Success Tips from a Virtual Teaming Expert

Remote Teams: Success Tips from a Virtual Teaming Expert

Organizational change takes time to complete and even more time to master. It takes patience for the changes to take root. Now that teams work from home, and leaders are managing remote teams, there are new challenges causing the implementation of changes to be even more difficult. There are, however, a few things that organizations can do to make that change happen, as we’ve all become virtual team members in a very short period of time.

Trina Hoefling is an organizational development and transformational change consultant. She’s a graduate school professor, master teacher, strategic facilitator, leadership coach, and virtual team collaboration expert. She’s also the author of a book called Working Virtually, Transforming the Mobile Workplace and a contributing writer for The Handbook of High-Performance Virtual Teams

OT KungFu was grateful to learn more from her expertise about virtual team building, managing remote teams, and everything a leader should know about teamwork from home.

Remote Workforces and Virtual Teams

Is there a difference between these terms? 

There are certain terms you can use interchangeably: virtual worker, virtual team member, remote worker, all of those are interchangeable in day-to-day life. For our use, however, there is a difference between a virtual worker and a virtual team member

Do those employees who work from home need to depend on each other to get the job done? Are they coworkers who are in an independent team, like in a call center environment? Or are they team members that need to work together to deliver their final product or service to their customer? 

There are some things you need to know to engage the worker rather than the team member. Businesses treat every employee as a team member, whether they have to engage with others to get the work done or not because it’s collaborative. 

But, the truth of the matter is, when we’re moved suddenly to a virtual environment, we have to ask ourselves two questions: 

1) How much do the team members need to work together to get the job done and 

2) How much is the virtual manager the conduit of the work?

Leaders and Remote Teams

A good team leader is always the most powerful piece, but when managing remote teams, they become even more important.

 The virtual managers are the cream of the Oreo cookie. No matter what, they’re the primary connector of the workforce to the organization. Whether your manager is your primary contact or not, when you move to a virtual work environment, especially suddenly, that manager is your major connection with the organization, your major purpose giver, and your major contact.

It doesn’t remain that way, but at first, as people are trying to figure this out, that manager is a critical person in determining whether or not the employee can succeed. The virtual manager is the key influencer of work satisfaction and employee retention.

You take people away from their teammates, and they’re suddenly looking at their own four walls and wondering what signals they need to pay attention to and what’s most important. They need that manager to bring people together and recreate that connection to the workplace.

So what advice is there for a manager who’s just been thrust into this new virtual work environment, especially if they’ve never done it before? 

How do they hold people accountable?

How do they manage results? 

What do they need to do differently? 

 How do they know the team is really working?

First of all, the data suggests your team is working even harder because you don’t have those built-in stops and breaks. For a healthy, efficient team, the transition from team office work to teamwork from home is as simple as adding the word “virtual” to whatever you’re already doing. If you’re managing by results, now you’ll be managing by results virtually. The real question is:

How do you know they’re working now? How do you know they’re getting the job done in a normal office setting? 

Do you have a result and management process in place? Do you have a performance evaluation system? Do you do coaching sessions? How do you observe behavior? 

In short: What do you do now? 

If you’re managing by sight alone, you’re not managing. Whatever you sucked at before your team moved into a virtual space, you’re really going to suck at it now. If you didn’t know how to really manage your team before, it’s going to be even more difficult now.

It all comes down to communication skills, and if everyone is out-of-sight, and you have no idea how to manage or communicate with others when they’re out-of-sight, then that’s where you have to start.

Pick up the phone, have a conversation, get an understanding of what’s going on, and what you’ll find is, as time goes on, fewer phone calls will be needed. But, if you’re starting from the ground up, it’s going to depend on how often and frequently you’re contacting people to really find out where things are. If the correct systems of communication aren’t already in place, you’ll have to create them. Watch for areas where the disconnects are happening that may not have shown up before.

If you feel like somebody is not doing their job, or that a coworker’s not working as much, if there’s a system in place where the leader is regularly touching base with the team, and genuinely wants to connect, those issues will take on a completely different tone. 

