Setting Up Your Virtual Team for Success

Companies have had remote work thrust upon them, without a chance to plan for it. Some expert advice might help
By: 
Kristen Sears
Dad sits working at a desk at home while his baby son and young daughter play in the room behind him.

Remote work is the “new normal” as businesses navigate the coronavirus situation. But for some, such work isn’t that new. Over the last 10 years, remote work has grown by 91 per cent

More job seekers are looking for opportunities that provide flexibility and work-life balance. Some organizations favour remote work for its cost savings and because it lets them recruit from a wider talent pool. Virtual teams also allow businesses to bring together diverse disciplines, functions and cultures. That said, virtual teams aren’t without their hurdles. 

Smith Business Insight recently caught up with Shawna O’Grady, associate professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business. O’Grady is an experienced team facilitator, formerly serving as director of team facilitation on Smith’s Executive MBA programs for 13 years. She also works with private- and public-sector clients on team building. With so many people now working remotely for the first time, she answers our questions about what virtual teams can expect, and how to make the transition.

What issues do organizations face as their people adjust to working together remotely?

In the best of times, virtual teams face several challenges. With the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations have had to move to remote work without having had the chance to plan its implementation. There’s often a lack of clarity around what people should be doing. The team needs to figure out a new set of norms around how to communicate. Leaders need to act quickly to ensure they connect everyone in the department through clear messaging. They need to help their teams understand the importance of re-aligning to ensure they are on the same page.   

Team members may also not have the right technological tools or skills. The current public-health crisis has many people suddenly working at home and needing to learn new technology in short time spans, with little training and without the traditional forms of support from teammates or colleagues. They may also be contending with the personal and social challenges of feeling isolated and distracted. As employees do their part to stop the spread of the coronavirus, they may also be dealing with the uniquely stressful challenge of having multiple people in the same household all working remotely. Leaders can help with understanding, compassion and empathy, recognizing not all employees face an easy time adjusting to remote working conditions. Providing links to resources available to assist may help employees remain committed to the team during difficult times.

What’s the No. 1 thing managers must do to ensure workplace efficiency?

In any crisis, it’s easy for people to become focused on what’s happening around them. To maintain efficiency, managers need to create a plan for what the department or team will focus on and how to deliver it. Next, they need to help each person understand what their role is in helping the team achieve its objectives. Each person should have a clear set of actions, such as “Maintain the Monday morning team meeting, except run it on Zoom,” or “Complete your one-on-ones bi-weekly by telephone.” Doing this is necessary to ensure employee commitment and results.  

How else should leaders adjust their approach?

Leadership plays a much greater role in this new working environment. Leaders who connect well, and connect often, will have the greatest success. It’s helpful for leaders to meet with employees using overlapping forms of technology. For example, it’s ideal to meet via video to allow for bonding and questions, and then follow up in writing by email to ensure the facts are communicated consistently to all employees.  

It’s also important for leaders to realize that there’s no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to how different employees will respond to their new virtual environment. Leaders who exhibit compassion, understanding and positivity will make their team’s adjustment to remote work much more likely to succeed. Recognizing those who are making progress with appreciation, and providing understanding to those who are struggling, will go far in keeping people united.   

What can individual team members do to stay motivated while working at home?

Employees may appear to lack motivation, when the real issue is that they aren’t clear what they are supposed to do. Or they aren’t trained properly, or they feel blocked because they are isolated and can’t get the answers they need to move forward. That’s why it’s very important for individual team members to “check in” frequently with their team leader and colleagues. If they have any questions or find themselves blocked on a project, they should immediately contact the person most likely to be able to help them. Evidence indicates that people are more reluctant to do this when they are working remotely.

Employees can also help themselves stay motivated and perform at a high level by making a plan and outlining priorities for each workday. They should also get some fresh air and exercise each day, keep the lines of communication—both formal and informal—open with teammates via videoconference, text and phone. Taking measures to limit distractions with a designated workspace or noise-cancelling headphones can also help.

What results can organizations expect in the move to a virtual setup?

The results can be very positive. An increasing number of organizations are already working with virtual teams—with great results. The difficulty in our current environment is that many organizations have had virtual work thrust upon them. They have not had the opportunity to think it through or plan properly. So, we can expect early results may be less than optimal until people learn and adapt. Most employees want to see their organization succeed. If they are given a chance to be part of something, they will jump at the opportunity. These days, it’s a remote opportunity, which is better than no opportunity at all.  

Smith School of Business

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