In June, Claire Bradshaw and I wrote and delivered a webinar called Leading Virtual Teams for NHS Library and Knowledge Services. We created 10 tips for Leading Virtual Teams and I promised I’d write the tips up for a blog post. Hope you find it useful.
- Start with the ‘why’
- Be clear about expectations and goals
- Communicate with purpose
- Create a rhythm
- Remove obstacles
- One size doesn’t fit all: be inclusive
- Build community
- Foster shared leadership
- Learn together, grow together
- Celebrate successes
1. Start with the ‘why’
Simon Sinek believes that working out your raison d’ être is an important first step in creating a successful team. Thinking about your purpose focuses you and your team’s thoughts on your shared values and beliefs and why you’re each getting out of bed each morning to come to work. The team is probably very familiar with what you do and how you do it, what products you create or services you produce and the processes that lead to them, but as time goes on, the ‘why’ of what you are doing can become less apparent.
Many of you are not in the position of starting a brand new team but that doesn’t mean you can’t revisit the reasons you got started in the first place. Particularly when normal feels like a thing of the past. The many changes to our work life due to COVID-19 might have left you and your team feeling somewhat adrift.
A strong sense of purpose contributes to higher levels of resilience, increases motivation, and increases job satisfaction. Why do your team come to work? Why did they choose to work for this team or organisation? What’s important to them?
Getting the team together and discussing what your purpose is, is an opportunity to all reconnect with your why and revisit the values and beliefs of your team. This might be especially important at the moment, in light of recent challenges and changes to where you are working, how you are working and the different working patterns that might now be necessary. It’s a great opportunity to find out or be reminded of what’s important to your team.
2. Be clear about expectations and goals
When your team works from home, it’s more important than ever to make sure your team is completely clear about their goals and roles and responsibilities. People need to know who does what and when. Uncertainty is unsettling and it can make ‘starting’ tasks hard, never mind being productive enough to finish a job.
As well as having clear goals it’s important to be clear about the work culture and behaviours of your team. What is acceptable and what’s not? How do you work together, communicate with each other? Are there any guidelines for meetings or project work? What are the working patterns? What is expected of individuals?
Working together on this as a team helps with ownership and buy-in on the decisions made. People feel as though their opinions are valued and means that it isn’t an ‘edict from on high’ but a working document that the team created together. It also ensures nothing is missed and provides a good new starter document.
3. Communicate with purpose
How do you communicate with your virtual team? What sort of things do you consider before communicating? Or is it more ad hoc? It’s useful to have a communication strategy even if it’s a light touch one. It manages expectations and ensures that everyone knows what to do. There are so many ways of communicating with your team these days that putting some thought in to how your team does this, could prevent a communication breakdown or even meltdown.
It’s a good idea to discuss this with your team as introducing a new tool when people are already using several can cause conflict and a lack of uptake. It can sometimes be seen as an app or piece of software too far.
Together, you can audit the types of communication that your team has to create, internally and externally and think about the purpose of it. Who is the audience for the different types of messages that get sent out? What is the frequency of the information getting sent? What channels or tools do you need to use? What do the team like and is there anything they hate? Are there any organisational policies that need to be adhered to?
4. Create a rhythm
People feel more at ease when they know what to expect. Try and develop a rhythm for your team by creating patterns for the working week. One way to do this is to make sure your weekly meetings are on the same day, at the same time and are the same length. Make sure everyone knows what to expect from the meeting by sending out the meeting agendas in advance, and where possible on the same day each week so people have enough time to review them. Do people know that they are expected to contribute? Or is it just the same people talking each time? Set clear expectations of behaviour at team meetings and agreeing as a team how you will communicate with each other is key. Creating a culture where blame is removed and the sharing of ideas is encouraged and praised, helps people to share ideas as they will feel psychologically safer. This and knowing what to expect will help promote contributions from all, especially for those who prefer to reflect on and consider what they want to say. (as opposed to those who ‘talk to think’.)
5. Remove obstacles
Sometimes a team’s ability to function effectively is dependent on a manager making sure any barriers to their work are removed, sometimes it’s about limiting the bureaucracy that they might face, dealing with interference from other departments, and even getting themselves out of the way and not micromanaging. When you’re thinking about virtual teams there are practical considerations as well. Has your team got the right tools to work from home? Are there any IT or internet issues? Do they have the right equipment? Do they have the right skills or might they need training on how to use Zoom or MS teams? Do they need a headset or a microphone? What is the desk and chair set up like, can you help them do their DSE assessment? If they need assistive technologies to work, does it work on their home pc or laptop?
6. One size doesn’t fit all: be inclusive
One of the things that working during a pandemic has taught us, is that people are unique with their own individual challenges and circumstance. Celebrating uniqueness is at the heart of equality and inclusion.
During lockdown teams have had to be more collaborative and considerate of colleagues who are shielding, under stress or have families to care for. They’ve had to come up with new creative solutions in order to carry on working. All are examples of inclusive leadership and behaviours.
What might you need to consider when considering the individuals in your team?
Personal circumstance, caring responsibilities, those with learning disabilities, neurodiversity and those with visual and hearing impairments will suffer more from the extra cognitive load that online working causes. Those with existing mental health challenges might struggle with the isolation that can occur with remote working. Might people suffer from social anxiety, ‘do I want you to see my face/where I live?’. Are there different socioeconomic backgrounds that mean that IT and internet provision might not be available? If you have anyone who has adjustments in the workplace, how do those work at home?
If you’re testing different setups particularly with online meeting software, is it possible to test with those staff that are working with assistive technologies or who lipread? Do you make sure that your meetings have agendas and that any documentation has been sent out well in advance? Can you make sure that you repeat questions when you summarise answers? Does the technology you use have the ability to generate subtitles? How long are your meetings? We’ve all experienced Zoom fatigue but for those staff with any of these challenges, long meetings will be really hard.
