Working productively in a team can be tough at the best of times. With most teams becoming virtual overnight, additional pressure was placed on team leaders as well as team members to find ways to cope.

In this webinar, Dr Jopie de Beer, Dr Renate Scherrer, Dr Karina de Bruin, and Dr Nicola Taylor consider some of the issues and learnings they have gleaned from the journey so far. (If you're interested in this session's Q&A click here.)



What stands out most for you now that we all have to work in virtual teams?


The role of personality


Some people are early adopters, embracing the excitement and challenge of change. Others find it hard to let go of well-established habits and practices, refined over years of diligent effort. In short, how people approach and deal with change is mediated by personality.


It is immensely useful to understand some basic principles of personality in order to have better empathy with yourself and others. You don’t need to be a psychologist to have an understanding of preferences, communication styles, and derailers. A basic awareness of something like your and your teammates' type preferences can be incredibly valuable in this time. This is important for a variety of reasons, not least of which, that it directly affects communication and relationships between team members, which can directly impact a team’s performance for the good or the bad.


Power reveals who you truly are.


The more power you have, the more freedom you have to act in accordance with your own goals, preferences, and values. This tendency makes the choice of a team leader very important. Especially now, since team leaders and members are likely to have more freedom, and thus more power in a virtual environment. Since you have more freedom, you also have more distractions and temptations surrounding you, and potentially derailing you.


It takes more from a leader to lead virtual teams ...


More time, planning, support, interaction with intent, understanding of team members, and administrative tasks.

Additionally, as mentioned above, when we work virtually, our true selves are more likely to be revealed, making it more likely for fault lines to be exposed. These fault lines can be any difference between group members, i.e. unconscious biases, differences in beliefs or opinion, the different types of information people pay attention to, or how people communicate and make decisions. Conflict is inevitable. Well managed, it can bring team members closer and develop trust. Managed poorly, conflict can very quickly create disengagement, which in a virtual world is much harder to spot, and even harder to repair.

Authoritative leaders may find it difficult to facilitate constructive conversation, create engagement, and manage performance.


What is your biggest challenge with your team working virtually?

Meeting overload


The anxiety caused by the loss of structure in how we work together, created quite a vicious cycle that a lot of people are currently experiencing. People started to schedule meetings for everything! This leads to congestion, less time to do work, slower response time, longer working hours, and inevitably burnout.

Another natural response driving the same result is that of over-inclusion.

Because we don't see everyone, we opt for over-inclusion - inviting everyone to a meeting, or cc-ing everyone on all emails. Since most of us assume that when we receive an invite to a meeting, it must be important for us to attend, and since we all have some degree of FOMO, we tend to over-accept, and end up with a calendar chock-full of meetings, without space for even a bathroom break.

This needs to be overtly reframed. Leaders should voice permission to the team to decline an invitation to attend. Include people, but don’t expect people to respond to everything.

Another useful tip is to shorten the standard meeting time from an hour to 30 minutes or even 20 minutes with clear agendas and goals. Remember Parkinson’s law - that work will fill the time allotted to it. Even though you cognitively know that you have to enforce boundaries, it is really difficult to do so. Our advice is to be very purposeful and specific when it comes to scheduling meetings.


Incivility going unnoticed


Virtual teams may be less in each other’s faces, but the need for connection and trust is still there, and even more critical. At one of our clients, we recently helped a team where personal agendas, unconscious biases, and egos seriously damaged the team's ability to deliver on its core purpose. The team was unable to align to their mission, and instead of focusing on results, a lot of emotional energy was wasted on granular issues, debating simple decisions, academic email showdowns, and incivility (rudeness or disrespect). This damaged relationships beyond where the team could repair it themselves and they had to get in outside help. The potential for these types of problems to remain hidden is higher in virtual teams, which may lead them to become more widespread and difficult to treat.


How can you manage virtual teams more effectively?


Knowing yourself and others on a deeper level allows you to listen better.

Knowing the personality and values of your team members as well as yourself is very useful in listening and responding appropriately. People may listen to the same message, but rarely do they hear the same thing. Further to that, people often employ different methods of making decisions. Thus, creating alignment in a team is not easy for a leader. Knowing the role personality plays in how a team interacts and problem solves, gives that leader an edge.

Another aspect to this is derailers. People tend to behave in predictable ways when faced with stress. These behaviours - often called derailers, may be quite useful to identify in yourself and others so as to deal with issues quickly and with empathy. If you, or a team member tends to isolate, or become aggressive during times of stress, it helps to see this as a natural stress response for them and help them deal with it, rather than to allow their stress response to trigger yours.


Pay attention to team composition


The question you need to ask yourself is: "How do I construct the best possible team, given the purpose of the team?". Remember that cognitive and technical capabilities are threshold capabilities. They are the entry tickets, but what makes a good team member are those social and interpersonal capabilities that allow team members to ensure that task conflict remains focused on the task and doesn't become a relationship issue. Once relationships are damaged in a team, that team's future effectiveness is at great risk, and the issue becomes increasingly difficult to isolate and manage.


Adjust your leadership style


The idea of contextual leadership is that you should employ different leadership styles appropriate to the context in which you are operating, in order to be effective. In the context of a virtual team, leadership might look very different to what you are used to. Your typical autocratic, egocentric, kingdom-building leader may have an increasingly difficult task. Now more than ever you need to adopt the mindset of a gardener. Someone who plants seeds and nurtures growth by providing resources and removing impediments. These servant leaders recognise that employees' greatest source of drive and motivation is their sense of autonomy, belonging, and safety. In order to maximise the output of the larger system, they need to empower its component parts and then try as much as possible to get out of the way.


Do people feel safe around you?


Psychological safety is a basic requirement for team performance. When individuals feel they can speak up, be heard, and are not filled with fear, team performance tends to increase greatly. To achieve this sense of safety and belonging is now harder than ever, because there is much less opportunity for spontaneous interaction and small talk. It might seem like a contradiction in terms, but leaders must proactively create opportunities for spontaneous conversation. Some of our clients have had success creating communal virtual conference rooms (i.e. 'tea-time' or a 'lunch-room'), where people can drop in and out as and when they want. You may feel like this is a waste of time - like you have more important things to work on, but you have to consider the downside if you don't. No work gets done if people don't feel like it. No innovation occurs if people don't trust each other. You will be the last to know if there are issues, because people don't feel safe around you. The key here is not to force participation, but simply to create the space for it to happen naturally.


What would you recommend for members of virtual teams?


Get clarity.

There are many benefits of working in a virtual team: no traffic, no one eating your yoghurt, saving some money, to name a few. However, it is common for some people to feel guilty about utilising the benefits of working virtually. Being at the office is sometimes used as a proxy to signal that you are busy and thus valuable to the company. Now that you are working virtually, you may feel a little unsettled. If you are such a person, connect with your leader and get a really, clear idea of the output that is expected of you, as well as how your effort and results will be measured. As soon as you have clarity about this, please relax and enjoy the benefits of working virtually. If you like to work at night, or need to take an extended lunch, do that, knowing that you are still delivering the value that you need to.