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Leading Virtual Teams – An Interview with Lee Johnsen

Tuesday, November 07, 2017 5:33 PM | Kevin Smith (Administrator)

ATD-MAC’s November focus is Leading Virtual Teams. Virtual Teams aren’t going anywhere. In fact, in 2015, approximately 40% of the world’s workforce was remote. By 2020, 62% of employees are expected to work in virtual teams. One of the greatest dangers of leading Virtual Teams is assuming that the same approaches that work for onsite teams will work for your virtual team as well. We had a chance to chat with Lee Johnsen about trends in virtual teams. Lee is the Founder and Principal of Partners in Development. Sign up today to attend ATD-MAC’s “Leading Virtual Teams” presented by Lee Johnsen on November 16th.

 Q: Lee, in your consulting work, what you have you noticed are the most common misunderstandings about leading virtual teams?

Lee: Too often people assume that leading a virtual team is the same as leading a co-located or onsite team. The research supports that there are key differences. Virtual teams require a greater emphasis on team communication, better listening skills, greater emphasis on building trust (from a distance) and more explicit goal-setting, to name a few of the differences. While all teams require sound team leadership skills, high performing virtual teams require additional leader and member skills.

Q: What have you noticed are the major trends in virtual teams over the years?


Lee: Here are just a few of the changes! Based on a global survey conducted by the American Management Association in 2013, leading cross-cultural teams is in the Top 10 of global leadership development competencies.

Additionally, nearly 4 million U.S. employees worked from home at least half of the time in 2015. That represents about 3% of the U.S. workforce—a 115% increase since 2005, nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce. During that same time, the non-telecommuter population grew by less than 12%. (2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce. Global Workplace Analytics.).

Finally, half of telecommuters are 45 years of age or older, compared to just 41% of the overall workforce. The average annual income for most telecommuters if $4,000 higher than that of non-telecommuters.

Q: In your experience, what are the most important skills for leaders to have when leading virtual teams?

Lee: The top skills leaders of virtual teams need are:

  • Team Purpose and Vision
  • Build Rapid Trust
  • Leverage Technology
  • Team Member Development
  • Balance Team Structure & Member Empowerment
  • Cross-cultural Management
  • Performance Management & Coaching

While the skills no doubt are familiar, the tactics to apply these skills are different. (e.g. how does a virtual team leader build rapid trust with individuals they rarely seek face-to-face?) In research conducted by the Business Research Consortium in 2013, nearly three fifths of the 1500 respondents said that first-level managers are mediocre or worse as virtual leaders. Leaders of global virtual teams face the greatest challenges as they deal with large differences in geography, multiple time zones, and international team membership.


Q: Do you find that there is a certain type of worker or skill set that leaders should look for when hiring a remote/virtual team member?

Lee: Important skills for team members need in order to be successful are:

  • Virtual Team Communication
  • Self-Awareness and Self-Management
  • Relationship Management
  • Project Management
  • Communications Technology
  • Culture

Self-awareness, self-management and relationship management are related to successful team members’ Emotional Intelligence. I would also add Social Awareness, especially in the absence of visual communication. Depending on one’s role and team, some of the other competencies may be more important than others.

Q: Even if someone doesn't have work-from-home-staff, it seems like the understanding these principles is important just due to the changing nature of work and connectedness. What ways have you seen these skills translate into "traditional" offices?

Lee:  Even if you’re not a virtual team member and work in an office onsite, chances are you are a member of a hybrid team. That is, one composed of both virtual and onsite team members. These teams also face some unique challenges. It is not uncommon for onsite team members to envy their remote counterparts because they imagine them working in their sweatpants and doing household chores during the work day. By the same token, remote team members can often feel isolated and out of the communication loop by missing the same socialization opportunities as their onsite colleagues.

Virtual team meetings are another common challenge. Today, team members more often participate in more virtual meetings than face-to-face meetings. Yet, engagement is low. In research conducted by the Business Research Consortium in 2013, nearly half of the 1500 respondents said they always or often multitask during meetings. This is especially true of audio-only meetings.


Q: Your session in November is focused on
Leading Virtual Teams. What can attendees expect?

 Lee:  You’ll find answers to some of the most frequent challenges of virtual teams and how you can support your teams. I would like your input as to what interests you most about this topic and what your experience is as a member or leader of a virtual team. If you’d like, please take a few moments to complete this survey. The results will be shared during my session. Thank you, and I look forward to meeting you in person.


Lee Johnsen, CPT, CPLP, SPHR, is Founder and Principal of Partners in Development (PID). Lee has a 20-year record of successfully guiding organizations toward improved productivity and work relationships resulting in significant growth. He has previously held management positions in fortune 500 corporations and has extensive experience working with international audiences. Lee has presented at regional and international conferences (ATD and ISPI) on topics of training evaluation, e-learning, and leadership of globally dispersed teams. He is a published author and an adjunct faculty member of the American Management Association (AMA). In 2014, Lee spent five months working in Saudi Arabia and leading his own virtual team.    

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