Leading with Trust

4 Areas to Address in Your Coronavirus Working Virtually Strategy

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The desire to contain the spread and impact of the COVID-19 virus has led many organizations to require their employees to work from home. For some, working virtually isn’t a big change. Many workers are already accustomed to working remotely on an intermittent or regular basis. It’s been reported that 43% of Americans work from home occasionally and at least 5.2% (8 million people) work from home full-time.

However, there’s a big difference between occasionally working from your kitchen table and setting up shop in your home for an extended period of time (or permanently).

Before you pull the trigger on sending your team members home to work virtually, I suggest you formulate a thoughtful strategy. Having led and been a part of virtual teams for many years, I can testify that working from home is not a panacea. It has its advantages compared to life in a cubicle, but it has its own unique challenges as well.

Incorporate these four areas in your strategy to have team members work virtually:

Clarity—Your team needs clear direction about the expectations and responsibilities of working remotely. Questions or topics to address include: Will team members be expected to maintain specific “office” hours? Does there need to be a different process for securing a backup if someone needs to be away from their desk or has a personal appointment? What technology platforms will you use, and when, to replace face-to-face meetings? If webcams are required for meetings, will be people be allowed to opt-out because they’re having a “bad hair day” (when, likely, they just didn’t feel like changing out of their pajamas)? Are there norms established that govern how the team makes decisions, communicates, and collaborates? Don’t assume the implicit expectations of a few team members working from home occasionally are explicitly known by everyone and that they apply to having the entire team function virtually.

Communication—Effective communication is the key to working successfully in a virtual team and of primary importance is establishing trust among team members. Trust is built through interpersonal interactions, and unfortunately, working virtually reduces the amount of interpersonal connection we experience compared to working in the office. We lose the random encounters in the hallway, break room, or at the water cooler that are so important in fostering personal connection. We also lose the visual cues provided by body language that place a person’s communications in context. The reliance upon email and IM in the virtual world easily leads to misinterpreting a person’s intent, usually in a negative fashion, so be proactive about using the phone and webcams to make communications more personal. Stay disciplined about holding one-on-one and team meetings to bring people together to combat loneliness and foster a sense of team identity.

Community—There are many benefits to working remotely. Included are increased productivity, a greater sense of autonomy and control over one’s work, and better work-life balance. But it comes at a cost—isolation and loneliness. Any veteran remote worker will tell you that loneliness is a frequent visitor to their home office and intentional effort is required to prevent that visitor from settling in permanently. Remote workers need to be proactive about reaching out to other team members to connect socially, even to just chit-chat for a few minutes. It’s also important for team leaders to create opportunities for team members to bond. Strategies can include having a virtual team lunch via webcam, have team members share pictures of their pets, or give virtual tours of their home offices. Shifting employees to work virtually, either temporarily in response to the coronavirus, or permanently as part of a larger strategy, requires leaders to increase the amount of training they provide the team. Whether it’s specific training on how to lead or work in a virtual team, or general leadership and other skill-building training, remote employees should not be treated differently from office-based team members. The out of sight, out of mind pitfall often befalls virtual workers, thereby limiting their personal development and advancement opportunities. Virtual workers must advocate for themselves and need their leaders to champion their efforts in being included in the broader organizational community.

Shifting employees to working virtually requires leaders to increase the amount of training they provide the team.

Care—Virtual workers need to take the lead in self-care if they are going to be successful over the long haul. In addition to the challenges of isolation and loneliness, virtual workers often end up working longer hours because work is ever present. It’s hard to resist the temptation of sending just one more email, writing a few more lines of code, putting the finishing touches on that critical presentation, or doing just a bit more data analysis when the glow of the laptop screen is beckoning. To combat this challenge, have a dedicated work space, preferably with a door, where you can leave work behind at the end of the day. Establish personal norms for yourself regarding work hours and breaks, just like you would have in a physical office. Establish boundaries with housemates about noise and activity levels in the house, and how household responsibilities are handled during the workday. Build routines into your schedule that allow you to connect with others and recharge your batteries. It may be going to the coffee shop in the morning, walking the dog around the block, eating lunch outside, or taking an afternoon walk at a local park. Treat working from home much the same way you’d treat working in the office. Getting dressed in office attire puts you in the mindset of being at work, and believe me, it works in your favor when you need to join an impromptu webcam meeting!

