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The Two Tasks of Leading Virtually

As a person leading a virtual team, I suspect you are scoffing that I suggest that you only have two tasks in leading your virtual team. Two? You look at your scope and responsibilities and it seems more like twenty-two, rather than two.

I’d like to remind you of the power of an elegant synthesis of a complex idea into its essence. For example, E=MC. There are concepts that encapsulate a powerful truth eloquently in the starkest simplicity. It does not mean the concept is simple – just that the expression that defines it is.

So when I ask you to consider that there are only two tasks in leading virtually, I am not saying it is simple or easy, for it is not. Yet to strip something down to its barest and most fundamental form enables us to see a bigger picture more clearly and to organize our time, energy and focus of the critical elements of leading virtually.

There are two responsibilities you have when leading virtual teams:

  1. To manage the work
  2. To create connections

Two Tasks of Leading Virtually

Managing work means you need to be able to know what that work is, to know who can do the work and to be able to set clear expectations and manage outputs and outcomes. You need to get stuff done. The right stuff. The stuff that you need others to contribute time, skills and energy to in order to accomplish.

Creating connections means that you forge relationships, nurture team, honor the human that is producing the outcomes. You need to connect your team to their work. To each other. To you as a leader. And to the bigger picture.

Both of these meta tasks of leading are much more difficult with virtual teams. And even though more difficult, they are also more important when leading virtual teams.

When we share common physical space, you can find spontaneous and organic ways to manage the work and to create connections. You stop by work areas and say hello. People can come find you with questions. You can visually see when those you lead are confused or off track. Informal conversations pop up in the break area or over lunch. The context itself helps everyone get a sense of what is going on the larger organization.

None of that happens spontaneously when working virtually. There is an isolation that comes with virtual work that can get in your way of both managing the work and building connections. When that happens – these things begin to happen:

  • Your high performers are cranking out the work – but it is the wrong work
  • Those that need more direction and guidance flounder and spin their wheels
  • Interdependent work gets disjointed, takes longer and people duplicate work or wait for a handoff for work that is completed but not handed off
  • People feel isolated and their work suffers
  • Your best team members abandon ship to go where they feel more valued and better able to contribute

Continuing the quest for simplicity, here are a few tips that will help you lead virtual team better – in both areas.

Tips for Managing Virtual Work

  • Focus on task / not time
    • Abandon managing to time alone. Your best performers are those that deliver high quality results and honor deadlines, not those that spend the most time working. Just because someone is working on their day off does not make they a superstar.
  • Set clear expectations
    • Get clear about your expectations. If virtual work is new, set expectation about HOW to work virtually. What hours do you expect them to work? To be available? How do you want them to reach out to you if they have questions? How will they update you on their progress?
  • Provide well defined deliverables
    • What do they need to deliver on? By when? At what level of quality? Don’t be afraid to be clear about this, especially with open ended or new tasks. With bigger deliverables, have some interim check points. It may seem like overkill – but until you’ve developed a sense of how remote work is going, err on clarity.
  • Hold regular check ins
    • Out of sight does not mean of mind. Check in regularly and honor that commitment. Base how often you check it to that person’s needs. The more guidance needed, the more frequent the check in. Lean into shorter check ins that happen more frequently for all. And don’t forget your independent high performers – they need you too!.
  • Track progress as near to real time as possible
    • This is especially important with interdependent work, but helpful any time. The key is to find a tool that provides the right level of detail with the right amount of maintenance. There are a myriad of tools and apps that will help you with this – and it can be as simple as a check list in a shared folder.

Tips for Creating Connection

Creating connection takes a bit of creativity and effort but is worth every minute spent. Get over yourself and find ways to connect meaningfully with your team members on these four levels:

  • To their work and why it matters
    • It is hard to see how your work connects to something bigger when you are all alone. assisted an employee with an issue are not as real or visceral. Help your direct reports understand why their job matters. Report ways in which their work, even if they did not experience it directly, made a difference.
  • To the team
    • Teams have their own social structure – and teamwork is important even when folks are spread out geographically. Think about those things that create stronger teams that are no longer happening and find ways to replicate them. Find time for informal conversation. Invite people to get to know each other better by allotting some team meeting time to connect as people. Host a virtual coffee break or lunch or after-hours happy hour. And then focus on building connections (and leave the work for another time)
  • To you as the leader
    • In the office, people get to know you by observing. They notice how you work. What pleases you and what pushes your buttons. You signal how you like to work with them by the way you interact. Without the benefit of direct observation, you’ll want to be more explicit. Have conversations about who you are as a leader and the things you value. How you like to work. And then flip it, so that you learn about them too.
  • To the larger organization
    • In the office, people bump into each other and share information. The read the boards (real or virtual). They may be invited to a department meeting or town hall. When virtual, all those avenues no longer work. Step into to help people see the bigger picture. To share what is happening in the organization. To learn about what is going on outside their team.


The challenge you’ll face as a leader is not only how to manage the work AND create connection – but understanding how MUCH to do. This is an art you’ll learn over time. You’ll learn how to avoid being so focused on task, that connections suffer. Or conversely, how to avoid being so focused on connection that tasks suffer.

You’ll learn just how much direct to provide and how to check in effectively and how to track progress in ways that are helpful and not onerous.

Look for my next post in a week on how to balance autonomy with oversight, which will provide you with thoughts on how to avoid micromanaging and also not have your team floating in cyberspace without direction.

Spoiler alert: there is no one answer for each and every team member or situation. But I’ll share a way you can find the right answer for you!

If you’d like to do a deeper dive into honing leadership skills for yourself or those in your organization, let’s talk. Easy to do – just schedule time here.

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