As a result of COVID-19, many of us have stepped into a new reality of virtual working, which poses new challenges for leaders. It goes without saying, virtual is not physical, and team connection and productivity will not automatically continue in a virtual world. Virtual teaming affords many benefits but presents a higher risk of misalignment and lack of collaboration, which may take a toll on team trust and employee engagement if not done right.
Distance and lack of face-to-face communication makes managing virtual teams a challenge. When people are not in the same location, it can be hard to understand what they are saying. It is easy to misinterpret their meaning. And unless you can video conference, you do not get the benefit of reading body language or facial expressions. That is why you need really good communication to manage virtual teams.
It's tough but not impossible to build long-distance relationships. The same interpersonal skills you use with office mates work with remote team members, too.
Be clear in your communication, confirm understanding, be supportive and respectful, take care of your people and help those overcome obstacles, and do not forget to thank them and tell them when they do good work.
Misunderstandings, communication issues, cultural differences, these all can create conflict. It is never easy to resolve conflict. It is even more challenging with virtual teams. Email is too impersonal for delicate discussions. Plus, it can lead to even more misunderstanding.
Instead, use phone or video conferencing to work through conflict. Speaking of phone and video conferencing, figuring out when to hold a group session can be tough. Someone is usually up really late or much too early.
Understanding the manager's connecting role in a remote team - The main purpose of the manager is the care and feeling of the team members, making sure that they have everything they need to successfully complete their jobs. The manager may roll up their sleeves at time to pitch in, but that's not their primary purpose. Rather, they have the responsibility for monitoring overall team performance, schedule and workload and making sure everything comes together as planned. In addition to these tasks, the manager of a remote team has some special responsibilities.
Primarily, I think the remote manager needs to act as the hub that connects the geographically disconnected team. They're the ones who are going to be the primary contact back at the command centre and will like to be the pass-through point for information flowing to the remote workers from corporate. This isn't to say I don't think there shouldn't be direct communication to the remote employees from the company. There're absolutely should be if the company wants to keep the workers engaged and informed, but the manager holds a pivotal role for the team as the intermediary for a lot of activities. This is going to require some special effort.
Setting ground rules
Make sure that there are well-documented procedures in place and that they are being consistently followed. How can a team have a solid basis for performance if the requirements of that performance have not been defined? This is important for any team, but I think it's even more critical for remote groups. Since the individuals on the team may not interact with each other as frequently as a co-located team, there is a lot more opportunity for them to head off in different directions unless there is a solid understanding upfront.
It is ultimately the manager's responsibility to make sure everyone on the team understands their role. Making sure there's an adequate definition of the work at hand and that individual tasks and deliverables are spelled out provides team members with actionable goals to meet, reduces ambiguity, and sets common ground. All of these will contribute to an increase in group trust, and by the way, consistency and application is really important here.
Developing working agreements and defined norms in a virtual team
Just because it's the manager's responsibility to make sure procedures and expectations are in place that doesn't mean that they are the only ones developing them. In fact, it's critical that managers get the input of the team whenever they are standardizing process or setting goals.
First of all, your team members are the experts at what it takes to get the job done. They're the ones who know what steps need to be taken, and in what order. And they're the ones who know where the process can get bogged down. May be there's a spot where work has to pass through a gate that's controlled by someone outside the team. May be there's a manual process that ought to be automated. Or information required that isn't provided through standard input forms that team members have to then go and research. Whatever is the case, involving the team in setting up the process means everyone is invested in it and creating a team working agreement is extremely valuable.
How do the team members want to communicate? When will people be available? What are mutually agreeable service levels and turnaround times? Who is available to help with specific tasks?
it's important for remote teams to have a solidly defined set of norms. It will smooth team interactions, build trust among team members, and bake in accountability.
At the end of the day, it's the manager's job to guide the team in this process of creation. And it's their responsibility to make sure everything that the team will need is in place.
Setting accountability in a virtual setup
Virtual employees need to take more individual responsibility to meet deadlines, so it is critical for someone to hold them accountable despite the fact that virtual managers have fewer opportunities to observe their employees. To address this dilemma, project management software is an effective tool. Software programs such as Base camp, WorkZone and Wrike can make each project visible to the entire team so that everyone concerned understands where their job fits into the big picture. The ability to share files, assign tasks and check due dates also allows team members to easily communicate next steps, whether it's providing data or passing along a document for review.
Time-tracking software (such as TimeFox, Timesheet and Kronos) is also an effective tool for improving virtual team performance, allowing team leaders to track hours (especially helpful if you work with multiple clients and you're trying to determine how much time you're investing in each one).
Other habits that help leaders manage accountability and improve decision-making in a virtual environment include:
- Develop metrics that focus on results, not number of hours worked.
- Involve employees in the early project planning stages so realistic deadlines can be developed.
- Give employees more autonomy by allowing them to determine the best way to organize their work.
- Schedule check-ins at key milestones with individual team members in order to assess progress, provide feedback and coaching, and make required course corrections.
- Share calendars and action plans with the entire team so that everyone is aware of the status of a project.
Pavithra Urs & Sanjeev Himachali