Leading Virtual Teams - Book Review

I’m always on the lookout to improve both myself and my team's daily work, so when I came across a book entitled Leading Virtual Teams by the Harvard Business Review, it really caught my eye.

When COVID first entered the world and I started working from home, my hunch was that it was only going to be for a few weeks. Two years later, that hunch has proven quite wrong! I am a people person and enjoy meeting face to face with others, so it has definitely taken me some time to adjust.

If you had asked me at the start of working remotely whether I would prefer to work at home or in the office…..I would have chosen the office every time. As time has gone on, I have definitely started to lean towards working from home, but as you may know, that isn’t without its challenges either.

I’m always on the lookout to improve both myself and my team's daily work, so when I came across a book entitled Leading Virtual Teams by the Harvard Business Review, it really caught my eye.

Published in 2016, it  was written by the authors before the pandemic and before so many people started working from home. What I really like about this book is that the details written in here still stand, and it hasn’t changed the need for something like this. This book is part of the Harvard Business Review 20 Minute Manager Series, which means it is a concise, practical primer so you’ll have time to dive straight into the meat of the topic.

It starts off with some of the important things that you need to get right to be successful on a virtual team. First and foremost to this list is getting the right people on the team, which requires a special set of traits:

  • Communication - “Good virtual team members know how to be precise and concise in multiple media, and the err on the side of overcommunication”.
  • Collaboration style - “Virtual teamwork requires self discipline and self motivation, since team members must stay on schedule and ask for help when necessary. Remote work is not ideal for people who need a lot of supervision”.
  • Temperament - “Look for people who will be generous in negotiating conflict in a low information environment and resilient working alone under pressure”.
  • Technology - “Seek out people who are open-minded to new technology and competent in tools”.
  • Size - “When it comes to the number of folks on your team, aim low. Research shows that smaller teams are more effective and more motivated”.

While you might not be in a position to build a team from scratch and choose people with these traits, it does help as a starting point to identify gaps in an existing team and tweak it accordingly.

The book also has a chapter entitled Manage the Technology in which it goes into detail about the importance of technology in the remote working world. I won’t go too much into detail here, as each organization has their own unique tools, but the key takeaway for me was around establishing rules for the use of the technology within your organization / team. How do you share and store content? What is the etiquette for the use of this technology? While the book doesn’t suggest which tools to use, it does talk about agreeing on using a standardised list of products. Regardless of whether you are going to use Slack or Teams - it suggests choosing one and sticking with it.

For me, one of the key areas of this book is around creating a shared vision with the team. What is the purpose of your team? Can you explain it in a clear, compelling language? Whether you are working with a team on a long-term project or a shorter goal, it’s important to clearly define what is the vision for the team and what will make it successful. By documenting this vision and goal, you can use it as a reference point to bring everyone back to common ground when distance and time chips away at the team's cohesion.

As a People Manager, I know how tough it is to keep a remote working team engaged and happy. The book goes into some detail and provides a few tips and tricks such as:

  • Providing praise and recognising collaborative behaviour when you see it
  • Encouraging people to acknowledge each other's work
  • Playing games together!
  • Finding a daily working rhythm with the team

Finally, Leading Virtual Teams also touches on the common problems that you might face with remote teams. There is a part of this chapter that is dedicated to managing conflict on a virtual team. It is not a question of if, but rather when you will face conflict with a team. Dealing with this remotely can be sensitive ground and will need to be handled differently to how you might do face to face. The book provides a few examples and ideas for how to navigate this territory.

Final Verdict

Would I buy this book? Yes, absolutely. It’s an easy read and is filled with practical, actionable details. There isn’t a lot of “fluff” - it gets to the point and leaves you with useful insights.

This book was written long before the majority of workers were forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. The authors have had real-world experience implementing this and faced challenges that they provide practical solutions to.

While some of the topics covered may come naturally to you and your organization, there are definitely some tips and tricks that you can pick up and use to improve your team's remote working. The book doesn’t go super deep into all of these topics and perhaps skims the surface a little more than I’d like, but after all this is entitled the 20 Minute Manager Series for a reason. I’d still recommend you buy this book!