Written by Simon Finley, Team Coach at Aston Business School
Virtual teamworking is growing fast. While originally facilitated by new collaborative technologies and the increased need for globally focused, agile teams, many businesses remained reluctant to embrace virtual teams. Then Covid-19 happened, and the world changed.
In the months since the pandemic first swept the globe, businesses have been forced to adapt working practices to accommodate trading and travel restrictions. While many companies will have been reluctant to adopt virtual working, and will return to offices at the first opportunity, it is likely that many will have experienced the various benefits and reconsidered their operational model.
So, what are these benefits? As alluded to previously, virtual working provides access to globally dispersed knowledge and skills without the need for expensive, time consuming and environmentally damaging travel and even less need for an office. Across the world thousands of businesses are reimagining themselves without the burden of rental bills and with the flexibility to work where and when teams and clients require it. This new flexibility widens the talent pool businesses can recruit from as it reduces the barriers previously presented by working time and location restrictions.
While this may seem, attractive there are barriers that need to be addressed. Some, such as time zone differences and the need for effective software and reliable broadband, are fairly obvious. Others, however, such as the challenges of communicating effectively to diverse teams are less clear, increasing the potential for misunderstanding and conflict.
Furthermore, the lack of physical interaction and socialising can slow, and may even completely prevent, the development of high-performance team traits. Finally, working virtually can be isolating and the lack of distinction between the home and the workspace disorienting, leading to difficulties “switching off” from a day at work. It is therefore no surprise that during the Covid-19 pandemic increasing numbers of people are reporting mental health problems.
So, what can be done to overcome these barriers and harness the power that virtual teamworking offers? It is probably no surprise, given the relative nascence of virtual working, that literature on this topic is scarce. There are, however, some conceptual models and practical reflective pieces that we can draw up that offer insight into virtual working. Here are ten tips for virtual leadership:
1. Managers need to adopt the roles of monitor, co-ordinator and team builder to reduce task, process and relational conflict, respectively.
2. Create a team of remote leadership experts to support other leaders in the organisation.
3. There should be a single, easily available, repository for documenting all work processes. This will help reduce confusion across all teams within the organisation.
4. Each team should have their own virtual working space to share agendas, minutes, goals, measures and any other documentation that would be easily accessible in an office.
5. Minimise the number of electronic tools and platforms used. Variety and choice might seem attractive but can cause confusion, particularly when it comes to communication channels.
6. Create a communication strategy to enable effective formal (both upwards and downwards) and informal communications. To support the latter each team should have access to a 24-hour team room for coffee breaks and spontaneous chats.
7. Reduce time spent in meetings. Every meeting should have a virtual agenda in a collaborative working space for staff to contribute questions and answers in advance of and after the meeting. Consider who really needs to attend based on the matters selected for discussion rather than defaulting to generic attendance lists.
8. Offer support and guidance on effective homeworking to staff, including how to set up a home office space, how to break up the working day effectively, and how to clearly delineate between the workspace and the home space. Leaders should reinforce this by reminding staff to take regular breaks away from screens, encouraging staff to set time every day where they are unavailable on chat functions, and helping to build routines that replace the switching on and off effect of daily commutes.
9. Don’t encroach into people’s private time. There is a tendency to believe that people working from home have more time to work, particularly as they have no commute. This is not true; the working day is the same length as it has always been!
10. Create robust mental health policies and support processes. Ensure staff are aware of the signs of mental health problems, such as constant tiredness, headaches, increased worrying, disabling video features on calls, and reduced communication activity, and make sure all staff know how to respond if they recognise these in either themselves or their teams.
Dube, S. and Marnewick, C., (2016) “A conceptual model to improve performance in virtual teams” SA Journal of Information Management, 18(1), p.10
Flood, F., (2019) “Leadership in the remote, freelance, and virtual workforce era” Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance, ed. A. Farazmand (Lake Frederick, VA: Springer), pp.1-5
Gitlab (2020) “The Remote Playbook from the largest all-remote company in the world” https://about.gitlab.com/
Shaik, F.F., Makhecha, U.P. and Gouda, S.K., (2020) “Work and non-work identities in global virtual teams” International Journal of Manpower
Wakefield, R.L., Leidner, D.E. and Garrison, G. (2008) “A Model of Conflict, Leadership, and Performance in Virtual Teams” Information Systems Research, 19(4), p.434