For many occupations today, work has become something you do, not somewhere you go. Requiring people to work from home in response to the coronavirus gives many organizations a chance to see that people can be just as productive, if not more so, working virtually as compared to working in the office. This is a fantastic opportunity for organizations to build trust with their employees by giving them the opportunity to work remotely, and it’s also an opportunity for employees to prove themselves trustworthy in response.

The 4 Mindsets of High Performance Teams

Teams are everywhere. Our organizations are made up of teams in all forms—project teams, work groups, executive, and leadership teams. Teams are not just a nice-to-have perk; they’re a major strategy for getting work done.

Fast-paced, agile work environments require teams to operate virtually around the globe. The demand is for collaboration and teamwork in all parts of the organization. Success today comes from using the collective knowledge and richness of diverse perspectives. The team is the only unit that has the flexibility and resources to respond quickly to changes that have become commonplace in today’s world.

Despite this critical dependence on teams, many organizations don’t invest in the upfront training and tools to equip their teams for success. In 2017, The Ken Blanchard Companies, in partnership with Training Magazine, surveyed 1,300 people about teams and team leadership. We learned that…

  • People spend more than half their work time in teams
  • On average, people are on five or six teams with each team composed of 10 or 11 people
  • Only 27 percent of the respondents felt that their teams were high performing
  • Only one of four people felt their organization does a good job of team leader training

The top obstacles for teams identified in our research included disorganization, lack of clear roles and decision rights, poor leadership, and poor or no planning. Teams are clearly the vehicle for organizations to seize new opportunities and tackle persistent problems, but our experience working in teams leaves a lot to be desired. Clearly, something is not working.

Our research and experience has shown that high performance teams exhibit a mindset that sets them apart from low performing teams. A mindset is a set of beliefs or a way of thinking about something. High performance teams are defined by four key mindsets:

  1. Teams Need Clarity Above All Else—The biggest truth that our research uncovered is that clarity and alignment are critical factors for team success. Without a shared or common purpose and clear goals, the team will not get very far. Clarity on why and how the team is working together sets the foundation for progressing on their goals.
  2. Teams Embrace Conflict in Order to Grow—Conflict is inevitable. For teams to be resilient and innovative, they must be willing to roll up their sleeves and tussle, and keep everyone engaged in active debate on the tough subjects in order to find the best creative solutions.
  3. Teams Thrive on Trust—The ability to trust one another and trust in the power of the team is as important to the success of the team as clarity is. Good teams know what they are doing—clarity—and believe in each other enough to do it—trust. As I wrote about last week, a worker is 12x more likely to be fully engaged if he or she trusts the team leader.
  4. High Performance Teams Lead Themselves—As the team grows in their ability to work collaboratively as a strong unit, team members will share leadership with the team leader and other team members. This belief doesn’t mean there is no leader. It means members are less reliant on the direction of the team leader.

Being able to lead productive, effective teams is critical to leveraging the strengths of team members, addressing cross-functional challenges, and getting work done in any organization. But it doesn’t happen by accident. Team leaders and members need training to learn the stages of team development, how to build trust, how to channel conflict into productive problem-solving, and how to sustain their high performance over time.

3 Proven Strategies for Leading Virtual Teams

Virtual Team CloudIn 1997 I asked my boss to consider allowing me to telecommute on a part-time basis. My proposal went down in flames. Although the company already had field-based people who telecommuted full-time, and my boss herself worked from home on a regular basis, the prevailing mindset was work was someplace you went, not something you did.

Fast forward a few years to the early-2000’s and I’m supervising team members who worked remotely full-time. The exodus continued for a few years and by the mid-2000’s nearly half my team worked virtually. A little more than 20 years after I submitted my telecommuting proposal, the world has become a smaller place. My organization has associates in Canada, the U.K., Singapore, France, and scores of colleagues work out of home offices around the globe.

My experience mirrors the reality of many leaders today. Managing teams with virtual workers is commonplace and will likely increase as technology becomes ever more ubiquitous in our lives. Here are three specific strategies I’ve adopted over the years in leading a virtual team:

Establish the profile of a successful virtual worker – Not everyone is cut out to be a successful virtual worker. It takes discipline, maturity, good time management skills, technical proficiency (you’re often your own tech support), and a successful track record of performance in the particular role. I’ve always considered working remotely a privilege, not a right, and the privilege has to be earned. You have to have a high level of trust in your virtual workers and they should be reliable and dependable performers who honor their commitments and do good quality work.

