Having led teams all around the world, often in remote locations, I can safely say it takes a different leader in order to do this successfully. Leading and coordinating operations in Afghanistan meant not just communicating with in country teams, but coordinating with teams in Cyprus, Qatar, the UK, Oman and elsewhere.

What does that mean?

Sometimes you need a long screwdriver. This is counter intuitive for leadership. I was always told to never use a long screwdriver. I got hacked off when people up the chain of command used it on me, and I could see people get hacked off when I used it on them. A long screwdriver means you try and control the minutia from a position far removed from those decisions, either physically or in terms of knowledge of those tasks. But, with remote teams, you need a long screwdriver. You just need to change how you use it.

Virtual teams have become a fact of life for business, and I think will continue long after COVID-19 has disappeared. So how can leaders make sure they turn this into an opportunity to get the best out of their teams?

You still need to get physical

When ever I arrived in a new theatre, I would make sure I took a day early on and physically went to see people. Often this meant a very long day spent mostly on an aircraft, but it was worth it. There’s still merit in physically seeing people. Fostering relationships is still best done face to face. People appreciate it more. It fosters trust which is a critical foundation of team work.

It’s not about goals and roles, it’s about tasks and processes

Of course, you need to be aligned on goals. But coordination and control is so difficult with virtual teams because people aren’t co located. It’s important to spend a good amount of time on task design and the processes people have for executing those tasks. Simply the work to the lowest common denominator in terms of the process – keep it simple. Get specific about who does what and when. Define the workflows and make sure everybody understands them. After every operation we did in theatre, we had debriefs with the entire team. This is a time to be brutally honest. What’s working and what’s not working, and what can you do about it?

Build a battle rhythm

Humans love a rhythm. So, create one with your team. It’s all too easy to become disconnected when teams are in different locations. So have a time in the day where everybody virtually comes together. Have a set meeting time and make sure everybody knows the agenda in advance, If you have team members in different time zones, share the burden of unsociable hours across the team so it’s not always one person up at 3am.

Language matters

I’ve led teams across the world from different countries. Language is always a problem. Even when all countries speak English, there are so many different acronyms and sayings, often a small change in language led to big problems down the road. So, agree a common language. If not everybody knows an acronym, spell it out beforehand. Take time to explicitly negotiate the language nuances and have a hared file you can refer back to, so people know when you x you mean y.

Clarify and track commitments

With virtual teams you can’t look over their shoulder. So create a system of self-accountability through shared milestones. Track decisions and have jump off points if you can’t make a decision. We would say things like ‘in order to achieve this by doing that, we need a decision by 0800, otherwise we need to do this other thing’. Everyone converges on the same goal.

Don’t forget: 1:1’s are still important

It’s now more important than ever to check in 1:1 with your team. Create wins for people and celebrate them in public. It all becomes part of ‘their’ story. This helps to keep people connected to the ultimate vision, even though you may be in different parts of the world.

If you are inheriting a virtual team, it’s now incredibly important to do your homework. No longer can you learn by osmosis. You have to really understand your team and what makes them tick as individuals. In different locations you have less ques to pick up on should something be not quite right. Give yourself the best chance by really researching your team. Use checklists if you have to, but give yourself the best chance of success by following all of the above.