Virtual Teams: teams that predominantly use digital media to communicate and coordinate their work with at least one of the team members working at a different location and/or in a different time zone (Hertel, Geister, & Konradt, 2005).

 

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, globally employees and employers alike are grappling with the new reality of working remotely. A simple Google search quickly provides tip after tip on how to adjust to being a virtual employee – from setting up your workspace for optimal productivity, to keeping a consistent schedule; from ensuring you have the best communication tools (and strong Wifi connectivity), to using those tools to communicate frequently and effectively, there has been much said on how to help one continue with one’s work without physically going into the office.

But what about leading these virtual employees during this time? Many of the same tips still apply – you still need to limit distractions and adequately share information with your team – but simply tracking the time your team spend logged into their systems and ticking off completed tasks are not enough. By being a purely task-oriented leader, employees are more likely to simply feel like tools being used as part of a business transaction, resulting in lower motivation and stressing them out further especially if working virtually is new to them. Years of research have indicated that democratic, employee-oriented leaders that involve employees in decision-making, fairly delegate authority, encourage participation in deciding work methods and goals, and use feedback as an opportunity to coach employees are associated with higher team productivity and higher job satisfaction (Smit & de Cronje, 2002). Furthermore, with psychometric assessments being used more often in organisations for selection purposes, now is the perfect time to resurface (and repurpose) those results (or retest employees if their report validity period has passed) to guide you in managing your team more effectively to still achieve organisational goals.

 

Taking your team culture into account

 

Tuckman’s (1965) five-stage model of group development can be a very useful aid in helping us think about how the changes in work environment may influence our team. For many teams, you were functioning at the Performing stage (Stage 4) before the virus started spreading, with mostly functional structures in place to effectively achieve group goals. Whilst working virtually in and of itself should not cause all groups to take a step backward and move completely into the Norming stage (Stage 3), where teams learn and establish appropriate group behaviours, since you have already learnt how to collaborate and work effectively with each other, we can propose that your norms may have to be reviewed to account for working virtually – so moving into stage 3.5 if you will – one of Re-norming.

During this re-norming stage, you would need to identify which routines and practices will serve your team to maintain the status quo. For example, if when you were physically present in the office your team had a daily morning scrum over coffee to discuss tasks to be done for the day, add it to everyone’s calendars to continue having these daily morning coffee meetings virtually – not only will it provide a sense of stability during an otherwise uncertain time, it also ensures that team members don’t feel isolated, as well as allowing managers to remain aware of tasks keeping the team busy and holding them accountable to deliverables.

Such acts re-affirm your organisational culture, which serves to promote the stability and code of conduct of the social system and address the creation (and maintenance) of a positive working environment (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001). Studies have also found that in groups where norms exist, the greater a group’s cohesiveness, the greater its productivity (Robbins & Coulter, 2003). If you are a newer team or are unsure of what the team culture actually is, frequent communication becomes even more important to develop those relationships and establish norms. There are also assessments available that specifically look at what employees value in the workplace, and how expressing those values create a team culture.

Remembering that organisational culture is learnt through means such as stories and rituals (Smit & Cronje, 2002), consider giving employees that have worked remotely before, a chance to share their experiences and learnings with those less familiar with this work set-up. If there aren’t many cases like that, it is likely that your company has successfully worked through other challenges in the past – share those stories with the team to communicate the organisation’s spirit of perseverance and optimism.

However, a group’s functioning and effectiveness are dependent on both the characteristics of the group, as well as intergroup dynamics between members. Since the mere fact that you are working in a team implies task interdependence, individual employee differences also need to be accounted for when determining how to manage your team – an important factor to consider even if you aren’t working virtually!

 

Understanding individual differences within your team

 

One thing that almost every article out there has made clear – for employees to work together successfully (physically or virtually), there needs to be trust. However, if the trust between employees is deterrence-based (van Dijk, Makagonova, de Kwaadsteniet, & Schutte, ‎2017), this won’t be healthy in the long-term, since it positions their leader/manager as a pure authority figure who will punish employees if demands are not adequately met – not ideal for open, honest communication and creating a space for competitiveness and possible backbiting between members. Leaders must believe in the character and dedication of members to work as a unified, committed team to complete the tasks allocated to them to achieve the shared company goals, also known as identification-trust (Han, & Harms, 2010). Ideally, individual integrity had been assessed during selection processes and those results may also provide managers with a sense of which employees may use these new working conditions to put in less effort in tasks, work fewer hours, bend the rules without reason, or be more likely to blame the government for the new regulations and be overly pessimistic about the virus affecting their ability to ‘do business as usual’. However, developing trust between members also relies heavily on communication. 

