While I spent a most of my time from March 2020, working virtually, it is not something that is new to me. I have worked over the years with ICT teams, global manufacturing teams and on executive coaching assignments, with both individuals and teams that have been spread across the globe virtually. The challenges of different time zones, different levels of fluency in a common language and cultural norms have all been things that have had to be addressed in this work environment. In fact, I have developed a number of sessions dedicated to this topic on the MBA programmes for Leadership and Organisational Behaviour that I teach on.
But now the numbers working virtually from home and the reality of having remote teams often geographically dispersed has sped up drastically as a result of COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge facing the leader, is what to do. You need to ensure that the best outcomes possible, are achieved from this new way of working. In this article, I want to consider three elements of remote team working and leadership that will help you manage in this different environment. They are (1) clarity of expectations and ways of working, (2) shared empathy and understanding, and (3) having a shared vision.
Clarity of Expectations and Ways of Working
The first thing you are going to have to ensure as a leader of a remote / virtual team, is to make sure the team, develops a shared set of expectations and ways of working. There needs to be new rules and ways of interaction in the remote / virtual working. As time passes everyone is finding out what works for them, what their communications preferences are, and how they hope to balance their work and life. There is no stopping in the corridor for chit chat, and no one is checking their workstation or desk to see what time they clocked in and out. So, it is even more important for team members to know what to expect from each other.
We cannot assume that 9:00 to 5:00 at the office means 9:00 to 5:00 working from home or working remotely. People need to fit other areas of their life into their work. In this new environment we need to focus on outputs rather than on attendance. As a leader you are going to want to find times of overlap so that you can arrange meetings etc. This is similar to when you are working in teams that are spread across times zones. As the leader it is your responsibility drive that conversation.
Shared Empathy and Understanding
While you are leading the conversation about clarity of expectations and ways of working, you will also need to work with the team, to ensure that there is, a shared empathy and understanding between the team’s members, of each other’s situation. We are in a new style of working, and people have been experimenting with how they can fit their work and life better together. This means that we need increasing amounts of empathy and understanding, as not everybody works the way we might prefer to work. We need to better understand each other’s preferences for was of working. Tools like the MBTI, DISC or Social Styes could be used to help people understand each other’s preferences, for who they prefer to communicate and for how they work and interact.
Some people are working out of a dedicated home office, or some might be working from the same kitchen table, that their children are trying to learn on, and their spouse or partner is also trying to work on.
When someone on the team is nonresponsive, it may not be because they are having a bad day or lazy. It may not be because they do not understand what you asked of them. It just might be that their life and work balance look a little bit different to yours. It is part of your role as the leader, to develop an awareness and understanding of your team members situation but to also ensure that all members understand each other’s situation.
One way to create shared empathy and understanding, is to provide some “check-in” times where team members get a glimpse of each other beyond the work. You should, start virtual meetings on time, but you could consider starting them about 10 minutes early. That way people can have the chit-chat, the socialization, and have the discussions about other areas of their life, that actually help, in developing a shared empathy and shared understanding over time.
The third element you should develop as a leader, and then reinforce on a regular basis, is a shared vision. When we say shared vision, we mean, everybody has a clear and agreed understanding of what they are working for. In the Agile world we refer to having a shared “definition of done”. In other words, we all agree on the end game and what that looks like. Everyone knows why they are working, and how that work helps the organisation that they are part of. In organizational psychology, the concept of task significance has a huge influence on human motivation. One question for a lot of work situations is “how relevant, or obvious, is the significance of the tasks we’re asking people to complete?”
In a remote team environment, where it is hard seeing your team members, let alone see how your work contributes to their ability, to do there, the relevance of a task significance can plummet unless leaders create regular reminders for their people.
In summary what I have found is that you cannot replicate the physical world but can try as a leader to mitigate the negative impacts of virtual working.