Virtual teams are here for the long term, even as some jurisdictions gradually reopen workplaces and other public spaces. As leaders and employees adjust to this evolving reality, there are ways to work more effectively and gain a momentum people can live with – including exchanging “place” for pace: we may not have the opportunity to be together live, but if we can find our pace, we can find a new way to stay together on the journey.
In a previous blog post, I talked about tone, timing, trust and tolerance, all of which are really important in crisis, especially virtually. As we continue to manage through crisis, there are additional strategies, like these best practices for virtual mentoring, that will help you keep things contained and on track when you cannot physically be together.
Effective leadership creates the infrastructure to help people participate effectively. Leadership is about harnessing vision and then creating a framework that clarifies how to get there. This goes beyond the traditional thinking about “engagement” and making people feel good. This is about – by your actions – creating processes that undergird people’s understanding of the new reality and enhancing their ability to swim with the tide.
At Pollinate, our vision for over 10 years has been to help people connect to exchange knowledge and complete collaborative goals regardless of geography. We’ve also relied heavily on virtual in our own operation. No matter how technical you are or how virtually you’ve worked, you’re now working with people who aren’t or who haven’t and it’s a fact that changing work routines to accommodate new technology and norms is challenging at the best of times. Leaders (of organizations, teams and projects) have the additional task of ensuring we’re all rowing in the same direction.
As Andrea Alexander, Aaron De Smet, and Mihir Mysore at McKinsey remind us, “now is the time, as you reimagine the post-pandemic organization, to pay careful attention to the effect of your choices on organizational norms and culture.”
Below I’ve captured some of what we’ve learned at Pollinate about being productive virtually and how the leader can make a difference to the team’s sustainable success with these four “Ps”: Presence, Precedent, Priorities and Pace:
Leadership presence is about actual, direct time with people. Whether or not your lives have changed a lot or a little with the move to virtual and hybrid ways of working, you no longer casually and indirectly see people in and around the office, and no longer have the opportunity for “walk by the watercooler” conversations.
In a virtual team setting, leaders need to carve out time to be present with managers or employees on a regular basis.
What is regular? Is it every day? Is it every week? It is really up to you and the people on your team. Some people will need more of you, some people will need more time to go away to process on their own. One of the people on my team worked virtually before COVID hit. They reminded me recently that they are actually seeing a lot more of our team now than they were previously before “everything went virtual.” In the end, everybody’s going to need something a little different.
Be sensitive to what presence is needed, and be aware that it can slip quickly. It is very important to make sure that you’re tracking along regularly with people and that you’re making extra time. I know your capacity is limited, but this will save time later.
If plans are changing, you’ll also want to spend more time to be clear about any shifts in direction, otherwise you can lose a lot of meaning and good energy if people are still on the previous course.
If you are very task focused, you may find that you forget to ask about wellness. Asking questions like, “How’s your family?” may or may not have been part of your regular chatter with people before, but it definitely needs to be something that you incorporate now.
You may be already down the path of trying new systems in your team, like meeting at the same time every day. This can be seen as a precedent – we’re setting something down that is a new way of doing things.
Can we identify even small new ways of working differently and keep pursuing those? Can we lock it in so that everyone embraces the precedent? Can we adjust it without starting over all the time? Sometimes we do need to be agile, and sometimes we need to create the security of “the new way.”
One thing that is true for virtual teams and for teams going through crisis and change is that the fewer full restarts we have, the better. False starts mean people aren’t clear enough, and that’s frustrating. Position your precedent-setting as trying a new best practice, one that we’re going to iterate together to make sure it works. Once it works, we’re going to lock it in so everybody’s clear about what we’re looking for in terms of doing something new.
Sometimes you actually just have to go back over stuff that you’ve always been doing, but make it more deliberate, make it more obvious. So, start looking for those precedents.
As you find your feet under you, as you start to feel like you’re able to think about planning, this is a good way to think. There has never been a time like this in our lifetime. We’re the ones who are going to set new precedents for how things work moving forward. It is super important to have that mindset as we work our way through this.
There is absolutely nothing more important for any business in terms of effectiveness than working on the right things. Think about what is paused, what is stopped and what is urgent.
My team and I go through priorities every day. We’re finding that we do have some tasks that pop up on people’s lists that aren’t a priority right now. Not that it’s not good or important work, not that we don’t appreciate what you’ve already done on it, but it’s going to need to be parked for a period of time while we work through some other things.
Leaders must be really clear what the priorities are for the business or organization, so employees can do some of that filtration themselves. How can we make sure that people know if stuff has been paused, cleared out, and then make clear what’s urgent? Be clear about the things that are mattering most right now, and then make sure that each individual has priorities.
If there isn’t work for people right now, how are we addressing it? What does that look like? Some organizations are focusing on developing people; some have had to lay off. Some people are in different positions, depending on what the business is. Can we get down to the individual level so that people feel that they are able to be effective even if you have to right-size their tasks for the capacity that they have?
It is also a priority to take a break. Some people’s impetus is to “go, go, go.” This is how they deal with crises. Some people are paralyzed. We have to be able to make sure that both are getting breaks, and that we actually schedule them in as priorities.
Pacing is the leaders’ job. How fast do we go? What does that look like? Is everybody with us?
Paying attention to where people are at is even more important when you are virtual. There are less cues in the environment for people to watch, and to figure out what pace they should be working at.
In the absence of a physical workplace, pace can also provide structure to hold things together and enable work to happen. If you go too fast, or too slow, the structure doesn’t hold.
Unlike in the office or a regular stream of work, you may need to have a meeting after the meeting to clarify with people if they are keeping up with things. You need to find out whether they’re aware and feeling like they’re integrated into the workflow.
How do I know if my pace is wrong? I always know my pace is off when I look around and no one’s with me. I’m way out on my own with an idea, but everybody’s back there working on something else or wondering what it is that I’m talking about now. Make sure that people are aligned and with you, and make sure that you have people reflect back.
If people are behind, what’s the reason for it? Do they need breaks? Can they get one? Can you keep them working, but in a relay fashion? When there’s a day that we are all a little bit out of energy and feeling weighed down by what’s going on in the world, can we squeak out some work, but still give people breaks as we move along?
To sum up, here’s your Effective Leadership Checklist for high performing virtual teams:
More virtual leadership tools & resources:
What’s your virtual collaboration style? Find out by taking Pollinate’s Knowledge Transfer Index psychometric assessment as a first step to more effective virtual teamwork. Learn more and get started here.