Think about your team? What do you need to consider? What policies and procedures, do you or your organisation have in place already that can used be to support inclusivity when working remotely? Is there anything else that might need resource/research to put in place?
7. Build community
When people feel like they are part of a community, they are more committed to each other and will help each other more readily. Feeling as if you are part of something bigger, improves motivation and productivity. It fosters a shared responsibility which engenders a more give and take attitude to work and increases our job satisfaction. This can feel much harder to develop when people are not working in the same office. Virtual teams miss out on the spontaneous and informal coffee chats or ‘water cooler discussions’ that help individual members of the team get to know each other.
When people learn about each other, it’s easier to feel empathy towards one another and feel connected. They trust each other more and will be more willing to be vulnerable in front of each other. This means they are more likely to talk to one another about their ‘crazy idea’ or about making a mistake. Trust like this means that people feel safe to explore and innovate and be honest about issues. Learning from mistakes can be some of the most important learning a team can do but people have to feel comfortable enough with other to admit any mistakes and know that errors don’t lead to punishments or ridicule.
Have a think about ways in which you recreate this in an online environment, share your ideas with your team and ask for their ideas too. How can you have these more social moments online? Can you have personal check-ins? Is this at the beginning of the weekly meeting or do you set up another channel for this? Claire and I discovered a lot of good practice when we were doing ‘resilience during a pandemic’ webinars. Some teams have a WhatsApp group and spend the first 5 mins of everyday having an ‘is everyone okay/what’s going on?’ chat. Some people have set up a weekly ‘what was your favourite thing this week’ chat on Friday afternoons and one team were taking a photo of something they were grateful for and sending it to the chat on Fridays. Chat together about the importance of still having this time to ‘socialise’ and work out what will work for your team. (NB there’s nothing worse than enforced joviality that you’ve not bought into.)
8. Foster shared leadership
Shared leadership can lead to higher levels of engagement and productivity, increase motivation, enhance people’s sense of purpose, improve their skills and experience and give them greater variety in their job. That’s not to say you are abrogating your responsibilities as a leader but that you realise your team will have a diverse skillset and you’re not the only one who can chair a meeting or lead a project.
Finding ways to involve your staff in leading the team can include: chairing meetings, assigning responsibility for special projects, such as identifying and sharing best practices; or getting members to coach others in their areas of expertise; or assigning them as mentors to help on-board new team members; or asking them to run a virtual team-building exercise.
9. Learn together, grow together
What are your opportunities for learning as a team? As a coach and soft skills trainer, I’m obviously predisposed to think that learning is the best thing ever, but consciously and continually developing your people has several benefits.
Staff who constantly learn and improve their skills are more adaptable and less resistant to change, which in our every changing world is vital. Formal team training can help the team to bond and can keep interest levels higher. Training people in new skills can help with motivation and staff retention.
A culture of learning in a team leads to creativity and fosters informal learning opportunities where people are more likely to seek help or training from each other and to explore lessons learned.
Reflecting on what’s happened is a great learning tool and can help individuals and the team to continuously improve. Chris Lamb’s article COVID-19 = Flexible working. Don’t make me laugh! talks about a couple of key actions that managers can take, to improve flexible working practices in light of the lessons learnt during lockdown. Actions that I think work for all types of team, not just those looking to improve their flexible working.
- Ask employees what’s worked, what hasn’t and seek their input on what could work best going forward
- Develop a flexible working plan and commit to trialling different approaches to flexibility within and across teams
A simple starting place for improving remote work for your team, would be to reflect as a team on those lessons. What’s working well? What’s not working so well? What could be the solutions or work arounds for those things not working so well?
10. Celebrate successes
Think about how you feel when your manager celebrates your successes? There’s a warm glow and feeling of pride, not only in a job well done, but that it is recognised as a job well done. Recognition is vital for individuals and for team building when people share the same office space and it’s even more important when people are working at a distance.
We don’t often plan positive feedback and tend to concentrate on planning conversations that will think will be difficult. However spending time planning positive feedback is time well spent as it will land far better with your team than short and off the cuff remarks (which are also necessary but it shouldn’t be this alone) Think about ways you can do this. Do you set up a small meeting where you thank everyone for the work they have put in, where you mention specific tasks or objectives that were highlights? Is it talking to your managers about projects that have gone well and the ways in which your team ensured it was successful? Is it writing an article for the Intranet or newsletter?
Celebrating team success shows your employees that you value and believe in them and are grateful for their effort. It enhances your trustworthiness to them which supports team cohesion and feelings of psychological safety. You’re not hogging the glory for their hard work!
Do get in touch if you’re interested in Claire and I delivering the webinar for your staff. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further reading and resources
Kinger, Tejas. (n. d.) Review of Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. Available at <https://www.freshworks.com/freshsales-crm/resources/summary-of-start-with-why-blog/>
Inclusion Scotland (2020) Guide to accessible and effective remote working. Available at <https://inclusionscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Inclusion-Scotland-Guide-to-Accessible-and-effective-remote-working-1.pdf>
Lamb, Chris. (2020) COVID-19 = Flexible working. Don’t make me laugh! Available at <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/covid-19-flexible-working-dont-make-me-laugh-chris-lamb/>
NHS. (2019) How to sit correctly: Available at <https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/how-to-sit-correctly/>
Chiu, C-Y., Owens, B.P. & Tesluk, P.E. (2016). Initiating and utilizing shared leadership in teams: The role of leader humility, team proactive personality, and team performance capability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101, 1705-1720. Review of article available at <https://www.ioatwork.com/shared-leadership-can-boost-team-performance/>