Have explicit expectations – There needs to be a clear understanding about the expectations of working virtually. For example, my team has norms around the use of Instant Messenger, forwarding office phone extensions to home/cell lines, using webcams for meetings, frequency of updating voicemail greetings, email response time, and out-of-office protocols just to name a few. Virtual team members generally enjoy greater freedom and autonomy than their office-bound counterparts, and for anyone who has worked remotely can attest, are often more productive and work longer hours in exchange. A downside is virtual workers can suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” so it’s important they work extra hard to be visible and active within the team.

Understand and manage the unique dynamics of a virtual team – Virtual teams add a few wrinkles to your job as a leader and a specific one is communication. It’s important to ramp up the frequency of communication and leverage all the tools at your disposal: email, phone, webcam, instant messenger, and others. It’s helpful to set, and keep, regular meeting times with virtual team members.

One of the biggest challenges in managing a virtual team is fostering a sense of connection. They aren’t privy to the hallway conversations where valuable information about the organization is often shared, and they miss out on those random encounters with other team members where personal relationships are built.

Team building activities also look a little different with a virtual team. Potluck lunches work great for the office staff, but can feel exclusionary to remote workers. Don’t stop doing events for the office staff for fear of leaving out virtual team members, but look for other ways to foster team unity with remote workers. For example, when we’ve had office holiday dinners and a Christmas gift exchange, remote team members will participate in the gift exchange and we’ll send them a gift card to a restaurant of their choice.

For many jobs, work is no longer a place we go to but something we do, from any place at any time. Virtual teams aren’t necessarily better or worse than on-site teams, but they do have different dynamics that need to be accounted for and managed, expectations need to be clear, and you need to make sure the virtual worker is set up for success.

3 Practical Strategies for Leading Virtual Teams

virtual workerIn 1997 I asked my boss to consider allowing me to telecommute on a part-time basis. My proposal went down in flames. Although the company already had field-based people who telecommuted full-time, and my boss herself worked from home on a regular basis, the prevailing mindset was work was someplace you went, not something you did.

Fast forward a few years to the early-2000’s and I’m supervising team members who worked remotely full-time. The exodus continued for a few years and by the mid-2000’s nearly half my team worked virtually. Nearly 20 years after I submitted my telecommuting proposal the world has become a smaller place. My organization has offices in Canada, the U.K., Singapore, and scores of colleagues work out of home offices around the globe.

My experience mirrors the reality of many leaders today. Managing teams with virtual workers is commonplace and will likely increase as technology becomes ever more ubiquitous in our lives. Here are three specific strategies I’ve adopted over the years in leading a virtual team:

Establish the profile of a successful virtual worker – Not everyone is cut out to be a successful virtual worker. It takes discipline, maturity, good time management skills, technical proficiency (you’re often your own tech support), and a successful track record of performance in the particular role. I’ve always considered working remotely a privilege, not a right, and the privilege has to be earned. You have to have a high level of trust in your virtual workers and they should be reliable and dependable performers who honor their commitments and do good quality work.

Have explicit expectations – There needs to be a clear understanding about the expectations of working virtually. For example, my team has norms around the use of Instant Messenger, forwarding office phone extensions to home/cell lines, using webcams for meetings, frequency of updating voicemail greetings, email response time, and out-of-office protocols just to name a few. Virtual team members generally enjoy greater freedom and autonomy than their office-bound counterparts, and for anyone who has worked remotely can attest, are often more productive and work longer hours in exchange. A downside is virtual workers can suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” so it’s important they work extra hard to be visible and active within the team.

Understand and manage the unique dynamics of a virtual team – Virtual teams add a few wrinkles to your job as a leader and a specific one is communication. It’s important to ramp up the frequency of communication and leverage all the tools at your disposal: email, phone, webcam, instant messenger, and others. It’s helpful to set, and keep, regular meeting times with virtual team members.

One of the biggest challenges in managing a virtual team is fostering a sense of connection. They aren’t privy to the hallway conversations where valuable information about the organization is often shared, and they miss out on those random encounters with other team members where personal relationships are built.

Team building activities also look a little different with a virtual team. Potluck lunches work great for the office staff, but can feel exclusionary to remote workers. Don’t stop doing events for the office staff for fear of leaving out virtual team members, but look for other ways to foster team unity with remote workers. For example, when we’ve had office holiday dinners and a Christmas gift exchange, remote team members will participate in the gift exchange and we’ll send them a gift card to a restaurant of their choice.

For many jobs, work is no longer a place we go to but something we do; from any place at any time. Virtual teams aren’t necessarily better or worse than on-site teams, but they do have different dynamics that need to be accounted for and managed, expectations need to be clear, and you need to make sure the virtual worker is set up for success.

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