Considering team members’ preferences could influence the frequency and methods via which team members communicate, enabling the team to communicate more effectively (Myers, McCaulley, Quenk, & Hammer, 2009). To demonstrate, schedule meetings as required for employees that prefer talking through ideas but send through agendas ahead of time for those members who prefer having time to structure their thoughts and contribute valuably in the meeting. When talking about deliverables, ensure that you cover both the specifics of tasks (for your detail-oriented employees who prefer working with guidelines) as well as the general plan and direction that the team needs to keep in mind to reach organisation objectives (for those employees that prefer working with a general vision of what the end result should look like). Make sure to check in on both task progression as well as members’ adjustment to working from home during communication, especially initially whilst they are still settling into their new work arrangements. Provide a realistic time frame for achieving goals so that members have a date to work towards – depending on their preference, some might appreciate the deadline to prioritise their tasks and schedule time out to focus on that particular project, others may appreciate the deadline to be a bit more flexible and work sporadically on that project in-between other tasks.

Speaking of flexibility, in our ever-changing world of work it is becoming more apparent that to function as an effective team, members need to be okay with more fluid roles and making adjustments as to who takes responsibility for what, within reason (Robbins & Coulter, 2003). This also means that at times, leaders need to be okay being more of a team player if there are others in the team better suited to lead a particular project. Such flexibility requires team members to possess negotiating skills, as well as conflict management skills, should members feel that they do not have equal workloads or are not being treated as equals. Click here to read a case study on how team effectiveness assessments were used to guide an organisation through a period of substantial change.

Especially during this time of general panic caused by the coronavirus, team members need to be attuned to their own and each other’s emotional reactions and how that influences their job performance and communication with others.  Again, there are assessments that specifically measure employees’ general levels of resilience which are especially useful if employees’ line of work is particularly stressful, much like there are also assessments that can pinpoint specific workplace stressors that overwhelm employees. For most of us though that never saw the current state of emergency induced by the coronavirus coming, we may not have these type of assessment results to refer to, to help us sufficiently manage our team members’ responses. Nevertheless, we can all use this opportunity to practice being more aware of our own emotions and being more empathic towards others. 

In summary, there is no doubt that, in order to function optimally as a team (virtually or otherwise) leaders need to actively promote both task performance and interpersonal relationships of members. If you have made use of psychometric assessments in the past, now is a perfect example of return-on-investment and how such assessments definitely add value to your day-to-day interactions, much beyond the recruitment process. If you don’t have access to these types of assessment results (we hope that this article made a strong case for using them in future!), remember that trust and communication are still core, and focus on maintaining and improving them.

 

References:

 

Han, G., & Harms, P. D. (2010). Team identification, trust and conflict: A mediation model. International Journal of Conflict Management, 21(1), 20-43. https://doi.org/10.1108/10444061011016614      

Hertel, G., Geister, S., & Konradt, U. (2005). Managing virtual teams: A review of current empirical research. Human Resource Management Review, 15, 69-95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2005.01.002

Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2001). Organizational behaviour. Place of publication? McGraw-Hill Education

Myers, I. B., McCaulley, M. H., Quenk, N. L., & Hammer, A. L. (2009). MBTI Manual: A guide to the development and use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® Instrument, 3rd edition. Place? CPP Inc.

Robbins, S.P., & Coulter, M. (2003). Management, 7th Edition, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall

Smit, P.J., & Cronje, G.J. de J. (2002). Management principles: A contemporary edition for Africa, 3rd edition. Cape Town: Juta

Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0022100

van Dijk, E., Makagonova, V., de Kwaadsteniet E. W., & Schutter, M. (2017). Deterrence-based trust in bargaining: Introducing a new experimental paradigm. Journal of Trust Research, 7(1), 71-89. https://doi.org/10.1080/21515581.2016.1254093