By Teresa Pappas, Ph.D., Consultant, The CARA Group
Let’s face it, these continue to remain unprecedented times. And they require an unprecedented response from us all. We’ve been used to working within a global VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) business environment for some time—one that’s required us to demonstrate both adaptability and resilience. But these times are different. As we continue to do our part in combatting the global coronavirus, we are finding ourselves still working 100% virtually. This need to work differently, along with the stressors of finding ourselves within a global pandemic, is likely still bringing up some new reactions for us all. Common challenges include the need to balance work priorities and deliverables, while battling feelings of isolation and missing the kinds of everyday ‘hallway’ interactions we’ve relied on and enjoyed. We’re all battling these experiences for ourselves while we find our way. And if you’re a leader with direct reports, you’ve got a team of people relying on you to address their concerns and keep them connected as well.
This article focuses on five ‘must have’ techniques for doing just that. As you read, keep in mind how and when you can begin applying these for yourself and your team.
1. Plan your Approach
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.” Comparing the two, experience tells us that we can have a much better ‘hit rate’ for success with a plan, so why not start there? Take the time to be intentional about what success will look like while leading a team that is completely virtual.
This starts by reflecting on your vision and hopes for your team. How do you want your team members to act and feel in this virtual environment? What will it mean to be productive, connected, and successful? How can you help team members tap into their individual core competencies and strengths? How do you see yourself continuing to build team cohesion remotely while making sure that everyone feels part of the team? Your answers to these questions will shape your interactions with your team members and will go a long way to foster the type of virtual team environment that your employees will have. Share your vision and what this means for your team.
Remember that you have a critical role to play in shaping your team’s virtual culture. Be a role model by demonstrating virtual team commitment and collaboration. What work style habits can you build that will benefit you and provide examples of what others can emulate (e.g., taking care of yourself and your energy levels, integrating work and family tasks, maintaining effective routines)? Keep in mind that regular routines go a long way to combat an unpredictable external environment. How can you authentically convey the importance of your team in supporting each other in a virtual setting? Aim to develop realistic, focused goals (both team and individual), and establish upfront expectations of each other. Also, be the kind of leader who has ongoing conversations with your employees on progress made.
2. Communicate Early and Often
In a virtual environment, it is more important than ever to use a variety of vehicles and methods to set the stage for open communication. How can you develop a cadence and process for coming together—for both team and one-on-one touchpoints? What structure can you provide for your team to foster information sharing and connection? How can you augment this by seizing impromptu opportunities to check-in, share information, ask a question, or simply say “hello” and see how people are doing? Don’t assume that others know what you’re working on or who you’re interacting with. What questions do your team members have? Where should people go with specific questions? Consider your responses to these questions for establishing your team’s pattern of communication, and see where it may need to adapt over time.
On top of this, don’t forget to master the ‘basics’ of communication. Respond to others in a timely manner. Keep scheduled meetings. Listen actively. Remove distractions in your work setting. At the end of the day, set yourself up to be present, engaged, and in-the-moment when communicating with others. When face-to-face conversations aren’t practical, know what to listen for. In this case, you won’t have the benefit of seeing someone’s nonverbals—so you’ll want to pay extra attention to subtle nuances in individuals’ tone and pace of speech. This will clue you in to where you may need to check for understanding.
Communication is so important because it helps direct your team’s actions, accountabilities, and progress made. What methods and processes can you use to make sure everyone is on the same page? Share meeting agendas, outcomes, commitments, and next steps. Your team members will rely on the open communication you foster to build trust in a virtual environment. This will go a long way to your team members being open to giving and receiving feedback as your team continues to evolve.
3. Leverage Technology
We are fortunate to live in a time where we have wide access to technology and systems that give us the opportunity to work remotely. That said, you’ll want to make optimal use of available technology and resources. This means using the right tool(s) for the situation. We’ve probably all been part of remote interactions that didn’t go well simply because an overly complex tool for the situation was utilized. When a formal meeting is involved, this is when you’ll want to learn to make good use of your company’s online meeting software. However, in other cases, exchanging emails, sharing instant messages, sending texts, or holding phone calls will easily suffice to expedite making the right connection.
Another recommendation is to opt for face-to-face interaction to increase engagement (and decrease the tendency to multi-task), particularly when longer conversations are involved. Now is the time to practice getting technology savvy with using your computer’s camera feature! This will come in handy when holding virtual face-to-face meetings with your team. Think of it as a wonderful opportunity for the team to come together, share updates, ask questions, and foster a sense of camaraderie.
What about other important logistics? You’ll want to test your technology equipment and connections to ensure you’ll be in a position to connect easily and both begin and end on time. Do what you can to anticipate and mitigate any challenges that may arise. If you’re part of a global workforce, you’ll want to be sensitive to time zone differences when scheduling team meetings. Think about ways you can facilitate holding an effective and efficient meeting so you are focused and attentive to your role in the moment.
4. Don’t Neglect the Human Component
It’s been said that the most effective leaders show they care first, and give direction second. Focus on how you can continue to build your relationship with each of your team members so you’ll be in the best position to meet them where they are—uniquely and individually. It will be particularly important in a virtual setting to ask your individual team members how they are doing with the changes to their work environment. Listen to what they have to say and empathize with their reactions.
Doing so will raise your awareness not only to what you’re personally experiencing, but to what your team members are going through. By reflecting on this you’ll be in the best position to help your team move through the change curve. You may even help them think about how they can reframe initially perceived challenges into opportunities. This will help to foster an environment of team learning. When and how might you hold conversations on how individuals are adapting to virtual work? How could you provide a forum for team members to share ‘bright spots’ they’ve experienced along the way?
This is the time to show your appreciation for your team and how they are rising to the challenge of virtual work. Recognize and celebrate both individual and team success when you see it. Get to know your team members’ individual preferences for recognition, and customize your approach to this. This is also the time to incorporate F-U-N where you can into the work day! Get creative when thinking about how you can build virtual team camaraderie.
5. Stay Flexible
A virtual work environment lends itself to continual adaptation and the opportunity to be flexible. You may find that expectations about how the work will flow and how people will come together will need to shift over time, and that’s okay. Know where your team may need to re-prioritize tasks, assignments, or ways of interacting along the way. Keeping flexible will help you and your team to not get bogged down in old ways of thinking or acting.
This will serve you well in being able to identify what changes may still be needed, both in the short- and long-term. It will also help you determine any immediate changes needed around the corner, along with their impact on the team in general and individual team members in particular. This is where open communication will be instrumental.