July 13 , 2020 • 5 minute read by Saeed
“The enemy of accountability is ambiguity.” ― Patrick Lencioni
The challenges presented by COVID-19 are unprecedented and continue to evolve. The shift from face time management to virtual management and the use of technology to communicate and collaborate means that many organizations are exploring ways to help their employees work productively from home.
However, working from home requires a different kind of leadership for managers charged with leading virtual teams. Without this kind of leadership, engagement and collaboration can suffer – with subsequent falls in performance and productivity. The rules that apply to face-to-face teams do not necessarily apply to virtual teams.
Teams are the building blocks of an organization whether you sell butter or are searching for the next cancer cure. Without a strong and resilient team, getting there will take twice as long.
First, it’s important to recognize that all employees, managers and non-managers are experiencing these changes at the same time, but not in the same way. Individual people will experience this transition in different ways. While you may have some team members who are ready to implement a fully virtual work environment, others may experience the transition as isolating or discombobulating.
Here are 5 tips to help you foster a stronger and more productive team.
Tip #1: Check in Frequently and with Empathy
It is important to gauge where an individual team member might be on this spectrum of change by talking with them about their feelings, concerns, and answering questions. Pay attention to whether the employee is focusing on the future or the past and listen to their reactions in a non-judgmental mode.
Check in frequently with employees and ask for updates (personal and professional). Ask open-ended questions to create dialogue. Be patient, truly listen to answers, and respond directly. Above all else: be a good human being. The way you communicate with others can be more important than what is actually said. Research reveals that employees who have supportive leaders generally contribute more of their time, energy and knowledge. You would not be wrong if you believed that the reverse is also true.
Tip #2: Leverage Systems and Structures
Organizations are really just collections of interdependent systems, structures, processes and protocols. In order to create the results we want, we must manage these systems. And results are really just the byproducts of the systems we choose to either manage or ignore. Teams need clearly defined work processes to help keep everyone on track and moving towards established goals (you do have established goals right?) Tools such as Slack, Dropbox, Microsoft Teams and others all you to create a virtual collaboration ecosystem to get the work done while keeping everyone on the same page.
Tip #3: Revisit Priorities & Establish Clear Goals
Lack of accountability can be an issue for virtual teams, particularly when working cross-functionally. Leaders need to be vigilant about defining and communicating goals in virtual teams to prevent ambiguity – the enemy of accountability. What are expectations in this new context? Set expectations for completing projects or performing ongoing duties. Put the details in writing to the degree possible. Define work systems and timelines. Goal clarity ensures that everyone understands how their work fits into the overall vision of the enterprise.
Tip #4: Foster Trust through Transparency
It is also important to share information openly and transparently, even when you don’t have all the answers. Vulnerability actually helps foster trust. When trust is enhanced between members, it promotes and improves more effective communication and collaboration. Trust also travels in two directions: Horizontally between team colleagues and vertically between employees and their supervisor. Trust starts with respect and empathy.
Tip #5: Maintain Motivation and Engagement
To keep a virtual team motivated and engaged, be sure to celebrate successes and milestones regularly. In one successful virtual team I led, we started each meeting with a question to enable team members to continue to develop relationships through learning something new about each other on a regular basis. These are not cheesy icebreakers. “What did you eat for breakfast this morning?” is about as useful as what happens to that breakfast later in the day. Rather, they are thoughtful inquiries that help illuminate how people are coping such as: “What have you seen on the news recently that gives you hope?”
Additionally, it is essential to provide regular feedback on the performance of your virtual team members. Through regular communications and “one-on-ones” with team members, you’ll also have an early warning on issues that are more difficult to see coming on virtual teams. These methods, along with regular check-ins with your team, enables for continued engagement on the project.
A Final Word…
There is plenty of research that demonstrates that dispersed teams can actually outperform groups that are co-located or that people working from home are actually more productive, not less, than their in-office counterparts. To succeed, however, virtual collaboration and team work must be managed in specific ways. Leaders would do well to keep an eye out for new stressors, provide information in a timely fashion, manage conflict proactively, and promote trust and collaboration while providing adequate resources and support.
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