By now, many managers will have figured out that leading a team virtually isn’t the same as doing it in the workplace. And if you’re typical, you haven’t been given much (if any) training in how to address the differences. In other words, it’s trial by fire.
Fear not — neither you nor your teammates have to get burned. We, and the experts we’ve interviewed, have your back.
First off, be mindful of the fact that what we’re going through now is completely unnatural and unprecedented.
“Never before has the entire workforce [of New York City] been forced to both work from home and shelter in place,” says Terri Kurtzberg, associate professor at Rutgers Business School and author of “Virtual Teams: Mastering Communication and Collaboration in the Digital Age” (Praeger).
Add to that, the COVID-19 pandemic has put us all in crisis mode, which “puts social norms into a flux,” says Timothy Clark, CEO of LeaderFactor, a leadership consulting and assessment firm. In other words, don’t expect that everyone will behave normally.
Here’s how to deal with the shifted landscape:
Start by understanding that workers are under tremendous stress.
“Focus on the well-being of your team,” says Nicki Bellington, global head of remote work at Atlassian, which makes collaboration software for teams. “Understand that some people are lonely — living and working by themselves. Others may be sharing a small space. Still others may be working and parenting at the same time.”
Moreover, suddenly, “personal” and “professional” are no longer separate spheres, according to DeAnne Aussem, leadership development and well-being leader for PwC US and Mexico. “Managers must remember to take time to check on the well-being of their people or risk overlooking important cues that have an impact on work product,” she says.
“Unlike collaborating in an in-person setting, teaming virtually means often missing signals of anxiety, confusion or overwhelm. This is the kind of human-first leadership that’s often forgotten during periods of intense demand or change, but that become absolutely critical in the midst of a crisis.”
Check in regularly, but don’t nag
The mandate for managers at times like this is to set up each individual for success. “Each individual might need special accommodation,” says Bruce Tulgan, of Rainmaker Thinking and author of “It’s Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need” (Harper Collins).
This may mean checking in with workers more often than you would at the office. “There’s not the same opportunity to bump into someone while you’re getting coffee or walking down the hall,” says Bellington.
One way of monitoring someone’s progress without being a nag is to break projects into smaller chunks so you know that things are getting done. “Remember to focus on output, not who’s working when,” says Clark.
“Lead with trust, but verify,” says Bellington.
One thing managers must also do is to ask workers where they’re having trouble, says Kurtzberg. “They are not going to volunteer it.”
Keep virtual meetings on point
They should be shorter than in-person conferences in the office. “People can’t engage remotely the same way they can face-to-face,” says Clark, so keep them to an hour or less.
“Be intentional and explicit about the agenda,” says Tulgan, while Kurtzberg suggests letting attendees know if they are there to solve a problem, brainstorm or make a decision.
Aussem recommends a “value share” as the meeting opens. It can be as simple as a one-word answer to a question, like, how are you feeling right now? “Managers forget to check in with their teams at the human level,” she says.
Clark has a few interesting tricks up his sleeve. “Managers shouldn’t always lead meetings,” he says. “Rotate who conducts them.” Clark also advocates for a short training session (at most, 15 minutes) at the end of each gathering.
Pick up the phone
While you may feel that every time you talk to anyone remotely, video is the best way to go, think again. “Varying between voice and video is best,” says Kurtzberg who performed a study to see if results would be different. (They were not.) The downsides of video are that visuals can be distracting and queues can cause chaos.
Another interesting finding from Kurtzberg’s study: “People are more apt to lie when typing on their computer than on their phone. If they commit on paper, by the way, their word is practically gold.”
Check your technology
Chances are that you grabbed your computer when you left your office to shelter in place, with most of the technology you need to do your work, say experts. But in order to function as a manager, your Internet speed may need an upgrade, according to Mark Strassman, senior vice president and general manager of unified communications and collaboration at video-conferencing provider LogMeIn. “Whether your employer will reimburse you or not, it could bring you a much better experience,” he says.
Cultivate social experiences
When you are at the job, you’re likely to run into your colleagues grabbing a beverage or a snack, or walking by someone’s desk. That’s when small talk happens. But when communicating virtually, it’s usually all about work.
Experts recommend that you schedule virtual coffee meetings, lunch hours and even dinner parties via video. Atlassian has hosted video games, happy hours and book clubs. “Talk about anything but work,” she says.
Bret Watson, of Watson Adventures, took his scavenger-hunt business and created a virtual version. “Corporate clients were calling me asking what they could do to help workers have fun together as a team,” he says.
The idea is to help co-workers connect as human beings and create space with one another. “This is good for everyone, and we will all be better off for it, both personally and professionally,” says Aussem.