The Top Skills of a Successful Virtual Leader 

First, good communication skills: written and oral are imperative. You don’t have to be an extrovert to be a good virtual manager. That’s a myth that we should dispel right now. You do have to care about your team members and be willing to reach out to them, but not as “big brother, big sister” oversight. What’s needed is the human-to-human connection. Authentic care about your team, communicated through the time and attention you dedicate to intentional, relational communication.

Those are the big things: interpersonal skills and caring. The other one is being clear, and helping the team be clear with each other so that you can start establishing trust in this new world. A good leader that is trusted can help a team accomplish that better and faster, rather than a leader that is hands-off and disconnected from the team.

The Needs of a Virtual Team

What about the virtual worker? What are they experiencing coming into this? Panic, fear, and isolation. 

Obviously, as a manager, there’s only so much you can do, but as far as work goes, some people are more comfortable using digital tools than others. Assuming that some of the team is not as comfortable, we still all have to use these tools, share information properly, and get on video conferencing once in a while. 

So how do we make this part of life separate from panic, fear, and isolation?

Workers and virtual professionals can get some fun-time learning to use the tools: doing a collaborative brainstorm on a whiteboard, some light-hearted practice playing with annotations, and other forms of opportunities. Allowing them to be a learning professional who is in transition, and communicating that the expectations have shifted, will simplify things and get people’s confidence and comfort up, so they can go back to focusing on the work they’re there to do, instead of how they’re having to do it. Virtual team building doesn’t have to be completely separate from practical work or run by an external team for a one-time experience.

Teaching and training team members together as a group is also important. Let’s do some fun things, let’s make some mistakes together, share part of this transition as a team, so that we avoid the panic and isolation that might set-in if you’re forced to go through this process without sharing the experience with others.

No matter who you are, mistakes will be made. There will be miscommunications. Just plan on them, and make an agreement to assume positive intent and talk about it. The little frustrations can really collect and show up in a virtual environment. You can hide it from each other, but you’re still steaming inside.

Creativity and breaking up the day-to-day can reveal really great information on the status of your team. A mix of virtual team-building activities that range from practical to relaxing or stress-relieving is vital to managing remote teams well. Virtual happy hours, free online webinars using Zoom, letting somebody else teach the whole team together, are just a few examples. 

Through these experiments, you can find the invisible threads that are connecting the individuals on your team. If that thread is M&M’s, start mailing out packets of hard boxed M&M’s to all the team members.

Be creative and fun, and realize that even in a non-crisis environment, when you are virtual, you need to make time to have some fun together, whether it’s a virtual pizza party or a virtual office tour.

But these are the extra pieces. What is the foundation of a high-performance virtual team?

3-Step Process for High-Performance Virtual Teams

The first step is simple. Develop your team

Identifying who’s going to be on your team, helping them get to know each other, creating the right dynamic between team-members through virtual team-building opportunities, and negotiating agreements. 

The second step is to support your team. This is a shared responsibility with the manager and the team members. Team care, clear flow of communication, and project scope have to be done together. Managing a remote team doesn’t mean the leader has to drown themselves in responsibility. The problem isn’t that we’re asking too much from our team members who work from home, it’s that maybe we’re not using their energy, gifts, and talents properly.

One of the most disappointing findings right now is that before the crisis, 70% of virtual team members reported they felt they were not trusted, and that they were left out of critical communications which impacted their ability to do their job. 

That’s high. 

Distance and Unconscious Bias

We could go on and on about distance and unconscious bias, but we’ll cover it quickly. 

We think like cavemen. We’re creatures of habit and we tend to trust the people we see right next to us, or at least we pay more attention to them. In our unconscious mind, we believe that somebody far away can’t be as dangerous or as helpful, because they’re not there. It’s inaccurate in today’s world, but our brain still works the same way.

This is an opportunity to get into better habits: be more intentionally inclusive, right? Nothing like a good crisis to help you grow your leadership skills!

Likewise, the team members have the responsibility to speak up and ask. It’s not all on the manager. The best way to keep each other engaged, informed, and supported is by delivering results. We all want to be part of a successful team, and if we deliver results, then we can learn to work together. 

For more great resources on teamwork from home, managing remote teams, or virtual team building, check out the combined brainpower of Jennifer Long and Sandi Verrecchia on the OT KungFU podcast, or learn more about their individual work through Management Possible and  Satori Consulting Inc.

Jen is the owner of Management Possible® focused on training and coaching multi-level management and leadership individuals and teams nationally and globally. Sandi is the owner of Satori®  Consulting inc. a global consulting firm focused on helping organizations solve complex problems in strategy, leadership and governance.

The Hybrid Workplace Challenge

Strategy and Decision-Making

What does going back to work look like? What is a hybrid workplace, at its core? What does all of this mean for leaders? What do we have to do differently? 

These are the top questions we address in today’s episode of The OT Kung Fu Podcast.

This is the time to get rid of the policies that don’t work and the systems that are no longer serving the team. Question everything before reopening, or introducing big changes like a hybrid workplace.

There’s no going back to normal. You’re never going back to the same thing. It’s not going to be the same because no one is the same. We are all thinking differently about work. We are all feeling differently about what’s important. Just by virtue of changing as people, how we think about work, what work needs to be for us, and what’s going to create meaning for you, has shifted. Just because you’re returning to a building, doesn’t mean the job, or the environment, will be the same.

There’s a big balancing act between the short-term and the long-term when it comes to leading and decision making. What are the short-term decisions that have to be made? What are the long-term decisions that have to be made? Do they conflict? Will they be too much to handle at once? How do they relate to one another?

Reshaping Your Organization

The changes that have occured in the last few years have been a challenge, but they have also created  an opportunity for companies to rethink how they want to structure their culture. It’s an opportunity that most leaders never get: the chance to restart, a totally clean slate. The things that we previously held as gospel truth have now been proven incomplete, and companies must respond in a fearless, open-minded way.

Communication and Leadership

These two come hand-in-hand when it comes to successful restructuring. Making changes, while necessary, can be incredibly difficult without support and unity, both within leadership and the team as a whole.

What is most important to your employees? What has their experience as a team member in the last couple years taught them? 

How are you starting the dialogue and conducting the conversation? Are you just sitting in a room of leaders making decisions on your own? This might have been necessary as teams and companies had to simplify to survive, but for growth, you need as much information as possible.

Moving out of Crisis Management

Next, it’s time to move on from the strategies that worked when you were in crisis-mode. 

For a while now, the norm has been a group of four or five people making the decision for the whole organization, without engaging with the rest of the team. While this is helpful to keep things moving in complicated times, this tendency isn’t good for the long-run. 

Many leaders were so focused on pushing through, and were often so desperate to keep their organization alive, they’ve now continued to use the same strategies. 

As companies are focusing on transitioning out of this phase, they are tapping into their workers, doing a lot of tiny pulsing and surveying, and are investing in their employees as people.

Before, leaders simply told them what to do, but now the principle of leading with empathy is considered a necessary and important piece of success.

Essential Skills

Empathy is a great example of the shifting values and essential skills in the workplace. 

Across the board, flexibility has been identified as the number one skill for effective leading.

Especially in the United States, there’s this idea that, when it comes to empathy, wellbeing, health, and problems in general, “there’s a department for that”. It’s not necessary to make it a priority, and the leaders certainly don’t want to “waste their time” talking about things that aren’t directly business-related. 

The conversation really starts there: how do you really allow people to be forthcoming?

Things that would have been the typical water cooler talk back in the office are even more underground because it’s an online chat now, or a text between coworkers, sharing their discomfort with returning to the office.

From a manager’s perspective, the training that is needed is on flexibility and empathy.

Addressing Burnout

In Jen and Sandi’s experience, 100% of people they’ve talked to have experienced burnout.

People feel exhausted, overworked, overwhelmed, even to the point of hopelessness. Burnout, naturally, leads to a series of questions:

Can I keep going like this?

Do I want to?

Burnout is a huge thing, and utilizing a hybrid workspace hasn’t been the solution to that problem.

In fact, all of the over-communicating, the distractions, all of the ways life begins to blur into your workspace, the disconnectedness, the isolation, and even the apathy that can grow over months all adds fuel to the fire, leading you closer to complete burnout.

