Five Oaks Consulting

Team leadership

Nine tips for virtual NGO team leadership from a pro

Guest post by Amanda Briggs-Hastie, Head of Fundraising Support, Oxfam International. Amanda also spent several years in INGO leadership roles at GreenpeaceThis guest post is a bit longer than usual because it is so chock-full of practical lessons.

I have spent six years building and managing virtual (global) teams. I’ve stumbled many times in figuring out how to make virtual team leadership work, so here are my top 9 practical suggestions: 

1. Embrace the challenge of being the best possible virtual leader you can be — or don’t bother trying. 

This requires leading and managing in a different way.  You need to see yourself as the virtual team-working architect, consciously planning and designing how you will lead and develop a team in a remote working context. For example: How you will have a shared strategy, owned by everyone? How will you make sure your team feel bonded to each other even when apart? How will you build those critical one-on-one relationships with each of your line reports? I see many virtual teams failing because their managers continue to manage their teams in pretty much the same way they did their in-office team and wonder why their teams are but a group of isolated and demotivated workers.  

2. Consciously design your culture and way of working together – and revisit it often! 

Discuss which sort of team you want to be and what rules and ways of working you need to get there – including those specific to a virtual team. Then choose a small number of rules you will all live by (and can remember).  

Our team’s WOW (ways of working) are: 

  • We say Hi! – We check in and support each other professionally.  
  • We speak our truth – We tell the truth with integrity and sensitivity, also when it’s difficult.  
  • Appreciate differences and create space for individual styles.  
  • We are all on the same page – We take a united approach. We support each other’s views. 

Here is a lovely presentation and screensaver so our team can look at it all the time. We also do a session on WOW at every meeting to make sure it’s current, understood by any newbies and represents the heart and soul of our team

3. Have basic but good virtual working software tools 

It’s best to stick with the basic stuff people are already familiar with. Ask yourself, what is the software the least tech savvy team member can easily master? In my experience the following are the best tools and uses: 

Skype chat groups –for day to day team chat and all the instant questions you might ask your colleagues if you were in an office e.g. “Morning everyone! – What did you get up to over the weekend?” (we share photos and stories) or “Hey anyone know where that 5-year strategy file is saved?” or “Wow, Thembisa, that was an incredible workshop you just ran – well done!” 

WhatsApp – same as above. Useful for when the team are travelling and for after hours when people are away from their computer screens. Our WhatsApp group is filled with pictures of our kids, cats and holiday snaps! 

Zoom – A fantastic video conferencing tool. Use this for all your team meetings, for one-on-ones with your team and with a bit of planning Zoom can even be used for large meetings. We used it for a global skill-share with up to 300 participants. It has lots of clever functionality such as break-out rooms and instant polls and is very easy to use (plus affordable). 

Google docs and spreadsheets – Use for working collaboratively on documents e.g. writing a strategy document together, a shared travel calendar, a joint workplan. This way everyone has easy access, can edit together, see who has written what, see each other’s comments etc.

4.  Facilitation, facilitation, facilitation 

Let’s face it there are a lot of issues with having meetings virtually: 

  • People are less likely to turn up 
  • It’s harder to get full understanding with less body language to aid interpretation 
  • It’s much harder to maintain concentration 
  • People tend to be less likely to speak up or take the initiative/lead 

So good virtual facilitation is essential. Whoever is leading the meeting needs to understand these challenges and how to overcome. These skills can be trained (our team even have a virtual meeting facilitation workshop we run) but don’t under-estimate how much confidence, preparation and skill it takes to do virtual facilitation well. 

Some practical ways we facilitate meetings are: 

House-keeping rules always apply (and are reiterated at the start of meetings):

  • Be visible: Cameras on and use a headset to avoid noise disruption 
  • Be present: Absolutely no emailing or other distractions 
  • Be engaged: speak up and participate (you can use the chat function if you don’t want to disrupt the current flow of conversation). 
  • Keep meetings to 45 mins max before a break. 
  • A clear agenda, objectives and good time management 
  • Have an icebreaker at the beginning of each meeting, even if it’s just your usual team telling you what they did at the weekend or what excites them about the meeting topic. 
  • Use visual stimuli: presentations on screen with engaging charts, tables, animated gifs, cute cat pictures etc.  
  • Use quizzes, polls and break-out rooms to make your session more fun, and interactive. 
  • Experiment with creative facilitation techniques e.g. each person has 2 mins to say everything that comes to mind on the topic; ‘fishbowl ‘ exercise with a couple of people discussing an issue and others allowed to ask questions or ask to join the ‘hot seat’. Or pretend to do a radio interview where the facilitator gets in interviewees and asks them their thoughts on an issue whilst others watch (or they can pretend-dial in as listeners with questions)

5. Be present with your team  

Managers often have to attend meetings, which their own teams are not involved in directly or have other tasks that take them away from the team. It’s really important your team knows where you are and what you are doing most of the time, so they don’t end up feeling cut off from you. In a virtual world team members otherwise may have the impression you just seem to be missing or unavailable and it’s a very short journey to your team feeling deserted and unsupported, even if you are working hard in the background trying to smooth the way for their work.  

