How to Lead Virtual Teams Successfully

COVID-19 has made remote work a necessity, but that doesn't mean that teams have to sacrifice communication. 

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COVID-19 has made working virtually necessary as a result of quarantining at home and social distancing. This means that learning to successfully lead in a virtual environment is now an essential core competency of organizational leaders.

A number of leaders have found that the virtual working experience has been positive in reinforcing collaboration and communication between the members of their teams and ensuring their commitment. Based on our work as executive coaches, we offer the following tips to ensure success as a virtual leader.

Reinforce Purpose and Values

During quarantine, many employees have become more self-reflective, thinking about what is really crucial to them, both in their lives and at work. As your team reflects, you will want them to see their work as both meaningful and connected to their personal values. Continuing to emphasize purpose in your team communications will help them to make this connection.

Sharing more about who you are as a person may also help them to connect your organization’s values to theirs. After all, this experience of working from home is a great equalizer: we are all working unexpectedly at home and have to learn to integrate our personal lives with our work lives in ways we may never have done before or even imagined.

Check in and Empathize

This unanticipated experiment in working virtually may be proving successful, but some people may be finding it stressful. Consider checking in regularly with your team, asking them what’s working well and what isn’t; what ideas they have for establishing norms for working virtually; what feedback they have on the timing of meetings, their length and communication methods; and how you could do a better job of communicating with them.

Trust and understanding are even more important in a virtual environment. In losing the ability to be together face to face with your team in person, you are missing out on a form of exchange that can be a highly rewarding and crucial aspect of working together. How you let your team know that you care for and support them is especially important in a virtual environment. Meeting more often with individual staff may also be necessary. In your check-ins, ask them how things are going at home, what worries they have, and what you could do to better help them.

Adapt Your Communication

For video meetings, ensure that the camera can capture your body language, which becomes even more important in a virtual meeting. Pay attention to voice intonation. For the background view behind you, using a real background (i.e. your home office) rather than a fake one can help portray a sense of genuineness and approachability.

Make meetings shorter – not more than one hour – as virtual meetings are more intense and tiring. For longer meetings, consider using breakout groups or surveys, and demonstrate more engagement with the team, designating different members to lead parts of the discussion or even chair the meeting. Provide a meaningful opportunity for your team to engage once every 10 to 15 minutes.

Encourage Support and Collaboration

Your team members are likely  giving their attention to clients, you, and their families, with whom they are spending more time. But are they getting enough attention themselves? Using coaching skills to manage this aspect of working virtually is key to supporting your staff. Consider having team members work in pairs to develop buddy support teams responsible for checking in with each other. Meeting breakout sessions are also an effective tool for staff to work together on specific tasks and report back to the group.

Optimize Technology

Ensure that you are taking full advantage of whatever technology tool you are using. Consider designating a co-host of your virtual meeting who can handle some of its technical and housekeeping aspects, such as creating breakout groups and setting up polls for use during the meeting, so that you can concentrate on content. You will also need to identify any IT issues that have arisen as a result of employees now working from home. Security is a vital issue that needs appropriate attention.

What’s next?

What becomes the new normal is up to us. During this period of virtual working, leaders have an opportunity to rethink and reshape their relationships with their teams. This will help develop new ways to achieve goals and create a vital, productive, and engaged working environment that motivates team members to achieve their goals.

Ethan Hanabury ’85 is an executive coach and organizational consultant, former senior associate dean of Columbia Business School, and former Unilever Best Foods brand manager.

Linda Stoddart, PhD, is an executive coach and organizational consultant, an adjunct faculty member at Haute École de Gestion in Geneva, Switzerland, and a former academic director at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies.

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