Robert Golnik, co-founder of non-profit think tank Corporate Break, took a detailed look at how to effectively lead virtual teams and explained why this will continue to be important in the post-pandemic era in this XTRF Summit #online 2021 session. This article is based on that session.
There’s lots of advice out there about working remotely and managing remote teams. And often it’s contradictory. So I decided to try and make sense of it all, going through the corporate studies and the academic research, as well as drawing on my own professional experience. And I’ve come up with four must-haves to ensure maximum productivity of remote teams. But before we get into that, let’s start by considering why we’re talking about this now. Why is it still important, when we’ve been working in this new environment for a year now?
Why is it (still) important to get virtual teams right?
In 2014, the Harvard Business Review conducted a study into how certain behaviors changed when people were working remotely. They asked:
How have the below behaviors changed during remote work?
The outcome? Results declined across the board.
We decided to use this same question ourselves, by asking a small focus group and looking at the current context, where we’ve now been working remotely for a year.
We saw innovation and performance improve significantly, while trust and satisfaction declined.
Then, during the XTRF Summit itself, we presented participants with the same question. In this case, innovation improved dramatically, trust declined a little, and satisfaction and performance remained roughly the same.
What does this mean? These results demonstrate that remote work has a big impact on how we work, and how we feel about our work and our employer. In order to maintain the same behaviors, or perhaps even improve on some aspects, we need to make sure we’re creating the right environment for our teams.
And this will continue to be important, even post-pandemic. Because though some companies expect to go back to exactly how they used to work pre-Covid, I don’t think this is realistic – or even desirable. Mark Lobosco, VP of Talent Solutions at LinkedIn put it best:
“Now that companies have built the framework – and experienced the time and cost savings associated with it
– there’s no real reason to turn back.”
Right, so we’ve seen how important it is, and will continue to be, to create the right environment for our virtual teams. But how?
The four dimensions
1. The right team
There are three elements to building the right team: people, size, and roles.
When it comes to people, soft skills have become incredibly important. But we weren’t necessarily thinking about this when we were recruiting our team members. Going forward, we need to prioritize soft skills, putting them on the same level as knowledge.
There is no one ‘perfect’ team size. It all depends on the manager and their experience and capabilities. But what we have learned is that direct communication between employee and manager is even more important in a remote working environment. This means managers need to regularly check in with their staff, asking them how they are, what they need to help them do their job, and whether there are any issues. And naturally, the larger the team, the more time this takes. Therefore, size does matter, because it impacts a manager’s ability to communicate one-on-one with each team member.
Team leaders need to create a clear responsibility matrix, where they know exactly what each team member does. It’s also important that leaders and team members have a certain level of self-awareness, so they can identify what they’re good at (and may therefore be able to help others with), and where they need help (so that they can ask for and receive it).
2. The right leadership
Setting expectations is about clarifying goals and guidelines. It involves explaining why the team has come together and what your common goals are. It’s linked to the organization’s mission and vision but needs to be translated into individual targets and operational responsibilities so that everyone knows how they contribute to the organization’s goals.
Expectations are also a two-way street. Employees have expectations about their manager, and we need to make sure that these are in sync and aligned with the manager’s own expectations.
This means encouraging employees to engage in open communication. And this is very difficult when we’re working remotely, and we can’t know how open people are being.
Recently we’ve seen reports of companies using their employees’ webcams to monitor them as they go about their work, checking how much time they’re spending at lunch, how often they look at their phone, and so on. This kind of work culture will kill any trust between employee and employer. And in our current lives and working environments, we desperately need trust.
3. The right technology
Actually, the technology is already here. Just look at the virtual platform we’ve used for Summit #online, and the other technologies we now use on a daily basis. In fact, we’ve seen that technology is capable of changing much faster than humans are. What we need to do is learn to use technology in the right way.
4. The right touchpoint
I’ve modified a management framework developed in the 1960s to fit this new context. It involves four different elements:
This involves creating a tangible and intangible structure to eliminate any gaps or unknowns in both projects, and in communication.
This is about creating a good atmosphere. It could include things like providing a personal welcome, encouraging employees to use their webcams when talking to each other, and maybe assigning a mentor to answer new starters’ questions quickly.
This involves motivating employees, and isn’t just reserved for those in managerial positions – we all need leadership skills.
This step refers to doing quick checkups or one-on-ones to follow up on key issues, and to ensure employees’ goals are aligned with those of the organization and project.
Co Founder, Corporate Break