting individual goals within them.

Don’t be afraid to set ground rules

Research shows that rules reduce uncertainty and enhance trust in social groups, thereby improving productivity. Agree on things like how quickly team members should respond to queries and requests from one another, and outline follow-up steps if someone is slow to act. Virtual teammates often find themselves saying, “I thought it was obvious that…” or “I didn’t think I needed to spell that out.” So also insist that requests be specific. Instead of saying “Circle back to me,” state whether you want to give final input on a decision or simply be informed after the decision is made. If you have a conference call about project details, follow up with an e-mail to minimise misunderstandings.

Keep your head in the game

Multitasking when you’re on team calls OK. Come on, we’ve all done it. According to a recent study, 82% of people admit to doing other things—from surfing the web to using the bathroom—during team calls. But virtual collaboration requires that everyone be mentally present and engaged. Explain your policy, and when the group has a virtual meeting, regularly call on people to share their thoughts. Better yet, switch to video, which can essentially eliminate multitasking.

Agree and share goals with the team

Agree when you’re all together what it means for the team to be achieving as a whole – how does your work together contribute to the purpose you outlined earlier? Once you’ve agreed team goals and objectives, take that down to individual level in separate conversations and outline what actions and metrics will contribute to that success. Then bring it back to group, whether that’s in a meeting or via a virtual space. Everyone should be aware of the projects and actions the others are involved in, avoiding areas of duplication and opening up avenues of collaboration.

Reach out

Encourage team members to share updates, successes and call outs for support on your collaboration tool. Reiterate that they’re working as a team – where someone’s struggling to source something or nail a certain goal, another member could have the exact piece of the puzzle they need.

Giving feedback virtually 

Building trust and support 

Most experiences with feedback in a work environment are annual performance reviews. These are usually top-down, one-sided conversations that rarely leave a huge impact on you once you leave the meeting room. Take that to the virtual space, where we’re missing vital body language cues and potentially even eye contact, and it’s a recipe for something less than success. 

Feeback online certainly shouldn’t be a once a year affair. To create meaningful feedback, you need to give it regularly – and also be prepared to receive it. 

Fundamentals of feedback 

Feedback is a gift 

Think about the last time you received a gift – what did you say when you received it? It’s highly likely that you said thank you – even if it was something you felt was less than helpful. 

As with getting a gift, remember to always thank the person who is giving you feedback before choosing what to do with it afterwards. 

Knowing how to receive feedback is just as important as giving it  

When someone gives us feedback on our behaviour, we can: 

  • Maintain the same behaviour (ignore the feedback) 
  • Reinforce the behaviour (deny or justify your behaviour) 
  • Change the behaviour (attempt to understand the feedback) 

Many people’s initial reaction towards feedback is to go into defense mode because we feel personally attacked. By trying to empathise with the person who feels uncomfortable with our actions though, we can gradually improve our relationships with others and with ourselves.  

When giving feedback, focus on how you felt about someone else’s actions 

The most important thing is to focus on the impact of someone else’s actions, not the person. It’s important to state the action and say how that action made you feel. For example, a team member might not answer any of the team inbox emails which are supposed to be shared around the whole team. Instead of saying, “You’re selfish because you never chip in to answer emails” it would be better to say, “I’ve noticed you don’t answer the team emails and I feel frustrated, because it increases the workload for the rest of the team.” 

This way of focusing on your feelings is a common technique used in conflict resolution. By doing so, you avoid making accusations that would make the other person feel less open to dialogue and prevent them from going on the defensive. Getting people to feel comfortable to communicate about how they feel is crucial, so anything that eases dialogue should be prioritised.  

Don’t be afraid of feedback 

“At the end of the day, we’re all people—and people have feelings.” 

Being capable of opening up and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with the people we spend most of our time with is probably one of the best things we can possibly do for ourselves—and it just happens to make teamwork more effective too. 

Virtual working wellbeing 

While most of the remote working challenges we’ve discussed in this guide have been logistical, it’s important to remember that remote teams can often feel isolated, lacking energy and even depressed. We are social creatures and our minds and bodies need support too. 

