How to Make a Virtual Team Work

Virtual work is the new norm for Corporate America, at least for the next several weeks during COVID-19

Given the sudden shift, many teams do not feel prepared for virtual work environments.  They are asking questions like, “what do I do to maintain productivity?” or “how do I communicate with my team remotely?”

If this is you or your team, you are not alone.  Consider these actionable tips to maintain productivity and positive communication during these challenging times:

  • Tip #1: You cannot over communicate during COVID-19.  That means checking in early and often with your team.  Simply asking the question, “how are you doing?” with genuine interest goes a long way.  Listen with empathy and respond with statements like “I am sorry to hear that” or “I am so glad you shared that with me” demonstrates you care and that they are not alone.  COVID-19 has been a shock wave for many teams migrating overnight to a virtual environment, and with this surprise comes a surprising return to core human needs like connection.
  • Tip #2: Working from home should not be that different than working from the office.  Although the setting has changed, the work is the same.  This migration of environments will reveal gaps in processes and performance issues that were already there.  This as an opportunity to emphasize standard operating procedures and accountability just as you would if in the office.
  • Tip #3: Connection drives performance virtually.  Aside from physical and safety needs, social connection and belonging is next in importance to humans.  Many people derive a great sense of belonging from their work environment.  This can have a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing in the short-term without the office space connection.  There are alternative ways to reinforce connection in virtual settings.

I have managed a virtual team in my own business for over five years.  I have only met my Client Experience Manager virtually, and work with my Director of Operations remotely as well.  It does not impact our ability to get the work done because we trust each other, we have open communication, and leverage technology to automate communications.  Back in my Corporate America days, I also managed a virtual team for nearly four years.

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My decade of experience leading my own virtual teams and coaching others to lead virtually, taught me the importance of trust, communication, and inclusive leadership.  There are three key pillars I have found to be true of successful virtual teams:

  • Pillar #1: Trust is paramount in managing productivity with virtual teams.  You do not have to physically see someone to trust someone.  Just because people are not glued to their cubicles, does not mean that business activities should change.  Set some ground rules about expectations (email response times, project priorities, key task due dates) just as you would in a live work environment.  Expectations are the same, the setting is just different.
  • Pillar #2:  Regular communication is necessary to ensure trust.  The mode of communication changes with virtual workers, not the content.  Frequent bite-sized information much like a cubicle drive-by is sufficient to maintaining open communication.  A standing 15-minute daily huddle or kickoff to see what everyone’s priorities are can help immensely.  Everyone likes to communicate a bit differently – ask for team member preferences and flex your communication style to support them.
  • Pillar #3:  Inclusive leadership reinforces positive communication.  Inclusive teams outperform their industry peers with 87% better decisions and 19% higher revenues.  The hallmarks of inclusive leadership is self-awareness and key behaviors like vulnerability, empathy, and candor.  Lead from where you are at and demonstrate you want everyone to be a part of the process, even if physical distance separates the team.

While trust, communication, and inclusive leadership are game changers for virtual teams, it is important to note that there is an upside to remote work environments for communication.  COVID-19 has also given us the benefit of time to pursue professional development.  A few of these hidden benefits include:

  • Benefit #1: Communication can be supported by technology.  Technology tools like Asana and Slack provide venues for timely communications without inundating workers’ email boxes.  Ask the team how they prefer to communicate via technology and at what frequency.  Set parameters for how the technology is to be leveraged (for feedback on deliverables or article sharing for example).  Virtual coffees and happy hours are another great way to reinforce connection using video or chat technologies.  If your team usually communicates throughout the day on an as needed basis, proactively schedule one on one phone or video time to maintain that connection.
  • Benefit #2: Now is a time to encourage virtual professional development opportunities.  Virtual workers are often more productive due to the minimized distractions of the corporate work environment (even if children are at home due to school cancellations).  Encourage workers to engage in online learning programs, read professional development books and articles, and share what topics they are learning about with each other, and how it connects to their role and development plan at work.
  • Benefit #3: Virtual learning is affordable and easy to find time in the virtual workday.  I have a number of free and small investment programs to consider: