MANY of us are familiar with the H.G. Wells character known as The Invisible Man. A twist of science rendered him invisible — real but unseen.

To many leaders in a globalised world today, this describes their work groups — teams of unseen people dispersed among different locations.

And although the virtual team is united by common business goals and facilitated by technology, many managers can’t help but wonder: “Are they really working?”

Working and managing from a distance is becoming one of the great challenges of 21st-century leadership.

While it is commonplace these days for work groups to be made up of dispersed individuals spread across various locations, to the leader or manager these groups often seem out of reach.

Leading virtually requires a broader skill set to productively span demographic and geographic boundaries, on top of traditional leadership skills such as providing feedback, giving verbal recognition and fostering development.

Effective virtual leadership relies substantially on individual contributions and team effort.

A framework for virtual leadership

Cultivating a virtual team requires a framework for meeting goals, an open exchange of ideas and information to strengthen engagement, as well as ongoing coaching.

Effective virtual leadership requires enhancing leadership skills that will maximise the performance of dispersed work groups, and it focuses on two key elements — group cohesion and individual commitment.

Implementing strategies and tactics to foster group cohesion and individual commitment can become a critical success factor for the virtual leader. These include:

For group cohesion

* Provide the structure required to get the work done;

* Build a shared picture of success to positively impact virtual team productivity;

* Make it personal by helping team members at a distance recognise how the work matters — that it leads to meaningful outcomes;

* Communicate clear direction and a consistent message; and

* Set expectations that encourage inclusion and responsibility.

For individual commitment

* Engage virtual team members and support their efforts;

* Provide opportunities for success;

* Take the initiative to communicate often and encourage team members to do the same;

* Empower the group and individuals; and

* Encourage self-leadership and resist the temptation to micro-manage virtual employees.

Making the invisible workforce tangible

Current trends suggest that virtual teams and the dispersed workforce are here to stay and will continue to grow.

Organisations are counting on them to provide a level of expertise, diversity and flexibility not always attainable in co-located teams. It is thus paramount to make the invisible workforce tangible to the leader and to each other.

Leading the invisible workforce is no easy task, but virtual leaders can begin to provide the structure and engagement that has a positive effect.

Building group cohesion and individual commitment helps team members work productively from a distance and achieve business goals. It can diffuse the mistrust of people managers cannot see, and ultimately answer the question: “Are they really working?”