Leading and working in virtual teams at a time of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the accelerated use of virtual teams for work, family and friends but there is nothing new about people working alone from home: writers, artists and poets have always done it. Many of us became virtual freelancers by choice and we love the autonomy and flexibility. Since the 1990s, companies have accelerated the growth of global teams and executives have been challenged with building virtual relationships. Global management consultancies implemented policies of “work anywhere, anytime” and they trusted their staff not to abuse the freedom. In the 2010s, better technology has allowed the development of low cost, easy to use collaborative tools including Zoom. Co-working spaces such as “WeWork” and “Workthere” have mushroomed so that freelancers do not feel isolated.

All teams face the problem of the “Bystander Effect” – people often exert less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group compared to when they work alone. Why? Because they feel that their effort does not matter – “someone else will do it”. If someone is in danger in a crowded place, the more people there are, the less likely it is that someone will help though this does not apply if we are in a crowd of friends as we do not want to look like a “jerk”.

It seems obvious that virtual teams increase the chance of the Bystander Effect kicking in. Managers are concerned that if my team is out of sight, how can I trust them and how do I measure the performance of individuals? How do I build team cohesion and how can new joiners be integrated? Tacit knowledge (the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it) is no longer easily transferable. Collaboration and innovation might be more difficult to encourage.

For those working in virtual teams, the camaraderie of the workplace is missing and it can be tough to separate work from home life. A sense of community and purpose can be missing. Set against this, many people report positives such as greater autonomy and flexibility, no need to travel to work and fewer work based distractions. They may have more discretionary time for contact with loved ones and leisure activity and there may be environmental benefits.

Research into the productivity of virtual teams is patchy but often shows that
there tends to be initial declines, followed by productivity that equals or exceeds office-based work – but only if lessons are learned and applied. The key point is that you need to work at it and experiment: try stuff out, learn from the successes and failures and share good and bad practice. You have to encourage everyone in the team to take ownership of the challenge and work a little harder to make virtual teamwork a success.

Here are suggestions for leaders to make virtual teamwork work. The first set concerns the social and emotional needs of team members:

1. Stick to a rhythm with regular rituals: “we meet at 10 every day” though if team members are in different time zones it may be necessary to vary timings so as to “share the pain”
2. Have social events: coffee breaks together, drinks on a Friday
3. Call a check in at the beginning of meetings. Tell them how you feel and encourage them to say how they feel. In difficult times, make it clear that you expect people will be having ups and downs and that you are also experiencing them
4. Take it in turns to share humorous items
5. Thank people who contribute to the wellbeing of the team (as well as task achievement)
6. Use the words “together” and “we” a lot. There is clear research that this makes people feel more positive (and it raises productivity)
7. End meetings on an upbeat note

These suggestions are more concerned with the task focus of the team:

1. Agree a Team Etiquette Guide: guidelines on team communication, for example avoid ”copy everyone syndrome” in emails and we must all keep to time commitments
2. Make the purpose and structure of meetings crystal clear
3. Don’t worry about repetition. Use signposting to remind people where the meeting has been and where it is going. Checking understanding and summarise more frequently than face to face
4. Get people to publicly pre-commit to doing work. Make sure people’s names are attached to specific tasks before (and after) they have done work for the team. They will know others will be expecting results and that their contribution will be evaluated.

There are other important principles that all high-performance teams should follow. Avoid a “star culture”. Particular individuals should not be seen as critical to success and every person should be aware of their personal importance to the team and the individual importance of every other team member. Think about the famous Chicago Bulls netball team in the 1990s. Although Michael Jordan was the star player, much effort by him and others was put into ensuring everyone’s role was appreciated.

Consider who really needs to attend meetings and don’t use team meetings when one to ones are more appropriate. It is always smart to keep teams and meetings as small as possible and if you want very close collaboration, 5-6 is best. Bring people such as specialists only when you need them. If very close collaboration is needed, think about borrowing a technique from project management and create a Team Charter that will clarify what needs to be done.

You can get the benefits of a virtual team and avoid much of the downside. Straightforward techniques applied consistently ensure that productivity can be as good if not even better than before and that people are on balance more satisfied. For a long time, we have known that there are better ways of working in organisations and that many want the opportunity for a more flexible life style. Change was often approached in a half-hearted way but now is the opportunity to apply valuable lessons in the longer term. Then we can all be in a better place at the end of a challenging time.

Lynda Gratton, LBS webinar Working Virtually
The Bystander Effect was first described by Ringelmann and Latanne
The Bystander Effect – Catherine Sanderson
Netflix series: The Last Dance

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