In March 2020, the way we lead, manage, and work rapidly and radically changed for almost everyone worldwide. Leaders and employees, with little time to prepare, had to shift to working in a virtual environment. Suddenly, the ability to lead, manage, create, and maintain a high-performance team virtually became an essential requirement for business success.
Speeding Up the Pace of Virtual Work
Remote work and virtual teams are not new. The number of people and organizations working remotely has been increasing for the past 20 years. I was part of a virtual team as far back as 1999.
A 2016 Gallup survey found 43% of workers in the United States worked remotely, up from 39% working remotely in 2012.[i] In February 2020, a report from Flexjobs stated that between 2005 and 2017, there was a 159% increase in remote work.[ii] And a survey from Buffer reported 31% of companies globally are completely virtual.[iii]
The pandemic sped up the pace and the size of our transition to virtual work. Virtual work went from some people taking a walk into the virtual world, to almost everyone doing a 100 meter sprint. Now, most organizations recognize this is a marathon towards a new normal.
Virtual work has quickly become embedded in our organizational design. That’s why it’s time to shift from thinking of virtual work as meeting a short-term need and, instead, create and maintain high-performance teams in a consciously designed virtual environment.
Leadership, Management, and Mindset: The Foundation of Every High-Performance Team
Let’s begin by exploring three foundational elements needed for a high-performance virtual team: leadership, management, and mindset.
Leadership is a critical element in a traditional physical environment and the virtual environment. Leaders need to create a clear sense of direction and ensure the environment will support both the team and each individual on the team.
You also need management in the virtual environment. Julie Wilson, the founder of the Institute for Future Learning and instructor at Harvard University, says, “Managing a virtual team requires managers to double down on the fundamentals of good management, including establishing clear goals, running great meetings, communicating clearly, and leveraging team members’ individual and collective strengths.”
It’s helpful to think of leadership and management, not as separate entities, but each as one side of the same coin.
Mindset is the way we think about things. It includes our beliefs (conscious and unconscious), values, and thoughts, and it influences all of our actions. That’s why it’s important to examine your beliefs about what it means to build, lead, and manage a high-performance virtual team. For example, do you have an unconscious bias that employees who work virtually are not as productive? Do you identify with and gain confidence from your physical office space? You will need to adjust that thinking to be successful virtually.
Now that we understand the importance of leadership, management, and mindset, let’s look at three strategies to help you create and maintain a high-performance virtual team.
Three Strategies to Help Create and Maintain a Successful Virtual Team
- Communicate to connect. Communication plays a critical role in maintaining our relationships and sense of connectedness to others on the team. In a virtual environment, none of the organic ways of connecting (e.g., meeting each other in the hallway, saying hello when you arrive in the morning, dropping by someone’s space to ask a question, etc.) exist. People are at higher risk of feeling excluded, isolated, and disconnected from their team. It may feel quicker to send an email, but in a virtual environment, sending that email means you lose the ability to connect with your team.
Create and schedule regular and frequent activities to actively connect through conversation to build and maintain relationships. Allow and encourage time for socialization and spontaneous informal conversations.
- Create a structure to build and maintain trust. Structure is not something you may have thought about when you think about trust. Yet, structure is the cornerstone of every trusting relationship. The structures we create, both visible and invisible, give us a sense of stability and reduce uncertainty. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown is one of the most stressful things for every human being.
In the traditional office or workspace, physical elements provide a structure. Such things as offices or workstations, maybe a lunchroom, the location of washrooms and the configuration of your workspaces all provide stability. Stability also comes from intangible structures such as a defined workday, work routines, and relationships with team members and within the organization. These contribute to building and maintaining trust because they allow us to know what to expect and how to respond.
To build and maintain trust in the virtual environment, you need to plan, develop, and consciously maintain new structures, both tangible and intangible, specifically for the virtual world. For example, you can set up a regular meeting time (daily or weekly), where team members can meet, socialize, and interact. You may need to purchase new technology and design new processes to enable work that was done manually in the physical environment to be done virtually.
- Integrate your technology to work for you. Today, we have an abundance of technology to help us create and support virtual teams. The key is making time and actively integrating technology into your workplace practices, so it becomes the “normal” way you connect, interact, and work.
Integration requires consciously deciding what technology you will use and its purpose and role in supporting your team. Once you have decided on the technology, you need to ensure that each member of the team is comfortable and confident using it.
For example, video-meeting technology, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet, allows team members to connect virtually in a way that is similar to the physical environment. However, I have met people who are uncomfortable being on camera and always turn off the video, which limits their ability to connect with other team members who are using video.
Integration also means using existing technology differently. Email is one example of a familiar technology that may need to be used differently. Although the risk of miscommunication with email exists in the physical environment, the risk is much higher in the virtual environment. In a virtual environment, the organic opportunities to connect don’t exist. For example we can’t drop by someone’s workspace to clarify that an email. Instead of using email to send the information, email can be used to make the connection and set up a virtual conversation.
Virtual Teams Are Here to Stay
In 2013, Richard Branson said, “One day, offices will be a thing of the past.” I don’t believe our physical office spaces will become obsolete. However, virtual work and teams are here to stay. With a willingness to think differently and by taking conscious and thoughtful actions, it is possible to create and maintain a high-performance team that feels connected, engaged, and productive in a virtual environment.
If you would like some help making the transition to a virtual work environment, connect with us for a conversation. We can help you create or re-create your high-performance team virtually.
[i] Braccio Beth Hering Remote Work Statistics: Shifting Norms and Expectations
[ii] Braccio Beth Hering Remote Work Statistics: Shifting Norms and Expectations https://www.flexjobs.com/blog/post/remote-work-statistics/