How to Get the Best from Your Virtual Teams
by Katy Lindsay
As I write, we are some way into the COVID 19 pandemic and remote working in virtual teams has become the norm for many people. Across the world, people are feeling pleased with themselves for having set up the technology for virtual communication and managing remote teams. Many people have now met their colleagues’ children online. One Aptimore client reported that he was now spending so much time in online meetings that he had no time left to get anything done.
There are clear reasons why many people may be spending much of their time in somewhat informal or unstructured meetings right now. For instance, some people are still dealing with feelings of shock, anxiety or isolation and are finding consolation in seeing and talking to their colleagues. The emotional challenges of the crisis are layered onto the usual practical and social challenges of switching from traditional to remote working.
For example, research has shown that:
- Remote teams need to work harder than face-to-face teams to build and maintain trust, and to modify the behaviours that undermine trust in virtual teams
- They are generally less open with each other than face-to-face teams, and as a result, tend to be less creative
- Leadership is even more important in mastering virtual teams than face-to-face teams
- Virtual teams need consistent management through one-to-one and regular team meetings
- Video conferencing isn’t always the best option.
This article draws on Aptimore’s extensive practical experience developing leaders and (now virtual) teams together with research into virtual teams to come up with practical suggestions for getting the best out of managing remote teams.
Social Intelligence in Virtual Teams
Research into virtual teams over the past twenty years concludes that virtual teams need to work harder than face-to-face groups to build and maintain trust, which is fundamental to good teamwork. Although often unconsciously, we all rely on non-verbal gestures or small changes in speech patterns to understand how others are feeling and sense the impact that we are having on others.
However, even with the best video conferencing software, it is harder to pick up these social cues from each other. For instance, variable internet connections and small software glitches frequently ensure that audio is out of sync with video, making it difficult even for skilled readers of body language to be sure of what they’re detecting. More problematic, also, is the audio communication, with people often talking over each other and having to repeat or stop mid-sentence allowing others to speak.
It is perhaps not surprising that studies find virtual teams to be generally less open with each other than face-to-face teams or that there are clearly some behaviours that undermine trust in virtual teams. All of this, of course, can have a negative impact on creativity and quality of decision making.
To overcome the drawbacks of remote communication, people working in virtual teams need to put more effort into their relationships and build additional interpersonal skills. Instead of relying on an implicit and unconscious reading of other team members’ emotions and intentions, they need to have explicit conversations and deepen their understanding of why others behave and feel the way they do.
In short, virtual teams have to go out of their way to be – and be seen to be – fair and inclusive to override the de-humanising impact of being so far apart.
Leadership in Virtual Teams
It is also clear that leadership is even more important in remote teams than it is in face-to-face teams. It is the leader’s job to build a cohesive team. In a virtual environment, there is less scope for relationships to just evolve without people making a deliberate effort, so it is up to the team leader to help the team to cultivate trusting relationships.
For most team leaders, becoming the manager of a virtual team should mean putting more time and thought into relationship building than they did before. It is more important than ever to apply emotional intelligence to ensure that people feel included and valued.
There can be a tendency in a virtual team to split work up into independent tasks to reduce complexity by reducing the number of interdependencies in the team. However, this can lead the team to lose the benefits of team working, which come from collaboration, with its associated challenge, energy and creativity. Many people feel much more motivated when working closely with others.
Structure and Management Rythm
It is also up to the leader to ensure that the new virtual team has the structure, processes and ‘management rhythm’ required to agree on goals and then keep everyone aligned to achieve them.
In the course of our work advising and developing managers and leaders, we come across many team leaders who are managing in an ad hoc way, just catching colleagues in the corridor or using a “my door is always open” approach. While this can work for a very small team in a situation where people are working very closely, it is not sustainable for a larger team or when working remotely.
With people working from home, the downsides of an informal, unstructured style will start to show very clearly. Messages will start to become fragmented, and the team will become less cohesive.
To address this, one of the imperatives for team leaders aiming at mastering virtual teams is to introduce much more structure, with regular one-to-ones as well as regular team meetings. Done correctly, this pattern allows the manager to delegate effectively, without micromanaging.
The one-to-ones are particularly crucial in a virtual environment. With audio delays and various technology glitches, team communications within a virtual team are less clear and more confused than face-to-face. So, the one-to-one becomes the leader’s tool for understanding how each direct report is, whether goals will be reached or whether support is needed.
Team leaders should not get fixed on the idea of using video conferencing for their one-to-one meetings. It can be much easier to detect changes in people’s speech patterns on a phone call than on a video call, where there are many more technical and visual distractions. Listening for small changes in speech patterns is one of the best ways to pick up what people mean or how they are feeling.
Talking to managers since the start of the Coronavirus crisis, it is clear that many are finding themselves now in a constant flurry of online meetings, with many teams meeting daily or several times during the day. Although people may feel busy, it is clear that not all meetings are about co-ordinating the team to get things done.
Post-crisis, many meetings are taking place for social and emotional reasons as well. These reasons are important and need addressing, but managers may benefit from being clear about the needs that their meetings are serving. Many people are suffering from significantly higher anxiety levels than usual. For them, meeting and connecting with others, whether or not the anxieties are openly discussed, can be a way for people to alleviate anxiety.
For others, working remotely is isolating and demotivating. For instance, extraverts get energy from their interactions with others and will feel a loss of energy if they have insufficient contact with others. For them, online meetings are a way to keep their energy levels up and feel happier. Talking to clients, as things start to settle down a little in some organisations, newly remote team leaders are beginning to find more effective ways of addressing these social and emotional needs outside of co-ordination focused team meetings.
To read more about the human side of leading and working within newly remote teams, we have created a more detailed guide on ‘How to get the best from your virtual teams’.
It expands on the themes above and addresses some new ones, such as decision making in the highly VUCA world in which remote teams now find themselves. With clear ‘Take Outs’ from each section, we hope that you will find it practical and useful.
Download the guide to learn:
- The psychology behind managing a successful virtual team
- How to run productive team meetings online
- How to adapt your approach for different types of people/personalities
- Actionable insights to help your virtual team thrive
About the Author
Katy Lindsay is the founder and CEO of Aptimore, an online learning platform that develops management and leadership skills. She has extensive experience in assessing and developing managers and teams in organisations of all shapes and sizes, ranging from SMEs to global corporates.
What is Aptimore?
Aptimore is an online development platform that teaches people all the essentials of collaboration, management and leadership, with a strong focus on raising emotional intelligence.
It’s very different from other types of online platforms:
- firstly because it’s personalised for each individual, taking into account their personality, preferences, aptitude and level of experience
- secondly, because it combines a range of different learning techniques to create an experience that’s less like e-learning and more like being coached.
Managers and leaders can work through the nineteen modules in our online learning programme at their own pace to build efficient and effective teams with the resilience to handle uncertain times.
How Can Aptimore Help?
Aptimore builds the social and emotional intelligence that leaders and their teams need in the workplace, such as showing empathy and knowing how to give and receive feedback. These interpersonal skills are critical to effective collaboration in teams of all kinds but are particularly important in virtual teams, which can otherwise become very fragmented.
Aptimore is specially designed for a fully online learning experience, with lots of gamified interactions and case studies designed to put the learner into someone else’s shoes. Importantly, it is designed to reflect each individual learner back to themselves so that they can truly learn about what they’re like and understand the impact they have on others.
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