Top tips for home workers 

WFH Checklist – for you and your teams:  

  • Keep set work hours (and stick to them). It’s tempting and all too easy to fall into an unhealthy work pattern and blur the boundaries between work and home hours. Adding your working hours to your email signature can help you and your colleagues to differentiate between work time and home time 
  • Set up a quiet secluded space in the house (if you can) where you can take meetings, focus and generally be at your most productive without your children/the dog/your partner distracting you 
  • When will you use video on calls?  Have you got a suitable camera and will you wear different clothes when talking to customers as opposed to colleagues? And what’s in the background - will it be an unnecessary distraction for whoever you’re talking to? 
  • Online meetings - how will you take notes? If you have one screen you might not be able to use your computer to type up notes while you’re in that meeting.  Ask if you can record the meeting - most online meeting tools have this capability but sometimes only the organiser can do this
  • It can be hard to get into a productive mindset when working from home. Try to make your working environment different, giving your brain a clear boundary between work and home spaces
  • Shared calendars are often a huge benefit to remote teams to see others' availability 
  • Get some exercise! It’s likely you’ll be missing a fair few steps without your commute, but this is your opportunity to use that time to do an online class, go for a bike ride or run. In the fresh air is even better
  • Consider ergonomics! Check that your chair and desk are at a good height, and that you aren’t reaching too far or flexing your wrists at a bad angle on your keyboard. If you can, use an external monitor or raise up your laptop and use an external keyboard. RSI is a real thing, and if you’re a bit more stressed than usual you’re likely to be tensing up and placing more strain on your back, neck and arms. There’s more advice on the NHS website about preventing RSI  and good sitting positions for working

Programmes and apps to help support you and your teams working at home: 

Headspace – one of the first mainstream meditation apps to hit the market, and one of the most enduringly successful, with routines you can do anytime, anywhere. 

Calm – Headspace’s slightly more expensive cousin, with this app you can have celebrities read you stories to help you sleep, or take advantage of over 100 guided meditations, from Never Meditated In My Life level exercises, right the way up to more advanced stuff. 

Sanvello – based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) this app tracks your mood, and helps you reframe the way you think about things and alter your behaviour accordingly. 

Sleep Cycle – put your phone on your bedside table before bed and this app detects motion in the room during the night, which it uses to determine when you’re enjoying a lighter sleep cycle, waking you up at the most pleasant time. 

The Pomodoro Technique – A simple technique for being more productive – focus on a task for 25 uninterrupted minutes, then take a short break and repeat. Every four ‘pomodoros’, take a longer break. 

10 quick takeaways for leading virtual teams 

If you could only take away 10 things from this guide, we want it to be these. 

  1. Commit to regular calls or check ins. Having a schedule of calls set up ahead of time means you both know when you will be in contact and can prepare in advance. This is precious time – nothing breaks trust like constantly cancelling meetings – so safeguard it in your diary and have a quiet space ready so you can be fully present. 
  1. Be patient – trust takes time. In a virtual environment it takes longer to build trust. Don’t rush to get straight down to business – discuss the background to the project you are working on and take time to talk generally about what everyone is doing work-wise. 
  1. Use a webcam. Whenever possible use video conferencing apps like Facetime or Skype for meetings so that you can see each other’s faces. This helps you to read each other’s non-verbal cues and build trust through eye contact. 
  1. Make time for small talk. Just as you would with colleagues working in the same office, be sure to share personal insights and issues from your non-work lives when you are in virtual meetings. These conversations build trust by showing we care about each other and are a part of what makes us human. 
  1. Keep the conversation flowing both ways. Make sure your virtual meetings and calls are two-way and not just a brain-dumping or briefing session. Ask for feedback and ideas, and really listen to your colleague’s views and opinions.  
  1. Get clarity with active listening. Remember that in virtual meetings it is even more important to check the assumptions you are making about what your colleague meant, said or did. Paraphrase information and ask questions starting with “Can I check that you mean….” 
  1. Check-in emotionally. Honest, open conversations are a pillar of trust. In a virtual meeting, make the time to check that you and your colleague are in tune with each other, and understand what each other is feeling and thinking.  
  1. Put yourself in their (distant) shoes. If you are based in the office and your colleague works remotely, remember how much they miss out on which you take for granted. In the hub-bub of an office, you’ll naturally hear and talk about things as you get coffee or walk past colleague’s desks. Share as much information as you can with your remote colleagues and ask them if they need background before you launch into a complex conversation. 
  1. Write it all down. Keep short notes of each virtual meeting so you can quickly pick up where you left off last time, check the progress you’ve made and stay accountable to each other. Of course, this is after you have covered off any personal topics! 
  1. Reply to requests quickly. If a remote colleague asks to talk with you, respond as soon as you can and positively, even if just with a time you are free to talk. Remember, they can’t just walk into your office for a chat the way their other colleagues can, so knowing they can reach you quickly when they need your advice or assistance is very important