It is looking more likely in the next few months that organizations will have to continue running while many, if not most, of their employees, are working from home because of the COVID-19 virus. Working virtually is nothing new, and a lot has been written about how to personally stay effective when working virtually, but what are some key factors in helping entire teams be productive and effective, especially when their work is interdependent?
For virtual teams, team norms and work processes are crucial. With extended time apart, team cohesion could easily fail and along with that, the team’s performance. Here are 3 key points virtual teams have in place to be highly effective.
1. Team Purpose
If your team isn’t already crystal clear in its shared purpose, this would be one of the first things to discuss. Set up a video conference with your team and agree upon what the shared purpose is for the next 3, 6 or 12 months – whatever timeframe is relevant for your team. The lack of a shared, clear, compelling purpose is one of the most common reasons we see that hinders teams’ performance. It’s simply not good enough to assume that because people report to the same manager or leader that they might think there’s a shared purpose to work together. Having a shared compelling team purpose is actually critical in any kind of team, including virtual ones.
2. Communication in Teams
For virtual teams, team behaviors/norms need to include regular communication between members. Who is involved in the communication is dependent on who really needs to have the information or data. There is a myriad of communication needs for virtual teams; a few are listed below.
Communication for team collaboration
The entire team needs to be clear what tasks are to be done independently (or together) and who will be doing each of these tasks. We’ve found that oftentimes, team members become too myopic in their own tasks and don’t stop to think about how their tasks, and work, could affect others on the team. Asking the question, “Whose work could be affected by the work I am doing?” Or “Who might need to know about this decision” Or “What are the possible second and third-order consequences” can quickly identify with whom to collaborate.
Communication for team accountability
Holding oneself and each other accountable for team tasks is one of the biggest difficulties teams have and, when it’s done well, is a key characteristic of an effective team. This is even more important for teams who work virtually. One excellent way of keeping a team progressing is daily stand-up meetings. These are very short (10-15 minutes) daily meetings held to keep track of progress, prioritize tasks, and manage challenges/risks of the work being done. Be careful though, not to let these kinds of meetings become long updates that are a huge waste of everybody’s time. To keep meetings short, use collaborative technologies to communicate more detailed information outside of the stand-up meeting. And if there is a need for a sidebar discussion with one or two members of the team, don’t slow down the meeting by holding that conversation. Do it right after the meeting.
Communication for team decision-making
When making a decision as a team, or for the team, email is insufficient to create clarity, alignment, and buy-in. The written word is just too limited for this purpose and can quickly lead to misconceptions, loss of clarity, and unnecessary disagreements. So, use either video- or audio-calls when there is a difference of opinion or if clarity and alignment are needed. We need to talk to each other because clarity and understanding are gained through tone of voice and our body language.
Whatever meetings are held, minimize those that are information sharing only. For information sharing, perhaps an email would suffice. Keep meetings as short as possible. Include only those that truly need to be there and have an agenda that has clearly outlined the objectives of the meeting instead of just the topics and presenters.
3. Supportive Technology
For Virtual Teams – Using technology to connect people, ideas, and information is crucial for virtual teams. Technology that is clunky to use or slows people down is one of the quickest ways to reduce a virtual team’s effectiveness because it hinders people from speaking with each other and communicating ideas rapidly. Think about a time when you were using a cell phone and the call was hard to hear or kept being dropped! The organization that uses virtual teams must invest in top-quality technology that supports teams and it must be easy to access and use– ranging from high bandwidth to easy access, to video conferencing, and rapid screen-sharing/collaboration tools. Because our company is almost exclusively virtual, we make extensive use of video conferencing (we use Zoom) because it is easy to hop on a video-call (one-to-one, and whole teams), we can see each other (allows for communication using voice and body language), and easy screen sharing so we can look together and make sure we are clearly understanding what is being discussed. We also make a lot of use of instant messaging apps (e.g. Slack, Yammer, WhatsApp, iMessage) for those quick questions or information sharing.
There are also collaboration apps such as Mural or Trello that can help teams brainstorm, plan, or evaluate actions. These apps are used on both iOS and Android, allowing team members to collaborate from just about anywhere. A couple of years ago I was able to join an important meeting while in the back of a (private) bus in rural Italy. Now that is flexibility and strong supportive technology!
It’s really not hard to set a team up for success when they have to work from home (or other places). It does take some forethought and planning though. Without it, a virtual team won’t succeed.