'Virtual' Doesn't Have To Mean Second Best.

Team Leadership
10 Minute Read
September 27, 2021

Over the course of the last three weeks, as corporate America has made the transition from meetings in conference rooms and common spaces to Zoom calls and other online sessions, I’m struck by the number of confident, competent executives who’ve confessed to me that they’re struggling to lead teams in the virtual world. Their efforts to get groups to collaborate or coalesce around a topic are met with crickets in the background and listless bobbing of heads on a screen.

I almost don’t have the heart to tell them: Their teams’ collaborative engagement was likely falling short in real life, too. And the remote environment has just shone a spotlight on their former mediocrity.

My firm, Ferrazzi Greenlight, has coached the transformation of dozens of executive teams over 15 years, and we recently spent two years and $2 million researching how to make remote teams even more effective than collocated ones. The truth is that most teams—remote or otherwise—are failing. But today can be your opportunity to execute a “remote reboot” of your team. Consider:

  • More than 70% of leaders say their teams do not collaborate on their most important business problems, and 70% say their teams are conflict avoidant, according an ongoing study conducted by the Ferrazzi Greenlight Research Institute.
  • Only two in five leaders believe that members of their team have developed caring, trusting, or supportive relationships with one another.
  • Only one in five leaders believe that their teams are reaching their full potential.

And the move to remote work (especially under fraught circumstances in which everyone is legitimately concerned about their families’ health and the future of the global economy) will likely make a bad situation worse—unless as leaders we take some action.

To the paraphrase Rahm Emanuel, speaking to business leaders  before he became former President Obama’s White House chief of staff, a serious crisis needn’t go to waste.

Now is the time to go even higher.

I firmly believe managers and employees can (figuratively) come together in this challenging time and find a way to improve their performance as teams. I’m so convinced that remote teams can outrun their traditional counterparts that I’ve led a Fast Company webinar series on the topic, hosted by editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta. A replay of the first session may be accessed here. (Registration required.)

Here’s a very brief preview of what we discussed:

  • Our research shows that virtual teams, like traditional ones, can only succeed if all the members of the team—from the leadership to the most junior member—feel like they can be candid. People need to feel empowered to speak openly in service of the team and its mission and each other—even when its risky to do so.
  • Everyone on the team needs to be accountable, not only to results and the boss, but to each other. They need to follow through on their individual commitments and hold their teammates accountable, and they should work to ensure that everyone crosses the finish line together.
  • They proactively foster strong relationships among members. They have to lead with generosity and build caring, trusting, and supportive relationships with all members of the team.
  • Teams thrive when they have ambitious goals that have been collaboratively created—and jointly owned. They should strive for innovation and transformation through embracing each other’s input, and not settle for the status quo.

You’re surely wondering if a team that wasn’t already candid, accountable, tight-knit, or ambitious can reverse course now that it is scattered. We have seen firsthand that it can. On the webinar, we’ll share a bunch of best practices that will allow you to reboot your remote team, but here’s the good news:

  • Remote work allows us to work with greater flexibility, and if people are balancing personal and professional priorities, they can bring their whole selves to the team.
  • Indeed, remote workers report higher levels of workplace satisfaction: According to a 2019 study, 91% of employees say remote work is a good fit for them.
  • Virtual teams allow us to be more diverse and inclusive. Location bias (rural vs. urban) goes away, and remote teams already have a better track record: According to a 2016 study by RW3 CultureWizard, 77% of remote teams were multicultural.
  • We’ve already seen remote teams outperform collocated ones: A BCG study of 80 software teams found that virtual teams outperform “in real life” counterparts.

Leaders and team members can make a virtue of this brave new world of work: If everyone or most everyone on your team is working from home for the first time, you have an opportunity to introduce a totally new meeting culture, one that values candor and accountability.

One of the many tips I’ll talk about during the webinar is the introduction of “Yodas” into your team—named for the wise Jedi master in Star Wars. These are people on your team who are assigned the role of “truth teller” in the remote meeting. When your meeting starts to feel bureaucratic, unproductive, or downright toxic, you or one of your colleagues can channel the Yoda in order to tell it like it is. We will show you how to activate this new courage among your team. It is simple but powerful. We will march through a simple set of actions, of which many more are posted at a resource page we created that any leader can use to make an immediate difference. We will also explore how to shift the traditional boring reports into collaborative and challenging debates that help everyone go higher.

I’m not going to pretend that this is easy stuff, especially given all the uncertainty in the world. But that’s precisely why working together is more important than ever.

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