Coronavirus: Four rules for leading a virtual team

16 April 2020

By Davide Nicolini

With millions of people across the world in lockdown, working from home has become a necessity as organisations struggle to keep their operations going while offices are out of bounds.

Along with my own research I surveyed the companies, public and non-profit organisations that make up Warwick Business School’s Knowledge & Innovation Network (KIN) to find out what is working and assemble some best practice guidance for managing virtual teams during the pandemic.

 

1 Establish rules, norms and a charter

Both the experience of the organisations and the research suggest that virtual teams need to be designed and nurtured a lot more carefully than face-to-face ones.

This is because the norming stage of forming a virtual team – ie the bonding and building of a group identity – tends to overlap with the forming phase – where roles and processes are established – and there is not much room for storming, which is where the group’s purpose is made clear and how decisions will be made going forward are agreed.

So it is important that when virtual teams are set-up members agree on ways of communicating, norms of interaction, how to track work, how decisions are reached and other working practices and conventions.

It is also important to clarify roles, lines of accountability and who is in charge of what. Plus, put the groups rules and convetions in a charter. Here are some examples of what should be in a charter: 

  • We will keep notes of all meetings.
  • Do not wait until the last minute before letting others know you cannot deliver a task.
  • Acknowledge receiving a message within the same working day.
  • If you do not understand ask for clarification.

A charter is important because the nature of virtual work means that every time there is a misunderstanding it wastes yours and other people’s time, and possibly lots of it.

One of the things to consider when moving to work virtually is that the technology should fit the task and not vice versa. Spending a lot of time on Zoom or Microsoft Teams is tiring and will become very old, very quickly.

When information needs to be pushed in one direction use text-based media such as email, chats and threads. Save video conferencing for important and complex tasks that require squaring different ideas and perspectives, for example evaluating ideas, negotiation and resolving problems.

2 Make the unsaid said

When working virtually we lack opportunities to clarify things using informal means, such as popping into somebody’s office or chatting after a meeting.

It is, therefore, important to be explicit in ways that we may not be when we work shoulder-to-shoulder. Accordingly, it is vital to communicate and set personal as well as group expectations early and explicitly.

If you are a manager, set goals and expectations openly and clearly, while soliciting and providing feedback often and clearly. Research shows that people are less reactive and emotional when interacting at a distance.

However, people also tend to be less guarded and more negative in writing than they would be face-to-face. We tend to be more aggressive and say things we should not say in person (think of Twitter). Negativity thrives online.

One suggestion is to avoid telling somebody that they have made a mistake, or did not do what was expected over email or via text. Use conferencing for these delicate tasks.

But keep in mind that the converse also applies. Emails are not great at communicating warm feelings – research has found receivers tend to read positive messages neutrally. If you want to convey positive emotions err on the side of caution and be clear: use the right adjectives and even emojis.

 

3 Fine tune communication

Communicating is critical working in virtual teams. Virtual team communication is both a medium and a (scarce) resource.

Quality not quantity is the name of the game so use targeted messages, forget the ‘reply all’ button. Make all communications predictable and clear.

To avoid misunderstanding and to stay, and keep everybody, in sync use closed-loop communication – the simple routine airline stewards use to avoid tragic mistakes. That is, send a message specifying clearly who the expected receiver is (use their name) and then ask that the receiver repeats the critical part of the message back – to confirm it has been received and understood. If you do not receive an answer double-check.

In virtual teams it is easy for people to fall ‘out of the loop’ or become absorbed by local issues and forget to inform others.

Team members can also help by ensuring that regular communication is maintained, that they keep others informed of their situation and of any difficulties, while also avoiding long silences.

Communication asymmetries are difficult to fix, but more importantly they are difficult to spot – and when they surface the damage may have been done already.

4 Manage time and trust

One of the most interesting findings from the literature is that virtual workers are at their best when their activity proceeds in bursts.

Staying in touch and exchanging information all the time, by asking for feedback or sharing ideas continuously for instance, can dramatically decrease productivity.

To avoid this, alternate between periods of of online exchange and periods of solo work (ie turn your phone and email off).

Trust is another critical aspect to managing virtual teams that needs careful management as it is difficult to build online.

This is why we need established norms that can support mutual trust. Other ways to build trust are to provide mutual feedback, prompt responses and proactive signals of ‘I trust you’. These small things will go a long way.

One of the critical roles of managers in virtual work is to maintain a positive and supportive environment. Do not fill your online meetings with slides. Allow time for conversations, for people to check upon each other. Be inclusive and nurture psychological safety.  

Working remotely can be exciting but also distracting; it can make people more productive, especially those who have a difficult work-life balance to juggle, but it also makes people apprehensive: will I get the recognition I deserve? Will I have enough face-time for my manager to notice me? So take these anxieties into account.

 

 

It is likely that when COVID-19 is defeated the new normal will look different from the old one. Very likely we will question why we need to travel hours to attend a meeting instead of talking online.

But should we expect to work virtually all the time? Crystal balls are in short supply these days, but past research is very clear.

For the last two decades multiple studies have made a strong case for the necessity to combine in person and virtual teamwork: ways of working that included face-to-face interaction, albeit for limited periods, outperformed those based on virtual and remote work only. So, do not give away your desk or your seat at the nearest café just yet.

 

Davide Nicolini is Professor of Organisation Studies and Director of KIN. He teaches Knowledge, Work and Innovation on MSc Management of Information Systems & Digital Innovation.

Some of the content in this article is drawn from a webinar run by the KIN Network, watch it here. 

Click here to find out more about KIN and the network's member-only events, a content-rich and secure online MemberSpace, a number of online events and residential quarterly workshops.

For more articles like this download Core magazine here.

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