How to Lead Remote Teams Virtually
Remote working has often been the subject of debate, with many employers questioning whether the remote teams can work productivity.
Nonetheless, the demand has never been greater, with the number of remote workers in the UK increasing by 25% between 2008 and 2018.
COVID-19 has forced sceptics to implement a working arrangement that may otherwise have remained untouched.
Working remotely isn’t a new concept; rather, it’s a case of adapting existing practice, embracing a new way of working and leading in a dynamic, innovative manner.
In reality, the practice of leadership, management and maintaining a connection with teams remain the same as if we were working together in offices, it’s merely a case of adapting these practices to the new environment.
We’re currently living in a VUCA environment comprising volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, more so than ever before. Within this backdrop, it’s not uncommon to see unexpected behaviours, prompted by our human biases against VUCA resulting in a fight, flight, freeze response. This can impact team cohesion negatively.
Cohesive Remote Teams
It’s a leader’s responsibility to build an environment of psychological safety for remote teams in times of crisis and help establish a positive mindset to build cohesion.
Patrick Lencioni identified 5 dysfunctions of a team and if we reframe these to positive actions to build cohesion, we can develop the right environment to continue to deliver collectively:
- Build Trust – Transparency and honesty are both essential for team members in successfully achieving a strong foundation to cohesion and focus on collective aspirations and goals.
- Encourage Conflict – Healthy conflict is necessary to establish and develop the best ideas, options, solutions and outcomes; a lack of conflict can be detrimental to a team’s development.
- Secure Commitment – If people aren’t invested in an idea, this can hinder productivity.By encouraging healthy conflict people to weigh in, to buy in.
- Hold each other to Account – A strong foundation of trust, positive conflict, and securing commitment means that team members are willing to hold one another accountable for tasks.
- A focus on Collective Results – Prioritising collective results over individual objectives will ensure high team performance
So how do we ensure that we continue to build the environment for our teams to achieve collective results whilst working remotely?
Potential Obstacles for Remote Teams
Some employees attribute productivity with remote working; 75% of remote teams work at home because they consider it to be less distracting, while 86% consider the arrangement as an effective reliever for stress.
Moreover, employers continue to reap the benefits, with companies who incorporate remote working within their set up having 25% lower employee turnover than those that don’t.
However, while the popularity of remote working has increased, the pace in which this has been implemented means that some may find the unfamiliar setup daunting, with potential challenges threatening work yield.
Lack of Interaction
When working remotely, it’s essential to stay connected with the other members of the team.
Failing to maintain communication with colleagues could contribute to isolation, loneliness and have a detrimental impact on focus and motivation.
New Working Environment
For the vast majority of people, the sudden introduction of a remote working culture will have been surprising; the current circumstances are unprecedented, therefore, companies aren’t in a position whereby they could give workers much time to prepare.
Suddenly, people who are used to working in a ‘traditional’ office environment are being forced to combine their workspace with home living, whereby they’re sharing their space with partners and children or working alone.
When a person’s routine is interrupted, some members of a team will struggle with such changes.
Adjustments to routine can also influence a business’ decision making. Companies need to assess which objectives should be prioritised and where to invest energy, asking themselves: do we focus on the short or long-term plans, or should survival instincts take precedent over business-focused, strategic objectives?
Leadership Strategies for Remote Teams
The current situation has made people question what the future holds, yet nobody knows when this period is going to end and what ‘new normal’ may emerge.
Therefore, leadership strategies must be introduced to guide your team through this uncertainty, providing psychological safety, ensuring team cohesion and heightening overall productivity.
To successfully lead remote teams, it’s fundamental to take time to build and maintain relationships; we cannot assume that because trust has been formed within the workplace, that these relationships will continue.
Extra energy needs to be applied to check in on our colleagues and workers, on a professional and personal level. Asking people how they’re feeling and checking well-being can provide a distraction and establish strong bonds. Virtual coffee time and personal check-ins are as important as task-focused catch-ups.
Manage Working Expectations
Leaders should act as a role model to their team and demonstrate vulnerability; setting a precedent can develop trust, inspire confidence amongst others and enhance relationships.
A meeting with an element of distraction can help people understand each other’s working environments. For example, there may be times whereby a child interrupts a video call, but this needn’t be frowned upon. Instead, this provides a shared understanding of what people’s circumstances are. Taking a virtual tour of home setups can help develop empathy and understanding for each other.
Use a Buddy System
The introduction of new systems and processes could represent a significant challenge for people used to working in large teams, in which case, the introduction of a buddy system can be useful.
Creating smaller working groups gives colleagues the opportunity to check-in on one another and ask questions if needed. This can easily be achieved via video chats or telephone calls.
Technology is helping millions collaborate effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic, with workers using programmes innovatively to accomplish goals; Zoom’s daily active users has increased from 10 million to over 200 million in just 3 months.
Tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx have been used by leaders to provide team members with the opportunity to connect and collaborate virtually; in one instance, a leader used the platform to introduce an open-door policy for staff to discuss personal matters away from a group chat environment.
When using video for longer periods, it’s suggested that leaders encourage their team to turn to audio where appropriate, move freely, even sit outdoors where possible, to stay energised and motivated; if people are sitting at their desks, concentrating on screens and feeling constrained, then this can hinder creativity.
Additionally, technological platforms such as Trello are available that can allow people to contribute and collaborate on projects in different ways. This helps reflectors and introverts within the group to communicate and ensure that these contributions are being harnessed within the group.
Manage by Output, Not Presenteeism
Priorities in people’s lives have changed, and workers must be managed by output, rather than presenteeism.
Team members are having to look after children and pets, home school, shop for vulnerable people, and complete household chores, while focusing on their professional responsibilities.
Offering flexibility is essential and leaders may need to reconsider priorities; some tasks may take slightly longer than usual, need to be completed differently and it may be difficult to get all members of their team logged in for the usual time.
Coronavirus has disrupted the structure of our working lives. Nonetheless, some measures can be introduced to maintain organisation and heighten productivity. Whilst flexibility is key to success, running effective meetings remotely needs more structure, not less.
For example, when holding a virtual team meeting, focus on one area, whether this is a catchup, strategy meeting or social call.
When focusing on tasks and objectives, everyone needs to understand what the collective goal is, their role and assume responsibility for how they’re expected to contribute.
Leaders need to introduce a structure to identify essential priorities, focusing on what has to be completed now, and what can be deferred to a later date.