You’re pushing outside your own comfort zone. You don’t feel like you’ve mastered anything, and you’re not sure what’s permanent and what’s temporary.

While there’s only so much that can be done to help, there are practical ways for leadership to invest in their team members to lend support and prevent burnout. 

When it comes to maintaining those work/life boundaries, having a designated home office space is incredibly important. Unfortunately many people are still working from the kitchen table, in crappy chairs. 

The goal is to avoid death by a thousand paper cuts. 

It’s all the little small things that pile on top of each other that leads to burnout, when a small gesture of empathy can relieve the burden.

Going Forward with a Hybrid Workplace

Even in the hybrid workplace, new cultural norms are being built up. Right now, individuals, teams, and leaders are both actively and passively deciding what is now acceptable and what’s not. 

Is helping your kids in the middle of the day an acceptable thing in your work environment? Maybe, maybe not. They probably won’t be using online school anymore, but they may still have toddlers at home because daycare isn’t an option anymore. 

All of these pieces need to be considered when deciding what works for your organization. You can put together what you think is a good, meaningful, purposeful strategy for their organization and yet still lose some critical talent because they want to work on-site 100% of the time, or because they feel too insecure with the technology when it comes to working remotely.

Sandi and Jen believe there’s going to be a huge shift or upheaval of key talent, unless you can master your strategy. As a whole, this process is a test of test of your values.

You have to ask yourself, your leaders, and your employees what is really important. There’s been a change in what we see as doable, which impacts what is actually doable. People have taken stock of what is truly important to them, organized their priorities, and values, and they’re able to stand in them a little bit more than before. 

The question is, will workplaces respect their newfound priorities, and empower them?

Short-Term vs. Long-Term

In general, the best thing you can do is encourage the heart. The whole practice of supporting people, developing their skills, and creating meaning with them in the organization requires critical conversations. 

You need to balance the ability to make the best short-term decisions while maintaining the best long-term vision you can.

There are very few people, very few leaders, who are actually skilled in this way innately. Training these principles should be commonplace, rather than a last resort. 

When shit hits the fan two years from now, or whenever the inevitable issue arises, will your leaders and employees have the skills and tools they need? Will they be able to hit the ground running?

Regardless of what stage your business is at, building and maintaining your team is the key to short-term and long-term success. There needs to be a creative, open, flexible environment where no one is getting judged for their differences in perspective, opinions, needs, or skills. 

You have to create an environment that will utilize opportunities to reshape the hybrid workplace culture into something empowering, something your team can believe in and dedicate themselves to.

For more resources like this, head over to OT KungFu’s website for podcasts, blogs, and more. To find more about Sandi and Jen, you can find them on their respective sites: Satori Consulting, and Management Possible.

Jen is the owner of Management Possible® focused on training and coaching multi-level management and leadership individuals and teams nationally and globally. Sandi is the owner of Satori®  Consulting inc. a global consulting firm focused on helping organizations solve complex problems in strategy, leadership and governance.

Episode 17 – Leading Remotely

Episode 17 – Leading Remotely

Jen and Sandi have an in-depth conversation with Ben Harris, President of Production Solutions, about how to be an effective leader when leading a primarily remote workforce. Ben shares his experience, insights and strategies after having transitioned his company to over 70% remote working in 2015.

For Ben’s website, Click Here

Jen’s Website

Sandi’s Website

Episode 13 – Upskilling Your Team

Episode 13 – Upskilling Your Team

With rapid change comes the need for new skills as well as updated skills. This podcast covers some thinking and strategies around the need for on-going skills development, some solutions on how to incorporate skills development as managers and leaders as well as some of the most critical skills people need regardless of role and experience.

Episode 11 – Tips from a Virtual Teaming Expert

Episode 11 – Tips from a Virtual Teaming Expert

Sandi and Jen welcome special guest Trina Hoefling. Trina is an expert in Virtual Teaming.  Jen, Sandi and Trina discuss working as a virtual team and many of the issues that crop up and how to solve them.

Trina is the author of the book Working Virtually: Transforming the Mobile Workplace  and you can get more information and help at Trina’s website  thesmartworkplace.com