Leading a team is hard.
Leading a virtual team is even harder.
Leading a virtual team, where members are spread across multiple geographic locations, adds additional management complexity including; managing across time zone differences, communicating using different media and dealing with conflicting cultures and social pressures.
Leading a virtual team and managing your health, however, can become a major challenge for both novice and seasoned managers. Knowing when to switch off and when to delegate can make the difference between both a successful virtual team and an unsuccessful one, it can also mean the difference between a healthy leader and burnout.
A recent article in Harvard Business Review defined Burnout as “the mental and physical exhaustion you experience when the demands of your work consistently exceed the amount of energy you have available.” The article goes as far as to describe it as the epidemic of the modern workplace. And there are few more modern workplaces than a virtual team environment, making burnout the potential epidemic of the virtual workplace.
Burnout can manifest in many ways, overwhelming fatigue, loss of ability to concentrate, unexplainable bouts of anger and frustration, anxiety, disorientation, mental breakdown and in extreme cases potentially suicidal tendencies as the extent of depression increases.
Achieving balance in a virtual team can be difficult, but avoiding burnout is something that every team member needs to work toward. They need to monitor their mental state for themselves, but also need to be on the look out for their colleagues, reports and managers starting to show signs of over work. Below are some tips to consider when working virtually that may help you preserve your health and effectiveness:
- Choose your communication medium – Consider if it is really necessary to have a voice conversation with a colleague located in a time zone where their normal working day does not overlap your own. Doing so will mean that at least one participant will be working outside of their core hours, potentially sacrificing rest time. Ask yourself, will an email suffice?
- Learn to delegate – As a manager, how much of your decision making can you delegate to your colleagues located in other time zones? As a minimum you need to consider operational decisions that impact only the single location. The more of such tasks you delegate, the more you will be able to filter the critical tasks and decisions from the mundane, operational “noise”
- Understand your organisations culture – Do you have the right organisational culture to operate effectively in a virtual environment? If you have a culture where every decision is deferred to the leader or the founder of the business for example, either by design, by tradition or by dint of national culture, the appointed decision maker is going to have an unsustainable workload as the business becomes virtual. This leader will, potentially, become the weak link in the decision chain and needs to recognise that some things need to be decided without their input.
- Understand your control needs – Are you a control freak? This may seem an odd question, but someone who has trouble letting go is a prime candidate for burnout in virtual teams. If they are fortunate enough to survive intact themselves, they are likely to leave a trail of burnt out colleagues and employees in their wake. If you think you might have control issues, ask a friend, someone you trust to give you an honest answer, and listen to what they have to say.
- Learn to accept ambiguity – How comfortable are you with ambiguity? Following on from the control freak question above, ambiguity is a delicate subject in virtual team environments. Typically a successful leader of a virtual team needs to be more accepting of ambiguity, while, at the same time being able to trust their local personnel. This same leader needs also to be prepared to pursue accurate and unambiguous information when required. Again, balance is important to avoid potential burnout.
As with so much of life, balance is everything. There are times when you will need to have those late night conference calls to deal with issues, but, understanding that you also need to take time out to recharge so you can be effective is critical to effective leadership of virtual teams. There is some really good additional information on identifying, avoiding and managing burnout from Cornerstone University.
Many organisations will have in place employee support services, but if you suspect that either a colleague or you yourself are beginning to experience burnout, please seek assistance both from within your organisation and if appropriate, externally, there are many support organisations available to help such as Beyond Blue who are able to offer assistance to those experiencing the symptoms of burnout.
Share your experiences
Do you have any tips around avoiding burnout in your virtual teams, if so, we would love to hear from you.
How can we help?
Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations plan, establish and run high performing virtual teams. We combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can assist your business or sign up using the form below to receive our regular newsletter.
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