CONTAINING COVID-19: VIRTUAL TEAM WORKING

With offices closing, employees being sent to work from home, thousands of teams have overnight become virtual teams. On the one hand, this situation might finally resolve the debate about whether people can work productively from home. The situation is enforced on even those who are skeptical of their co-workers’ ability to show up and work effectively from home.  On the other hand, there’s a very real need to support teams who are suddenly, without any training, operating in a totally virtual environment.

Successful virtual teams spend time and effort cultivating their remote working skills and developing processes that enable productivity without co-locating.  Here are four ideas for your team if it’s suddenly become virtual, and a reminder for those who were already there.

1: Agree communication protocols for dealing with problems and co-ordinating different stages of a task.

At NASA, where the astronaut team, mission control, and other international agencies constitute a complex virtual team, they invest heavily in orchestrating handovers between team members, developing communication skills and training on conflict resolution. For example, they discovered that text-based communication was more effective for resolving task issues, but audio communication was better for team or interpersonal issues. What is best for your virtual team?

2: Share information widely and timely.

When one team member discovers that they only found out information long after others, they will attribute a meaning to this that might never have been intended.   How you share information across a virtual team indicates who is important and how they are valued. 

3: Actively facilitate team meetings.

As the host of a virtual meeting you need to pay attention to each individual: ask questions, bring people in by name, call for feedback, invite people to give input, go round in turn, ask them personally to contribute. Each person needs to feel like you notice what they do and how they are feeling.

4: Share success stories with the whole team.

Research from the field of Positive Psychology provides evidence of the benefits of regularly recording and acknowledging moments of success or pride; you can adapt this for your virtual team. It’s a good way to help everyone know what others are up to and to share in the feeling that the team is made of successful people. Encourage people to share spontaneously via platforms such as MS Teams, WhatsApp, or internal chat programs, rather than over-engineering the process of sharing into a meeting format.

Over the coming days, you and your team will establish new norms as you adapt to a fully virtual world with no clear indication of how long this will be required.  Taking time to check in with the emotional climate of the team and brainstorming ideas for keeping motivation, engagement, and productivity high is critical to individual and team performance, perhaps more now than ever before.