Guest contributor Simon Mac Rory
It is never too late to start afresh. A key recommendation for all leaders who now find themselves managing their teams remotely is to Stop. Take some time out. Re-boot the team to establish absolute clarity about “What” we do and more importantly “How” we do it. Leaders need to initiate this fundamental, team-based reflection and recognise that, in the context of Intentional Leadership, they will need to change their previously held philosophy to both leading the team and coaching the individual team members. The inclusive nature of the approach will support the levels of psychological safety within the team and the perceptions of the leader’s effectiveness by the members.
In the previous article we explored the challenges leaders faced when suddenly finding themselves leading a virtual team in the midst of a global pandemic. The key recommendation: leaders need to recognise that for their team to have the best chance of success, a new style of leadership would be necessary. In this article we want to outline a critical initiative for leaders to undertake.
While it may be counter-intuitive, leaders should seriously consider starting afresh
The crisis will undoubtedly put pressure on everyone in the organisation to maintain or increase activity whatever that may be for each team. Leaders should avoid the temptation to just respond by ramping up effort. Take a step back for a moment and think. This is effectively a team operating in an entirely new, virtual workplace. The old ways of operating (and leading) are likely to be inadequate. Leaders should re-launch the team. This “re-fresh” should not be just a top-down communication cascade from the leader but a genuine team effort with everyone participating.
This should include time spent on clarifying the team’s purpose (especially if expectations are changing) and what the key priorities are and should be. Goal setting and alignment are practices that should, of course, always be a major focus for co-located teams and a critical aspect of the leader’s responsibilities. Our experience would suggest most time fail to carry out this fundamental aspect effective team-working sufficiently well. Failure to undertake this with a remote team will be calamitous. While defining the expected outcomes from individual team members (the ‘What’) is important establish the Process Outcomes (the ‘How’) is more important.
What activities, if executed, will allow the goals to be accomplished?
If the goals have changed significantly and this has an impact on roles and responsibilities, make sure this is not only a 1:1 conversation between the Team Member and the leader. All team members must know everyone’s new role and responsibilities. Indeed, leaders should articulate how they plan to manage in the new environment and redefine the role of the leader as a communications’ hub and a source of support. Identifying stakeholders and their expectations should also be revisited to identify any changes or reinforce their importance.
Establishing or refreshing the team’s operating principles / code of conduct / team charter is an essential as part of this relaunch. This should focus on the protocols for team communication/meetings, emails and video calls, the cadence of meetings (team and 1:1s – particularly taking cognisance of time-zones if the team is spread across different countries) ground rules for on-line behaviours and when the team will take time to reflect on how well they are working together.
This process is more than anything about removing barriers caused by lack of clarity and highlighting the role of communications in the team’s operating practices. It will form the bedrock for building the levels of trust within the team.
As part of this process it’s worth asking the members how they think the team needs to replace the “water cooler” moments. Those serendipitous conversations where so much informal communication and socialisation occurs. Teams may offer suggestions such as lunchtime meetings or Friday evening “Quarentinis” via Teams/Zoom/GoToMeeting etc.
In “normal times” virtual team-working throws up challenges that co-located teams don’t have
With the current stay-at-home directives and consequent social isolation, these challenges are even more pronounced. Getting the actual work done may be relatively straightforward at home, but it’s the informal moments that are absent. Those brief chats which provide the steady flow of informal but critical information, maintain friendships, support networks and social connections that helps the team and organisation flourish.
Currently there is a plethora of posts and advice focussing on the social aspects of virtual teaming. Creating opportunities to connect as people not just task interdependencies is an important early task for leaders of virtual teams. These check-in opportunities over lunch or coffee breaks should be considered an investment, despite the difficulty in quantifying the return on that investment. It minimises the potential for social isolation and loneliness. However, as these are often “photogenic” opportunities and often get great social media attention, don’t be fooled into thinking these are the core actions of ensuring trust in the virtual arena. Unless the suggestions in the Team re-launch above are undertaken, teams will potentially see this as a token gesture from the leader’s handbook and not a genuine attempt to build quality relationships between team members.
Leaders should ensure they get the communications balance right
Currently we hear of both extremes occurring from minimal communication to excessive contact. As teams may be adjusting to the new ways, 10-minute team video meetings each morning might be a valuable starting point. Recommend to people that when contacting each other during the day they should where possible use video calls. Acknowledging individual’s specific circumstances with working from home, may mean leaders agree different working hours with team members according to their needs. This should be part of the discussion about team operating practices but as far as possible be flexible and allow members determine their hours. There needs to be some core team hours when everyone is at work, allowing for the team meetings and socialising activities.
The goals of the team may drive the cadence of team meetings and the regular 1:1s leaders must engage in. Be mindful of the potential for this to be become a highly centralised system with the leader at the hub and spokes extending out separately to team members. Leaders need to ensure that team members are engaging with each other and not just the leader. Explore the opportunities for team members to work in smaller groups on specific aspects of work or mini projects.
Virtual teams need to ensure that time is made available for reflection
Time to discuss “how” the team is functioning and not just the “what” the team is trying to achieve. At the outset this process should happen with greater frequency. For teams who do not normally engage in reflection there can initially be awkward silences with everyone sitting in the room. Conducting this in a virtual environment can be even more challenging. So, leaders need to prepare appropriately or seek the assistance of a facilitator. If the early sessions struggle to gain traction, keep going. Prepare agendas, give time to the preparation, encourage people to speak up and speak out. Leaders must follow-up the conversations with a summary of the discussion, the agreed actions and members suggestions. Contact should be made with each person to discuss the summary and ask then for their comments and feedback. This can then be incorporated as a subsequent document sent out to everyone after the 1:1 calls.
Completely remote teams have suddenly emerged for most organisations that are still fortunate to be working. There will be an adjustment phase and there will be challenges. But the most critical change is to the practices of leadership. Leadership in the virtual world requires managers to be intentional, more attentive, communicate more (much more!) reduce the emphasis on emails and up the virtual face-to-face time. Productivity will be maintained or even increased but be mindful of people isolating and concentrating on their personal work tasks at the expense of the team goals. To help position the team for success the team re-launch is an essential activity to ensure clarity and agreement about teamwork in a time of isolation.
In the next article we will outline the key platforms and video conferencing skills required to communicate effectively in this new world.
Dr Simon Mac Rory’s next article – Teamwork: New tools for the new world of work – will be published on Friday 8 May at midday (BST).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Simon Mac Rory is an Entrepreneur, OD (Organisational Development) Specialist and Academic. He is currently the CEO of The ODD Company and CEO of The Guardian Service Limited. He is also author of Wake Up and Smell the Coffee published in 2019 by LID Publishing.
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