Updated: May 4
Maximize the Power of Virtual Teams
There's no denying that Covid-19 is reshaping how we view our business structures, teams, and organizational policies moving forward, sending companies throughout the world scrambling to figure out how to move work forward in a post-pandemic era.
The good news is that the trend to virtual workplaces has been happening for some time and as a society we have knowledge and tools about how to work this way. Many companies may have hybrid teams with some employees working remotely and may already have some infrastructure in place. Others may be encountering the obstacles of virtual employment for the first time.
It is essential that company decision-makers acknowledge the current situation and commit to making the necessary organizational transitions. Half measures are risky, both from an employee health perspective and from a financial one. The first step is to invest in long-term solutions that are reliable, scalable and flexible. Build a clear strategy for transitioning work virtually and determine:
1. What changes need to be made to the work culture and flow.
2. What technology is needed to support the transition.
2. What preparation managers need to communicate these shifts clearly and transparently.
Virtual Work Culture
Work culture consists of the values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes that explicitly or implicitly created by and communicated to staff and clients/consumers. Culture is shaped and impacted by company policies, but it is reinforced through daily interactions from every level of the team.
One of the biggest struggles virtual workforces face is how to maintain or create a positive work culture as workers become remote. Maintaining a positive work culture increases employee engagement and retention in addition to improving productivity and performance. Whether or not it is visible, culture influences every team's perceptions and actions.
There are five components to optimal work cultures for any organization, but in a virtual work environment they can be even more critical to team success and satisfaction.
Order & Process
Information has to be accessible, transparent, and easy to navigate. This includes company and project goals, progress, and feedback. Make sure that files are in one central location and that those who need it have access to it. Keep communication on the same channels or apps to avoid confusion, and make sure all employees know how and when to use these.
Direction & Purpose
Guidance and instruction should be clearly communicated and easy to find. Managers should provide support and check-ins to ensure that employees are on track and clear about goals, tasks, and timelines. Important information can easily get lost in translation or siloed within small teams without face-time, so create clear paths of communication across departments.
Autonomy & Agency
Employees in virtual spaces tend to have a great deal more autonomy by necessity. This can be particularly challenging for managers and employees who aren't accustomed to this. Provide training or support for your team in self-motivation and personal accountability. And remember, remote work functions with near constant interruption, particularly if childcare is limited. Have patience and expect delays. Be strategic about what needs to be a conference call, and what can be communicated over written platforms.
Growth & Change
Brainstorming and developing new ideas and solutions is more challenging remotely. The tendency towards making unilateral decisions increases in virtual spaces. Make sure you are still actively encouraging collaboration and feedback.
Inclusion & Connection
The fifth component is the most difficult in the virtual space. Building camaraderie and trust across teams who work remotely is challenging, but not impossible. Create space for a "virtual water cooler" with different prompts where employees can share with one another about things happening in their personal lives. Post group challenges or goals where employees can compete and support one another. Other ideas to build inclusion and connection include virtual happy hours, town-hall forums, public thank yous, weekly happiness surveys, weekly updates across departments.
The Tools You Need
There are a myriad of great options out there to help support virtual teams. Some technology tries to meet all needs, while others specialize in one or two of these functions. There is also a wide variety of pricing options to make these services available to businesses of all sizes as they transition to virtual workspaces. I do not get paid to promote any of the tools mentioned here and am not suggesting these over their competitors. However, I will say that high functioning virtual teams require the following types of technological support:
Virtual Meeting Space
Most of us are used to video conferencing at this point, even if just using our phones for personal calls to loved ones. Most professional conferencing tools like zoom and gotomeeting allow users to not only connect with voice and video, but share screens and use chat boxes. More sophisticated learning platforms like webex or adobe connect also allow users to move into breakout rooms, share documents, take polls and many more things that can make meetings more productive.
Online collaboration tools like Miro or google's Jamboards are designed to be able to brainstorm and workout complex decisions with a team and can be used during or around meetings with the team. They are more flexible than a simple googledoc in that you can create webs, draw arrows, and clump and sort ideas together.
Task Management Systems
One of the keys to transparent and clear communication in virtual teams is having a task or project management system like hubstaff or asana. Team members can assign tasks, check on the status of those tasks, visualize timelines and goals, and add notes when needed. While many organizations already have some form of task management system in place, they may find that it is not used consistently or at maximum capability within your teams, often because in-person work-arounds are quicker and potentially more enjoyable for teams that work closely together. However, spending time analyzing and improving these systems use and function is a critical long-term investment when moving to more virtual environments.
The hardest aspect of team culture to bring into the virtual space is camaraderie and trust. Using networking platforms like slack or microsoft teams can help team members connect on a personal and professional level. Channels can be developed to streamline conversation topics and make it easier to follow. The important thing is that there is a way to develop relationships outside of work tasks.
How do you get your managers and team leaders ready to coach and support the team in using these new tools? Develop a plan to roll these out simply. Make sure managers are familiar with not only what the tools are but why they are important to the work environment.
And be patient. Consider feedback you are getting from your team and make adjustments as you transition.
The current need to work virtually may not last forever, but a business' ability to transition into remote work as needed will be essential to thrive as we look forward. It's worth investing the time and effort into getting it right.
Katherine Stitham is a Human Resource Development Consultant based in Maine. As president and founder of Integrative Inquiry, she partners with organizations to build stronger, more effective teams rooted in collaboration, innovation, and equity. Drawing from a decade working nation-wide and internationally, her integrative approach fuses cutting-edge educational development theory with diverse contexts and perspectives. She conducts retreats and workshops in the U.S. and abroad, and consults with a variety of professions to support strategic planning, leadership development and culture change.