Effective virtual teamwork

 In Articles

Covid 19 is forcing many companies to have staff work remotely from home thus creating what are known as “virtual teams”. Leading virtual teams will pose new challenges to many managers, because it really is quite different from leading a team of people who all work in the same place. It is a challenge that should be recognised and dealt with as companies could find themselves facing falling productivity and morale at a time when they can least afford it.

Happily, there is quite some experience to draw on in adapting to working remotely. There has been a growth in virtual teams over the last decade or so, driven by a number of factors, including wanting to recruit best in class professionals from around the world, cutting down on office costs, and enhancing productivity by reducing time spent commuting. This has led to some important thinking about best practice for managing remotely. (Some resources are listed at the end of this article.)

The first message for managers is not to sigh in relief and think: “Thank goodness, now that all these people are out of the office and out of my hair I can finally settle down to getting some real work done“. Your primary task is to manage your team, and for a while at least they will need more management not less.

The second message is that this is not (primarily) about the technology. It is easy to get absorbed in looking at the best networking systems and remote project management tools. These are important; but much more important is the quality of your leadership at this testing time: it needs to be supportive and attentive, rather than command and control.

 The rest of this article discusses the key risks facing remote teams and suggests some mitigating strategies for each. In addressing the risks, you will be developing the appropriate management style for virtual teams.

1. Risk: Morale and work/life balance

Many of your staff will be uncertain about how to work remotely, anxious about their health and their families, and struggling with relative isolation and the possibility of economic collapse. It will be important to acknowledge these concerns and to address them, with information, understanding and emotional support.

You should also bear in mind that working from home means that the staff have no home away from work. This risks the “always on” syndrome and burnout resulting from never taking a break from work. The other side is the danger that team members become suspicious of each other and question whether everyone is shouldering a fair share of the work to be done.

Mitigating strategies

  • It is a good idea to have regularly scheduled team meetings. These create a sense of rhythm and inclusion if well run. In an office, you generally want meetings which are focussed on work and are time efficient. In remote teams it is a good idea to use the meeting for personal and human communication. You should find some group bonding processes that you can build into the meetings. Be sure to make these welcoming of all team members and sensitive to the diversity of people in the team. Making time for people to “check in” is really worth it if there are not too many people on the call. It makes people feel valued and engages them in the work conversations that will follow.
  • Managers should schedule catch-up meetings with individual team members. You should be listening for isolation, stress at home and signs of burn out. Be alert to moodiness, emails at 4:00 am or other distress signals. There may not be very much you can do – but listening and being supportive can make a big difference. And you can advise victims of “always on” to create a clear structure to their day, including off time.

2. Risk: Poor communication

  • In a virtual team there is no equivalent to standing around the coffee machine getting news on the grape vine. This often leaves people out of a loop they have been used to.
  • As a rule, we write emails that are often cryptic in content and curt in tone. This is never a good thing, but the damage is multiplied where people cannot just pop into each other’s office to clarify what is meant.
  • Institutional memory resides in those who have longest been part of the team. It is harder to access that knowledge when not working in the same physical space.

Mitigating strategies

  • Regular meetings are also important for ensuring good quality communication. Pay careful attention to how you run these meetings: ensure that there is an agenda, and that it is clear who is running the meeting. Circulate accurate minutes afterwards.
  • One can ask: “Any questions? No? Ok let’s move on” in a tone that discourages participation and at a pace that doesn’t give people time to think about what they want to ask. The same question can be asked with a tone that genuinely encourages participation, especially if you check with people by name to contribute to the discussion and enough time is allowed for them to formulate their questions or comments. If people then choose not to contribute, at least you can be confident that they have had the opportunity to do so.
  • When conflict occurs, resolve it in a call, not an email. This is always important, but especially in remote teams where nuance is often missing and can be made worse by a poorly phrased email that can’t be taken back once it has been sent.
  • Encourage people to be precise but clear in all email communication. Everyone must have enough information to understand the point being made – and encourage everyone to write in full sentences and with correct grammar. They are writing business emails, not sending text messages to their friends.

3. Risk: Poor organisational management leads to slipping productivity

Productivity is harder to monitor remotely. Are people doing the work and the hours that they claim? Some people may be easily distracted working at home by the unholy trinity of fridge, family and Facebook. Normal performance management, team-building and regular informal feedback may slip by as the team is dispersed and it feels like hard work to stay in touch.

Mitigating strategies

  • Ensure that there are clear team goals, project specifications or performance metrics, and celebrate when milestones are achieved.
  • Be clear about your expectations of each team member and hold them accountable and support them in meeting your expectations.
  • As far as possible have transparent project management tools that show who is doing what. This helps everyone feel part of a team and to know that everyone is contributing.

We are going to learn many lessons from the disruption wreaked by the epidemic. When we have come through the worst, the economy is starting to recover and people are able to return to work, you may find it possible to encourage some people to work from home at least some of the time. It may be helpful to them, economical for the company and it will certainly be good for the environment to reduce the number of rush hour commuters. There are important lessons to be learnt about how to make remote teams effective, if we put the effort in now, when we have no choice.

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The Thornhill team has worked remotely since 2003, so we have many years’ experience in creating effective virtual teams. We have developed an online tool to help you measure the effectiveness of your virtual teams, and to give each team member feedback on how they are perceived by their colleagues on the team.

It provides useful insight, but its greatest power is in facilitating an internal discussion on how to improve team functioning.

To assist you at this challenging time, we’re offering 20% off our Team Performance Review projects launched by 30 April 2020. Contact admin@thornhill.co.za with code “TPR20”.

Resources

Unnamed. Blog. “Challenges to managing virtual teams and how to overcome them.” Harvard Extension School: Professional Development

Linda Stewart. Blog, 30 March 2012: “Building Virtual Teams: strategies for high performance”. Forbes Magazine

Noah Goel. Blog, 8 May 2018 “Running a virtual team: avoid these five mistakes”. Forbes Magazine

Paul Spiegelman. 18 July 2016. “Building a Great Culture with Remote Teams”. Forbes Magazine

Trello also has useful resources on its website. For example: https://blog.trello.com/happy-productive-remote-worker

For more information on Thornhill’s various products and services for all levels within your organisation, please contact us on admin@thornhill.co.za

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