Nothing in recent memory has turned the world upside down for work teams like the coronavirus pandemic. Issues have varied by industry, but dealing with a larger contingent of virtual workers as been one of the most common challenges for bosses.
While employees working from home initially claimed to love the convenience, I’ve heard many admit that they increasingly long for the connection and companionship of colleagues. And for companies – especially those that thrive on creativity, innovation and collaboration – the loss of energy created when people work alongside one another is a growing concern.
But is it physical proximity alone that fosters teamwork, collaborative innovation and better results? Hardly. Research has shown us that specific leadership practices foster engagement and empowerment. By adapting these core leader practices and leveraging newfound team teleconferencing technology, we can minimize the impact of geographic separation and isolation.
Following are four major strategies drawn from Stamp & Chase’s MyTEAM® model, tailored for today’s virtual workforce.
Purposely cultivate community.
Strong teamwork doesn’t happen organically just by putting people in close proximity. Great leaders always provide reasons and structure for teams to achieve things together.
The concept of the regular team “huddle” is even more important when employees are working remotely. Called the “stand-up” or “daily scrum” in some industries, the regular 5-10 minute touch-base meeting focuses on helping teams be at their best today. These brief meetings prioritize tasks and address immediate issues that may stand in the way of progress. Letting individuals regularly see one another in that grid of faces on a Zoom or Teams call is a great way to maintain connections – and momentum toward goal achievement.
Likewise, leaders should continue to leverage the central philosophy of contemporary performance improvement models – that frontline staff working together come up with and embrace the best solutions. Clearly defining opportunities for improvement, assigning individuals to small teams, and providing the resources and support they need is a powerful way to make remote employees feel more involved and connected.
Stay in touch with every individual.
Out-of-sight, out-of-mind is one of the most dangerous pitfalls for bosses with geographically dispersed teams. We recommend that managers have a brief conversation with every individual on his/her team at least every 30 days, whether they are working centrally or remotely. This means establishing a system to prompt and encourage these conversations on a consistent basis. This easy-to-use functionality is built into the MyTEAM® application to help leaders provide and document more consistent, balanced feedback across the entire team.
Communicate with, not to, your team.
One of the easiest traps to fall into with a remote team is the sense that you are effectively communicating when you send out regular email updates. In reality, you are focusing on only one half of effective communication – message delivery.
Especially with remote teams, creating the right venues and opportunities to listen – really listen – is critical. When teams go virtual, one of the first things to disappear is often the regular department staff meeting. Well-structured, interactive staff meetings provide the opportunity for teams to ask questions, share ideas, surface concerns, and celebrate successes. Again, the grid of faces on a Teams or Zoom call comes close to reinforcing the sense of community that is traditionally nurtured face-to-face. Plus, the virtual meeting will actually be more convenient for staff member who are not working that day/shift to attend.
Establish, track and discuss clear workgroup goals.
Most companies long ago learned how to set great organization-wide goals. But even when they are written as S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound) goals, achievement suffers if they are not translated to more specific workgroup goals. These more specific goals help each team member understand, embrace and take responsibility for results. (For more information on how to make workgroup goals more effective, see our LeaderBriefing, “A Smarter Approach to S.M.A.R.T. Goals.”)
Arguably, virtual teams need clear goals that are consistently reported and discussed even more than a centralized team. For the work group, these goals should be more focused on the achievement of leading indicators, rather than typical lagging goals. For example, if a health care organization has “reduce infections” as a goal, then hand hygiene compliance should be the leading goal individual teams pay attention to. Well-defined, visible, leading goals help maintain purpose and focus across the team, whether they are working in the same location or remotely.
Adapting tried-and-true, evidence-based strategies for improving staff engagement is the best way to think about helping a virtual team stay connected. One-off gimmicks that stray from the core strategies of team engagement are less likely to be effective in the long-term in helping staff individually and collectively be most successful.