There are some easy practical ways you can address this: 

Use a shared calendar like Google or Outlook. Set it up so that your team can see full details of your calendar at the same time as theirs and vice versa. This way they can see you are in a 1-on-1 with David right now and so they won’t try and call you. This way too, the team sees all the other meetings you have as team leader, gaining insight into your busy role. N.B. Ensure you set it up with correct permissions so the team can see full details not just the frustrating “busy” description (you still can choose to keep some meetings private).  

Be active yourself in the team chat. Be the first to say “Good morning!”, bring up non-work related chat (this makes it OK for your team to do the same) and to generally be involved in discussions on the chat. The chat is really where your team exists and if you are not there regularly, you’re missing from the team. It’s a great idea to post little updates on meetings you’ve had so the team can stay connected with what your doing: “Just spoke with finance, there is a new budgeting process we are going to have to follow, talk you all through it in our meeting on Friday” 

Always respond asap, when people message you. When people send you instant messages they often need to chat or get an instant answer so you should respond asap, even if it’s just to say, “Cant talk right now, should be free in 2 hours”. Oh and if you are in a 1-on-1 with Saad when Fred messages you it’s best to just be open about it and say “Hang on Saad, Fred is just messaging me and I don’t want to be distracted, I’ll just send him a quick message to tell him when I’ll be free”. That way Fred and Saad both feel valued – it’s obvious stuff but easy to get wrong. 

6. Keep your team connected and motivated by the org mission 

If you work for an NGO, you are mission driven, but remaining connected to programme delivery can be tricky when you work in your spare room and have little interaction with the programme team. This has been a persistent challenge! You need to create opportunities for connection: regular program presentations, opportunities to participate in program strategy and delivery work, program visits etc.  

7. Be relationship more than task focused  

I think relationship focused people make better leaders of virtual teams – by nature they seek to overcome the challenging distance created by working from behind a screen. They know that a motivated, informed and included employee will deliver on the tasks.  

Some things I think are key to delivering this are: 

Weekly 1-on-1’s – You need to have them more often than you would in an office, because you need to overcome the isolation factor. Some of your team may not see or speak to any colleagues for days when they are home working. I spend the first 20 minutes or so of all my 1-on-1’s connecting with my team member on a personal level, as a friend, before I go anywhere near task related topics.  

Inductions. So much of getting to grip with a new org happens round the coffee machine: “So which team do you work in? And what do they do?” etc. In a virtual team you have to engineer that organisational understanding without the chance encounters and help them feel part of the whole org. I meet with newbies daily in the first weeks. 

Use your 6th sense and don’t let things fester. One of the problems with virtual working is that a doubt can fester without the frequent contact you have in an office. For instance, the thought – “I’m not sure my manager thinks I am doing a good job”- flows through us all at some point, but when you see your manager daily you can see from their behavior and body language that’s not true. In a virtual team where you don’t get that informal feedback, such thoughts can turn into a total loss of confidence quite quickly. Virtual managers need to read between the lines or anticipate these issues and address them quickly before they get out of control. 

Managing work/life balance for your team. As with office work, virtual working can easily lead to burn out. It’s easy to roll out of bed, switch on the laptop, and keep going (especially when working with different timezones, and team members will work different hours). You need to ensure your team learns the discipline to switch off. Don’t forget to promote good work life balance habits, set an example, and make it ‘ok’ to switch off and stop working

8. Meet often, including some “in person” time

Meeting often is critical to make sure you don’t turn into a team of people working in silos (something virtual teams are prone to). Meeting on Zoom weekly as a team helps us stay connected and bond, and focus on shared team strategy and objectives. Virtual teams do still need to meet in person sometimes though. Our team meets in person twice a year. During those meetings we do fun team building activities as well as team strategy and work planning.  You could do it online too but it is so much easier to get everyone together with post-its and a big wall chart. I have found that if it’s been more than 6 months of not meeting up the team bonds loosen a little no matter how hard you have worked in the year before that to keep everyone together.

