Due to the COVID19 pandemic, many teams who enjoyed the benefits of working in the same physical space have become virtual teams overnight. Virtual teams struggle with teamwork in even the best of times, and we are not in the best of times! Teams dealing with an unplanned transition to remote work need help, especially with accomplishing work that requires interdependent, coordinated effort. Based on our research and work with thousands of teams, we offer the following four recommendations for team leaders who unexpectedly find themselves leading virtual teams.
Pay attention to team context. It’s easy to get sucked into kibitzing about the day-to-day challenges of cabin fever, homeschooling, and trying to get work done through spotty Wi-Fi, but it’s important for teams to step back and talk about the big picture. Ensure the team has regular communication about what’s happening with key stakeholders, such as customers, competitors, regulators, suppliers, the broader organization, or other factors that could affect their work. Make sure everyone on the team is aware of the latest information about the situation and how it may impact individual and team goals, priorities, and plans. Although information may be limited and the situation grim, it’s better for the team to proactively share information than to have members base their work activities on unsubstantiated rumors and wildly different assumptions. Fostering a common understanding of the situation will help the team stay in sync.
Revisit what success means. Given the magnitude and frequency of changes in our world today, teams need to proactively consider whether their goals and priorities should change too. Once goals and priorities are clear, help the team identify and plan around newly emerged obstacles, such as resource constraints. When so much of the world feels out of control, people crave opportunities to feel successful, so help team members focus on what they can
Review team norms. All teams have formal and informal rules for how they get things done. We recommend teams review and update three types of norms to accommodate the reality of working remotely during the COVID-19 crisis: business hours, meetings, and communication.
Business Hours. Most teams have expectations about team members being present and available during work hours, even when they’re working from home. Before the crisis most remote workers had a dedicated workspace and reliable childcare in place, which allowed them to meet those expectations. But with the unforeseen transition of millions of employees working from home and most schools being closed, the odds are high that many employees will be sharing office space with a partner, working from their kitchen table, or taking care of their children who are suddenly being home-schooled. In the face of our new normal, teams should explicitly review expectations about what constitutes business hours and how much flexibility team members have around working staggered shifts.
Meetings. Teams also have norms about meetings—how often they meet, what topics they address, and the extent to which they share information in formal meetings vs. informal hallway discussions. These norms, too, should be reviewed. Although most people don’t look forward to having more meetings, teams may need to schedule more connection points during this time of crisis and isolation.
Communication. Teams usually have preferences about how quickly members need to respond and which modes of communication should be used. Under today’s challenges, all these norms need to be revisited. For example, members need to let each other know the best way and time to reach them. Setting expectations for the best modes of communication, e.g., scheduled phone call for check-in meetings, IM for issues requiring urgent response, is also important.
Review roles and responsibilities. Because team members face unprecedented challenges that are likely to affect their productivity, teams should regularly review responsibilities. Coordinating and ensuring everyone on the team understands these changes is a key responsibility of team leaders.
Beware the dark side. Dark side personality traits are irritating, counterproductive behaviors that make it difficult to get work done through and with others. The pandemic is a perfect storm for dark side tendencies to emerge, as stress levels are high and team members are more likely to exhibit their dark side when working from home. Team leaders should be on the lookout for members who shut down or become more combative, perfectionistic, or accommodating as they cope with the challenges of COVID-19. Taking steps 1-4 can help team leaders and members minimize the emergence of dark side behaviors.
Despite all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, it is important to remember that virtual teams are: (a) nothing new; and (b) capable of high performance. Prior to the outbreak many sales, software development, product design, and customer service teams were made up of remotely located employees. Those virtual teams that excelled adopted many of the steps outlined above. They are not difficult to implement, and team members will appreciate guidance they provide.