As the world enters uncharted territory in navigating the coronavirus pandemic, a swath of the global workforce is setting up shop to work from home.
With new emphasis on telecommuting comes a new reality: Teams need a strategy for communicating digitally, and leaders must adapt to effectively manage their people and meetings remotely.
Most people who’ve worked remotely can attest that while virtual teamwork has its pros, it can also be challenging. According to our research, some of the specific limitations of virtual teams include some people participating more than others, difficulty in dealing with conflict, and trouble developing trust.
The frustration team members experience is often compounded by technological glitches on calls, connectivity issues, and team members’ different expectations about comfort and use of technology.
3 Tips for Managing Virtual Teams
- Use technology to communicate in real time and to train and develop your people.
The more often team members meet “face-to-face” through real-time technologies, the higher their levels of success. That’s because tools like videoconferencing allow for members to interpret non-verbal communication, like hand gestures, facial expressions, and body posture. As a result, communication feels more familiar and natural.
Organizations can help by providing training in technologies and tools.
A survey of 440 professionals across 8 different industries (conducted before the current coronavirus crisis) found more than 60% of organizations did not provide training for virtual team leaders or members. Of the organizations that did offer some training, more than 80% of these respondents indicated virtual training was not a priority.
Especially for teams with few existing relationships, training is necessary to help members get off on the right foot with new technologies and tools.
To streamline communications, training should detail which tools will be used for what purposes. This will prevent the same information being sent via multiple mediums and keep work from falling through the cracks.
Frontline supervisors who have never managed people remotely may especially find that they need training and support when suddenly leading and managing virtual teams. Fortunately, they can still upgrade their leadership skills via digital learning.
- Overcome time zone differences.
Teams spread across multiple time zones can easily fall into the trap of working long hours to accommodate one another’s schedules. This is especially a concern during a time of global crisis when people working from home experience blurred boundaries between personal and professional obligations. Be aware that because of the long work hours, your people may be on a path to burnout, as they find it hard to separate from, or “turn off,” work.
When teams are geographically dispersed, the following actions can protect members from burnout:
- Ensure members are able to get the bulk of their work done during their normal working hours.
- Provide tools for scheduling and guidelines on “connectivity” to minimize early morning or late-night meetings. Global virtual teams especially need clarity on when they should (or should not) be available, including on weekends and local holidays.
- Provide extra organizational support and formalize team norms. We found that more geographically dispersed teams tend to have lower levels of team commitment and experience more challenges. These teams may benefit from additional opportunities to meet face-to-face at key times throughout a project.
- Ensure that successes are visible and celebrated to help build team commitment and keep up morale.
Remember that even though employees are often willing to work extra hours in the short-term when it feels necessary and unavoidable, these long hours are not sustainable. Above all, acknowledge that equipping their people to handle stress, uncertainty, and setbacks results in resilient team members who are prepared for future challenges.
- Consider team members’ other commitments.
Employees can only be stretched so far, and the more teams they’re involved with, the less time they’re able to devote to each project. Take the following steps to ensure your members are engaged.
- Ensure teams are of optimal size. We have found that means you should aim for 5-9 members.
- Be aware of the number of teams on which members simultaneously work. Not surprisingly, the more teams someone is on, the less effective they are.
- Determine whether team members are core or peripheral. Core team members are key contributors who are highly involved and stay involved over a longer time. Peripheral team members support the team’s work but may be involved in a lesser way or for a shorter time. At the beginning of a project, explain each team member’s role and expected contribution.
- Avoid overloading high performers with too many team assignments. Limit the roles they play (particularly if they are core team members) to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed and burning out. When the economic pendulum inevitably swings back at some point, you don’t want your top talent to be depleted, as they will make up your leadership pipeline and can help power your organization into the future.
Checklist for Designing and Supporting Virtual Teams
Creating the right conditions for virtual teamwork to succeed is imperative in the early stages of a team’s development. The following checklist can help you design your teams and enhance the teams’ future performance.
- Clearly articulate vision and corporate objectives to all employees. This is even more important in times of crisis.
- Select team members based on individual talents and abilities, including technical competence and interpersonal skills.
- Once you’ve established teams, instruct team leads to define their mission and purpose so that all team members are on the same page.
- Establish processes for sharing information, making decisions, and resolving miscommunications or potential conflicts.
- If possible, set up a communication channel for process questions/discussions that is separate from the task-related communications.
- Clearly define and communicate the tools teams have for communicating with one another on a regular basis.
- Ensure team members have clear goals and recommend potential approaches to perform work.
- Recognize individual and team efforts through rewards and other performance incentives.
Best Practices for Leading and Managing Virtual Meetings
- Create a detailed agenda and send out ahead of time.
- List the names of attendees at the start of the meeting.
- Address attendees by name when verbally interacting with participants and provide opportunities for all attendees to contribute.
- Stay on task in order to keep the group engaged and to distract from the temptation to multitask.
- Provide brief recaps as you move through the agenda before you move onto the next item.
- Seek feedback and provide via all communication channels.
- Send action items out in a meeting recap to all participants after the meeting to reiterate what was decided upon and next steps.
Above all, keep communication lines open to ensure everyone is on the same page and working together to achieve your shared goal.