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by Audrey Epstein March 9, 2020
I have worked with hundreds of global and dispersed teams over the course of my career as an executive and leadership team coach. With the recent disruption to most business travel and some business operations, the demands on team leaders to excel at virtual teamwork have never been greater. Leaders must know how to build alignment and keep team members engaged, connected, and high performing without the benefit of face to face interaction. This topic is nothing new; virtual teamwork has been studied for a long time. But for many leaders, they have always been able to supplement virtual teaming with quarterly or annual face to face sessions and as needed, project or task-based business travel.
We know that trust, relationships, and peer engagement are often challenged on dispersed teams. It’s easy to feel left out, question others’ motives, or get off track without the benefit of walking down the hall or even hopping on a plane to check on status, ask questions, or bring up problems. In our research assessing nearly 1000 teams, we learned that 70% of the variance between the best and worst performing teams is directly attributable to the quality of the peer relationships on the team. With unprecedented disruptions, health and economic concerns, and complex, global, logistical and business decisions that need to be made right now, there has never been as important a time to ensure your team has strong relationships and can maintain performance at the highest level.
Here are a few reminders on virtual teamwork best practices.
1. Don’t skip the relationship building needed to develop trust. There is a tendency in virtual meetings to skip the “niceties” and just get down to work. Yet, at this time of uncertainty, people need to feel even more connected. We need the chance to share what’s happening for us, how our work is going, and what’s on our minds. It helps us feel more aligned and trusting when we can talk on a more personal level with our peers. Don’t skip the check-in portion of your team meetings right now. Spend the time it takes to make sure each person feels heard. Encourage your team members to reach out to each other often, inquire about each other’s needs, and demonstrate empathy and understanding. Our research shows that one of the key differentiators on the highest-performing teams is the willingness of team members to be open, vulnerable, and ask for help. Ensure your team members recognize the importance of personal connection and are making the effort to reach out to support each other often.
2. Set expectations and create team norms. Have team members talk through the best operating approach and build a set of team norms to put in place right now. It’s harder to have problem-solving discussions or work through conflict when you aren’t face to face. It’s easy to forget to include other team members far away and just talk to the person you see in the break room. Without clear expectations and a set of norms, miscommunication can quickly erode trust and create disruption to projects and achieving goals. Set aside time at your next meeting to have team members identify needs and expectations they have of each other. Then create a set of team norms to put in place. Some potential norms that are especially important for virtual teams are:
3. Do an assessment of how well you are using collaboration and meeting technology. Just because you use distance technology doesn’t mean you are using it well. Do you know how well your videoconferencing and collaboration tools are working for all team members? Do a quick and simple assessment by asking all team members for feedback. You might want to ask questions about:
The quality of your meetings.
The quality of your collaboration tools.
4. Don’t forget about the “harder edge” of teamwork. According to our research, high-performing teams are 35 times more likely to hold each other accountable than on toxic teams. Team members drive accountability by addressing bad behavior promptly and giving each other feedback, without an over-reliance on the team leader. On dysfunctional teams, instead of discussing challenges candidly and directly, team members either become passive-aggressive (with lingering resentment) or outright destructive. Remember, whatever challenges your team had before the travel restrictions will not just go away now. In fact, they will probably get worse. Does your team already have some challenged relationships? Are team members fearful of conflict or candid discussions? Are you the “go between” when direct reports disagree? These problems will only increase as pressure and stress mounts, and the team doesn’t have the chance to get renewed and realigned through face to face interaction. Talk at a team meeting about the importance of driving candor and a diversity of ideas on the team. Make conflict a healthy part of team discussions. Set up time in team meetings to discuss tough issues openly and don’t let conflict go underground. Encourage team members to be open with each other - with both their praise and their feedback.
Don’t let travel restrictions inhibit the effectiveness of your team. Be proactive and enlist all your team members in building a fully aligned and engaged team that can support each other and productively meet the challenges ahead.