Five Oaks Consulting

Virtual team leadership; virtual team management

Managing remote teams is hard work: views from the former CIO of Amnesty International

These are the views of John Gillespie (ex Chief Information Officer of Amnesty International); they do not necessarily represent the views of Five Oaks Consulting. You can reach John at mail@johnagillespie.com

Are people more inventive when they come together?

Back in 2013, Marissa Mayer the then CEO of Yahoo banned working from home.  As she said at the time “People are more collaborative, more inventive when people come together.” She provoked a great deal of resistance in Yahoo and ignited a simmering debate that rolls on to this day.

Marissa Mayer made her announcement soon after I arrived at Amnesty International. We were embarking on a major transformation to decentralize our operation from a single office in London to a network of 16 offices around the globe. Amnesty also reduced its office space in London and encouraged staff to work from home. We had to make remote working work. As CIO I was responsible for putting in the technology – that turned out to be the straightforward part.

Now I am inclined to agree with Marissa. We are social animals and remote working is not natural. We build relationships with the people we rub shoulder with every day. Like our colleagues or not, over time we find ways of working together. The timely snippets of advice (or criticism) from colleagues keep us on track. Remote working loses the human contact that is necessary for good teamwork, cohesive organizational culture and personal growth.

Managing a distributed team poses some challenges

Whatever we may think, distributed teams have become a part of INGOs structure. They may be necessary for inclusiveness, but they may not be effective. The recent upheaval facing Amnesty International that Tosca has written about here was certainly exacerbated by a distributed organisation that lacked cultural cohesion.

Then there is the reality of management. Most of the time as a manager, I really don’t know how long it will take a person to complete a task. I assign work and I track progress. If a person is struggling, I give them support and more time. If they are cruising, I give them more responsibility. This is so much harder if you don’t have regular human contact.

So what to do?

Nevertheless, sometimes remote working the only way of running a team with the right expertise. So, what can you do?

First establish good meeting discipline. I insist on regular weekly meetings with the team. Don’t miss them. I make sure everyone participates and I don’t let people slip below the radar. Meetings become more important not less. Agree on a communication technology across the whole team. It doesn’t really matter if you choose Slack, or Microsoft Teams, or Facebook Workplace, or whatever is currently fashionable. Choose one and insist everyone uses it. I believe that video conferencing makes people more ‘present’ and is much more effective than audio conferences

I find you can get reasonable visibility of workload and individual performance by selecting a project management method and a good project management tool. Trello or Microsoft Planner work well for agile teams. If a person is stuck on the same task, or appears much less productive than their colleagues, they are either struggling or loafing. You can intervene before the behaviour becomes entrenched.

Now I have never bought into the argument that a person can work anywhere. The work we do need focus and concentration, or at the very least space to make a phone call uninterrupted. Make sure everyone has a quiet workplace and a reliable internet connection. Only a couple of years back one of my team members complained that he found it hard to work at home because he didn’t have an internet connection. Remote working was suspended until a good broadband connection was installed. Another colleague always appears on conference calls sitting on a sofa. Call me old fashioned but I don’t know how you can work without a desk for your notes and papers.

It’s as much about the environment as about the tech

Good video conferencing is not hard. Everyone likes to blame the software; in my experience it is not the software. You need a quiet space, good lighting, and a fast internet connection. If you have a poor internet connection and lots of background noise, there is nothing Skype can do for you. No one has ever had a good VC from a coffee shop, or worse an airport departure lounge. That might be necessary on occasion but if it becomes a norm you are going to be forever plagued by interruptions and lack of focus on the matter at hand.

Finally, I need to remember that remote working isn’t for everyone and needs to be embarked upon with care. Some people find it is easier to focus when they are by themselves, some don’t. Some people find it just too tempting to skip work. Even with all the technology and process and meetings, for some projects and some people, remote working really doesn’t work and a physical hub, an office, is a necessity. Beware of progressing with remote work policies too quickly; reversing a remote working policy, as Marissa Mayer found out, really is hard work.

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.