Managing virtual teams and (increasingly) staff that work from home
Virtual teams have become common in recent years. Remote work allows businesses and startups to compete in an increasingly globalized society, and provides new freedoms for employees, freelancers and consultants to work with clients and colleagues – less constrained by geographic boundaries. Now, with travel restrictions and ‘social distancing’ strategies adopted by many organisations in the face of the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease, many more companies are encouraging staff to work from home – significantly fast-tracking this remote working trend.
Recent Gallup research shows there can be significant benefits from having staff working remotely (at least some of the time). For example, engagement climbs when employees spend some time working remotely and some time working in a location with their co-workers. Research also indicates that remote workers can be more productive than on-site workers. Indeed, it’s probable that, between the higher engagement and increased productivity of remote work, having off-site workers offers an untapped potential for maximizing business outcomes. We (the authors) have ourselves worked for over ten years as researchers, consultants and facilitators outside of mainstream office environments – and with clients and colleagues across the country and internationally. In our experience, while it is good to mix this up with face-to-face interactions there are few areas of our work that can’t be successfully progressed using online networking and collaboration. However, for those new to this it does involve learning about different work practices, modes of communication and team dynamics.
A number of practitioners are sharing tips, guides and best practice in this area and we provide links to relevant posts and other on-line guides that we have come across through the related Managing virtual teams, Managing virtual meetings and Facilitation tools and techniques site pages. Among these, three strategic areas for improving online collaboration stand out: i) clarifying roles, goals and processes; ii) communication and engagement; and iii) online collaborative tools.
Clarify roles, goals and processes
Teams form to achieve specific goals which require collaboration and a mix of different skills and competencies. Importantly, teams can only function effectively if goals are clear and measurable. As Heidi Gardner and Ivan Matviak remind us, “the move to home-based working is a great opportunity for a team to revisit the basics in order to ensure everyone understands the team objectives, their individual roles, and how each person contributes to the outcome.” At the same time take the opportunity to clarify task design and the social and technical processes that can help complete them.
The disruptive nature of coronavirus will itself lead to new and sometimes competing tasks for teams and organisations. So teams need to continually re-clarify goals and outcomes at both the individual and team level. A trap in such a dynamic environment can be to develop an ever-expanding list of activities, so make sure that specific actions that emerge from the meetings are documented and clearly assigned to those involved. Talking about roles and skill-sets among your team will also help members to understand when they can turn to their colleagues instead of just you as the leader and helps build a sense of trust among teammates. Relying only on formal leadership to drive the direction and commitment of the team is less efficient than encouraging a shared involvement.
It is also worth remembering that team goals include both formal outcomes (the ones the team has most likely been set up to achieve) and informal outcomes (those that the individuals bring to the team or that the team itself has developed for its members). SMART is an acronym standing for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timebound. Defining outcomes and their assessment by these criteria helps the team focus efforts, stay motivated, meet deadlines, have control and prioritize tasks.
Communication and engagement
While communication always underpins good team culture and performance, it is even more important for those working in virtual and distributed settings. Team leaders should be aware not only of the need to document decisions and related information, but also the importance of reaching out in a positive and personal way to team members. Some business literature has identified that workplace isolation can be real risk for employees who work in a different location from their manager or colleagues – which lowers productivity and engagement. On the other side of the fence (or the Internet), for managers unused to working through virtual teams there is a risk of becoming excessively task-focused. According to a study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, the most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over-communicating, all while modeling the same behaviors for others on the team.
People interact more constructively when they are comfortable with each other. Take time at the beginning of each larger meeting to check-in with everybody – invite team members to take a minute and go around to talk about what’s going on in their lives – professionally and personally. Go first to model how to do this in terms of tone and content. Use the opportunity to encourage team members to share something of their home work environment. This means that others will better understand the different situational factors that make each remote office setting unique. Maybe someone has demanding pets, young children coming home from school, or noisy trucks in the background. Getting your team to understand each other’s context helps build relationships, and a team culture that will be more open to engagement and collaboration.
If your staff and colleagues see that you are modeling effective communication behavior they will follow your example. Setting a regular recurring time for the team to come together virtually via video conference provides a good base on which to build other communication initiatives. It’s always easier to cancel if a meeting isn’t needed, than it is to set up a team talk at the last-minute. And remember to pay attention to ensure that virtual meeting time is shared across the whole team – limiting those who like talking, and encouraging those who are often quieter. If working virtually is new to your team take the time to collectively agree on some communication protocols. This can include guidelines about how people should engage in virtual meetings, and when to use different forms of communication (emails, phone, texts, video-conference, etc.). Be sure to not just rely on whole-team meetings, and take time to check in on people individually through phone or video calls. Encourage smaller work catch-ups between smaller team groups to progress shared tasks and activities.
Facilitation is important
Useful and productive online group interactions don’t just happen automatically, they require facilitation – to support meeting preparation, care and support. Unstructured or poorly run virtual meetings can lead to wasted time, frustrated teams and ineffective outcomes. The facilitation role can be provided by in-house or external people with the right skills. Facilitation is a balance between functions that enhance the meeting environment and content, create openness and opportunity, and make sure that the space is safe and enjoyable for participants. A good facilitator supports members in a number of ways. These include fostering member interaction, ensuring the provision of stimulating material to support conversations, and helping to hold participants members accountable to the stated community of practice guidelines, rules or norms.
On-line collaboration tools
Holding virtual calls and meetings may not provide the same rich experience that can be gained from face-to-face communication. However, catching-up virtually can provide provide many enjoyable freedoms that more formal meetings in person can never provide – you choose time and place and pace of your work, when to have a break, and interruptions by your cat, dog, or partner won’t matter at all (if you don’t mind). It will take some time to “get this right” with your colleagues because there is no formal education about this kind of work yet, anywhere.
If this represents an early foray into communicating virtually then its probably not necessary to pilot a whole lot of new software. You probably have the tools for it already: your mobile phone, email, a shared file hosting portal (Google Drive, Dropbox , Microsoft OneDrive, etc.) and any video conferencing software (Zoom, Skype for Business, Google Hangouts, etc.) will get you started. As you move deeper into distributed work practices then you may want to support asynchronous team communication (e.g. Microsoft teams, Slack), and collaborative whiteboarding and canvases (e.g. MURAL). When you want to explore a wider range of collaborative tools such as chats, online forums and project management software visit sites like Robin Good’s Online Collaboration Tools or Matt Stempeck’s It’s time for next-generation remote collaboration.
For many managers and teams the transition to working remotely may be challenging. But while the coronavirus, like other disruptions, will pass, the trend to remote working is unlikely to disappear. In the end, learning how to work more collaboratively and effectively online is likely to open up a world of new possibilities for the future.
This post provides an introduction to the wealth of links on the related pages – Managing virtual teams, Managing virtual meetings and Facilitation tools and techniques. Other closely related sections in the site include the Team building, communities of practice (COPs) and learning groups and Cross-sector partnerships and collaborations. The risk communication and engagement page also has links to a number of resources which are also aligned to responding to coronavirus.
An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.