It’s almost hard to believe that one year ago we wrote a blog post on a similar topic, yet as we write this one the circumstances and situation are much different. When Doors Open visited Norway in February 2019 to mentor a newly formed team, with members spread over four countries, we had the chance to prepare the team for the challenges of working virtually. In 2020 many teams will not have been able to prepare themselves for this properly, but rather thrown into this situation suddenly and abruptly due to the disruption that Covid-19 has brought in all of our lives.
While we are all very fortunate and grateful to be able to work from home, this does not mean it does not bring some new challenges for you as a leader and for your team. Less communication, less visibility and accountability and increased complexity make virtual working a struggle even without the uncertainty we all currently face. So, how can you as a leader manage your team while working virtually? And more importantly, where do you start?
To begin with, lets define the term “virtual working”. In her book “Virtual Leadership” Dr. Penny Pullan defines it as
Work done by people who are geographically distributed, working together despite the fact that at least one person is not in the same location as others. Virtual work is supported by communications technology that helps people to connect when far apart.
Since probably everyone in your team is working from home now, not even one person is the same location as the others. This means you will have to give the three points we mentioned earlier (communication, invisibility and complexity) even more attention.
It is important to start with this crucial aspect. Make a list of everyone in your team, and note down their cultural background, native language, access to technology, homelife situation (living alone, housemates, with children…) and if they went back to their home country then also the time difference. These are all potential barriers that you want to address to make working remotely as effective and productive as possible. Be aware of every person’s situation and needs, and make a plan on how you can best work around time zones or people who now have to take care of their children at home. Give people in your team who have a different native language more time to process and respond as audio quality and lack of body language cues might make it more difficult for them to understand your message. You can ask your team members to create a “Way We Work” document which outlines the needs and homelife situation of each person, and together as a team they can come up with solutions, guidelines and new norms as a team. Also, most likely you will have some more introverted and some more extroverted people on your team, so make sure you actively invite and give the former the opportunity to speak. Check out this TED talk below by Susan Cain on why people who are more introverted are also very important!
Or rather, the lack of effective communication. As 93% of what and how we communicate is non-verbal, you now need to be especially aware of what your team members are saying in order to avoid misunderstandings. To make communicating with your team effective, choose the right times and technology. Within our team we use video-calling apps like Zoom and this allows us to set a meeting timer to ensure that our meetings stay short and to the point. Try to keep email communication to a minimum, rather keep it to your virtual meetings or if you have a quick question use Slack to send that person a message. At Doors Open we also use Slack to communicate under specific channels, making it easier for us to track down what somebody said.
Make sure all employees have access to Trello or any other project management application for that matter so that everyone in your team knows what needs to happen for which projects. However, applications like these are not just there to provide overview but are also a visual representation of your team’s successes. It is important to celebrate these successes just as you would normally, so take the time during visual meetings to congratulate and praise your team members. Lastly, give people constructive feedback by scheduling individual video-meetings and actively ask for feedback yourself. This is truly the best way for you to learn. You can read more about tips on how to give and receive feedback here.
It is no secret that physical proximity makes working together more efficient. Working remotely induces a certain lack of accountability as you are not able to see what your employees are doing with your own eyes. To combat this, create a sense of trust in the team. Within our team we make sure to check in with each other often and let each other know that we are here for one another. Take five minutes during each virtual briefing and encourage your team to share their emotions or worries and together come up with a solution. Another important aspect to incorporate are routine check-in times with your team via a video call for example. Set two or three specific times every day that you meet with your team where you can see how everyone is feeling (this also helps to create trust) and where they can update each other on their tasks. Lastly, you may have heard the phrase “Shared responsibility is no responsibility”, so make sure you set up one person responsible for each project as this will make them feel more accountable.
It is no doubt that even well-prepared teams would find working virtually a challenge, let alone teams that have suddenly been thrust into this headfirst. However, as it will most likely be some time before we can return to our offices and physical team meetings it is important for all of us to adapt to this new way of working. Luckily, we as humans can be pretty good at adapting quickly to new situations and routines when pushed. So take the time to reflect on the various points we mentioned and give your team a gentle nudge into this new way of working. As a team we know how difficult and overwhelming it can be come up with your own solutions during a crisis situation, so try out a few things that worked for us like the Way We Work document, the daily check-ins or the various technology tools!
Do you have any other tips for us on how to make virtual working successful? Let us know in the comments below!