We are in enforced isolation, spending our days in the warm glow of a computer screen, perhaps never getting out of our pajamas. But people still hunger for human contact found only in teams. Lucky for us, we’ve got Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, ReadyTalk, and any number of ways to meet virtually. But if you want to create an effective team, or keep the team you have in good working order, it takes more than just logging on to a site and being business presentable from the waist up.
The fundamentals of teamwork are the same whether you’re sitting around the conference table or sitting at a kitchen table. Leading a virtual team takes preparation, good communication, a way to resolve conflicts, and methods of assessing performance. This is challenging in our “new normal,” but not impossible if team leaders remember the fundamentals.
Virtual Team Preparation
As a team leader, you may host the meeting and send out a schedule to keep the team on track. But when you meet remotely, here are some other considerations to keep in mind:
Set the Agenda
Each meeting should have a clear objective that addresses attainable, measurable goals. Before the meeting, the leader should send a request for input to each team member. These may be progress reports or actions to be considered. Brevity will be appreciated by all participants. Give each reporting member or sub-team a time limit and enforce it. Allow additional time for feedback and questions.
Start with Icebreakers
Occasional use of icebreakers lightens the mood, injects some humor, and reminds everyone of our common humanity. They motivate the most reticent team members to contribute. Activities can be as simple as asking people questions about favorite vacation spots or restaurants, playing a simplified Pictionary, or prompting members to produce an object in their environment that starts with a certain letter and tell a story about it. For more ideas for virtual icebreakers, see https://blog.flock.com/5-virtual-meeting-icebreakers.
Acknowledge and Appreciate
As an effective team leader, you will make sure that every team member is heard and acknowledged during the meeting and afterward with followup emails or texts showing appreciation and support. You should also be aware of the special challenges each team member may be facing working from home. Childcare, homeschooling, elder care, and other obligations may compete for the attention of some of your team. Scheduling meetings at convenient times, arranging for videotaped reports, and giving grace for interruptions – in short, flexibility – will go a long way toward building trust and mutual understanding.
Virtual Team Communication
Communication – giving clear directions, listening, encouraging feedback – is essential in any teambuilding effort, but it can be a challenge virtually. Time delays, technical glitches, and unfamiliarity with the technology can cause misunderstanding and frustration. These can be mitigated somewhat by tasking technical support personnel with giving a tutorial in your chosen communication app, establishing protocols, like hand raising, to prevent “talkovers” during team delays, and providing transcriptions or videos of meetings to the team members who lose internet connection. Because voice message is sometimes garbled, encourage your team members to get in the habit of repeating a statement or question before responding, prefaced with: “What I heard you say is …” This is an effective technique even in face-to-face communication, in that it gives the speaker a chance to clarify or amend a statement.
Virtual Team Conflict Resolution
In this fraught new environment, where it seems that everything is at stake and crises grow by the minute, the normal stress involved in working with others can be magnified. Encourage your team to acknowledge this new reality going into any dispute or difference of opinion, taking care to value each other’s perspectives and solutions. HR personnel can be valuable resources in addressing teams, arbitrating conflicts, and providing needed support and counseling. A dependence on emails is especially tricky. Counsel your team members to hold off hitting the “send” button until after a cooling-off period and a chance to review and revise their communication. In many cases, a phone conference with a third party arbitrator is preferable to emails in resolving conflicts.
A team activity of any kind is only as valuable as the takeaway, and virtual meetings are particularly subject to this rule. A number of methods are available to you: a written debrief to which all members contribute, a timeline of goals accomplished and scheduled, a video from a project manager that acknowledges the team effort, and gives the team a sense of context in a larger operation. Even in this time of uncertainty and sacrifice, make a special effort to acknowledge achievement with awards and incentives.
The time will come when the conference room table will be dusted off, team members will once again shake hands, and normal routines will be restored.
Until that day comes, your challenge is to adapt the fundamentals of good teamwork to a virtual environment, leading with focus, flexibility, compassion, and a good dose of humor. Your team will emerge from this crisis stronger, more committed to their goals, and more appreciative of each other. The entire Group Dynamix Team hopes that everyone is staying connected during social distancing and sheltering in place. For more tips, check out our Teaming Tips to Connect page with more tips on staying connected and strong during the COVID-19 crisis.