With much of human interaction having moved to the virtual world, we have seen a plethora of ‘how to’ videos, tip sheets, webinars, and conference calls providing valuable information for how to hold a meeting and work in teams virtually. I participated in one such webinar with a group of colleagues who focus on team effectiveness, including Dr. Ruth Wageman (author “Senior Leadership Teams”, faculty Harvard University, and co-founder of 6 Team Conditions) and Dr. Krister Lowe (Senior Partner at Team Diagnostics, LLC and Founder of the Team Coaching Zone podcast.)

The unique challenges of moving to virtual teams

Of particular interest to me was something Ruth shared regarding some of the biggest “watch outs” for leaders of virtual teams. These are things she has seen happen when teams move from “in person” to virtual, and they are not your usual fare of tips.

1. Interdependence is essential for virtual teams

There is a tendency to restructure normally collaborative tasks into individual tasks – meeting only for updates and coordination. At first blush, it may seem the logical thing to do since it feels more cumbersome for people to collaborate virtually. However, my experience argues otherwise.

  • First, it is very easy to collaborate virtually. In fact, in some ways its easier. The technology to meet “face to face” is proven, sharing documents is easy, and there are some very good collaboration tools that are more natural to use virtually than in person such as Mural, Miro, Group Map, Trello, Google Docs, and many more. Many tools are specific to a process (like Agile/Scrum) or functions (like Marketing, Sales etc.). A side benefit is that working virtually encourages people to become more familiar with tools that they may have avoided before.
  • Second, the last thing people need now is more isolation. Keeping tasks collaborative builds connection, maintains the feel of being part of a team, and will bring the team closer together. And as Ruth pointed out, “shorter and more frequent interactions build interdependence in virtual teams”.

2. Reaffirm the team purpose

In dialogue with your team, examine the team’s purpose, and what stakeholders need from it. Then determine what you can set aside, at least for now. Keeping the team focused on the critical priorities brings much more clarity and productivity. The CFO of a large manufacturing organization told me that a regular standing meeting that always ran for two hours before COVID now consistently takes 45 minutes or less. They are much more focused on the critical issues, avoid discussion tangents, and are “ruthless” cutting out time spent on matters that can be more effectively addressed in other ways.

3. Set short term goals for the virtual team

The darker and cloudier the view becomes, the more you need to focus on the ground right in front of you. During times of significant change and challenge, skilled change leaders set short term, achievable goals. This helps employees remain focused on the work and maintains the feeling of forward momentum. The more uncertainty in the environment, the harder it is for people to remain focused on longer term outcomes.

4. Conduct “Before Action Reviews (BAR)”

Some team norms and ways of working need to change to fit the new context. Unlike After Action Reviews, the BAR is a forward-looking process for the team to consider the experience they collectively bring and identify potential challenges ahead. To anticipate potential barriers, particularly when normal modes of communicating have been disrupted. It helps them to define norms and work practices that the new virtual environment demands. After Action Reviews only look backwards for lessons of experience to be carried forward into the next project, and this often doesn’t happen.

5. Avoid becoming directive with your virtual team

Our experience with teams that move to a virtual context is a tendency for leaders to become more directive. They generally feel less in control and have less visibility into the work processes of the team. So, to compensate they get more involved in details to “make sure” nothing falls through the cracks. It is important that leaders resist this instinctive response. Instead, focus even more on team member inclusion and help the team with self-coaching tools. Find ways of sharing leadership and establish forums for the team to collectively share learnings and make creative adjustments.

Virtual teams may be the next normal

It looks like the need to remain in a virtual working context will be with us for a while. Early feedback from clients tells us that they find advantages that lead to higher productivity and greater focus and efficiency. When the threat of COVID has passed, we will likely see many of the new work practices remain. If so, then it makes sense to embrace the “next normal” now and look at what we can learn about how teams can thrive.