9. Last but by no means least -Make it fun!  

Working virtually has huge personal life benefits but it does require more effort and discipline. So it’s important to make sure it is fun. It’s the little things that matter: the banter on the chat, the photos from our weekends, how we recognize and celebrate each other for personal and work achievements etc. We also organise a virtual Christmas party (the most fun ones I’ve been to). I’ll finish with a description of how we Xmas party: 

  • We bring our own drinks, party snacks, decorate our desks, and wear Santa hats etc.  
  • We log in to our video conferencing programme (Zoom) with cameras and Christmas jumpers on! 
  • We play charades, guess the baby/workstation/job we wanted when kids were etc. and other games complete with cheesy slideshows. We’ve even done a bake-off competition virtually! 
  • One of our team member sends us a party bag posted to us in advance (with chocolate, silly t-shirts to wear etc.) 

Why we need virtual water coolers: Four reasons why virtual NGO team leadership has its challenges

The context

Do you lead and manage (largely) virtual teams? It can definitely be a suboptimal experience, both for you as a team leader and for your team members. Most of us NGO managers and leaders do a lot of virtual team management these days. Yet NGOs have not planned for this, and managers and leaders are not equipped with virtual team leadership skills. Some NGOs do increasingly have technology tools at their disposal, but they have not necessarily planned how to use these well. And some think, incorrectly, that having the right technology will be the answer. But it is not. As with any technological intervention, what matters is how people interact with the technology. The behaviors that need to accompany the use of the technology matter most. Moreover, on the whole, if you ask NGO staff, I would venture most would say that they still prefer face to face communication as being more effective (as well as more pleasant!). In the meantime, I have heard many a story of a manager who typically has 6-8 Skype meetings per day, which altogether makes me wonder whether that is optimal….

How I learned about virtual team leadership

For the past six years, my former team at the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University and I provided a shared Senior Leadership Development Program to a group of major NGOs (ActionAid International,Amnesty International, Greenpeace International, Oxfam International and CIVICUS) As part of this, last year we offered a workshop on virtual team leadership. This blog posts reflects our research findings as well as input from workshop participants on some of the most pressing reasons why virtual team leadership can be so challenging.

Virtual teams face particular challenges

Research[1] indicates that virtual teams face some challenges that are either specific to this type of team or are germane to teams in general but are extra vexing in the case of virtual teams.

Here is a list:

  1. ‘Social Inhibitors’ to team work | Most importantly, it is simply more difficult to establish trust in virtual teams. Language and cultural differences are harder to navigate when one cannot observe body language. And it is more difficult to establish and communicate a desired team culture as a leader.
  2. ‘Social loafing’ is more possible | Humans tend to hold back in giving their best effort and ideas to the work, when they work in the relative anonymity of virtual teams. They also are more prone to withhold new information. Social loafing is compounded when people sense that their individual contributions will not be noted or rewarded in the same way as when it comes to face to face teams.
  3. Motivating staff can be more challenging | In virtual teams, staff are at higher risk of social isolation. They are also less able to  access opportunities for skill development and career growth. Staff are thus at a higher risk of demotivation and employee loyalty and engagement may suffer.
  4. It is more difficult to monitor team performance | It is harder to enforce norms for team communication and team performance: observing who is deviating from those norms is harder. Holding individuals accountable for lack of performance is harder, as is recognizing team members for their contributions. It is also more challenging  to utilize team member skills to the full in virtual teams.

Your experience?

So what is your experience? To what extent do you relate to these issues identified in the research? And what other challenges have you encountered in your practice?

If you want your NGO to learn about good, research-based practices that will help you manage and lead your virtual NGO teams in better ways, then please contact me: tosca@5oaksconsulting.org

Additional resources

Regretfully, most in-depth resources on virtual team management and leadership are behind ‘pay walls’. The two following short readings, while somewhat superficial by necessity, are freely available:

Watkins, M.D. Making virtual teams work: Ten Basic Principles, Harvard Business Review, June 27, 2013

Ferrazzi, K. Getting Virtual Teams Right, Harvard Business Review, December 2014

Bosma, M. How to Build Culture in Remote Teams, Toptal Enterprise


[1] Credit goes to Kishauna Soljour, former program coordinator of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University who also obtained her PhD at that University. Kishauna’s research significantly informed this blog post. I also am indebted to Catherine Gerard, Director of the Program on the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration at Syracuse University, who help crystallize the messages from our research.