Enhancing Teamwork in a Fully Virtual World: 4 Practical Steps Every Manager Should Take

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Never before have we seen such a sudden and complete shift to remote work.

Of course, people have been working remotely for years now. But, traditionally, remote teams have been co-located at least part of the time. Fully distributed teams existed, but they were in the minority.

Then, COVID-19 arrived. In the blink of an eye, teams became fully distributed, and business operations moved to fully virtual environments. Even though most business continuity plans include remote work as a planned emergency response action, details around implementation are often vague. As a result, many of the workers on these newly remote teams have been thrust into a new world of work with little notice, few formal guidelines, and minimal resources.

On the bright side, managers have a unique opportunity to impact worker satisfaction and performance in a remote environment.

To date, considerable research has been done on the individual and job-related factors that lead to success in remote work. Findings largely indicate that important outcomes are dependent on the extent of time a person has spent working remotely and the type of work they are performing. There is also a third factor to consider: a manager’s willingness to allow remote work. Research shows that when managers are supportive and accepting of remote work, employees feel more trusted, which in turn increases their commitment to the organization, inspires knowledge sharing, and strengthens relationships with coworkers.

4 Ways to Support Employee Engagement in a Remote Environment

Although remote work carries many potential benefits, recent evidence suggests those who work remotely more than 50 percent of the time may not realize all of those benefits. The quality of coworker relationships can suffer when employees spend most of their time working remotely, and perceived social support may decline when employees lack intermittent opportunities to close the gaps created by distance.

In the past, these negative effects of remote work could be avoided if employees only telecommuted part-time. Now, for purposes of business continuity, remote work is full-time — regardless of an employee’s desire or capacity to do so.

Managers’ reactions to this new reality can further exacerbate the situation for employees. Many managers are new to working fully remotely, and they are trying to adjust to leading people without directly observing task performance. Some managers may even have an active aversion to remote work, preferring to “manage by walking around.”

But the pitfalls of distributed teams can still be avoided, even in a fully remote work environment. Managers can use the following tips to enhance virtual communication, foster collaboration, manage expectations, and coach fully distributed teams toward successful outcomes.

1. Communicating Virtually

By taking steps to strengthen the quality of supervisor-employee relationships, managers can provide an important buffer against the potentially negative outcomes of full-time remote work. Research shows that a supervisor’s trust and support, as well as the quality of communication with coworkers, are among the most important predictors of satisfaction for remote workers.

However, communication frequency and quality tend to decline when teams become fully distributed. To adjust, managers and employees should meet more often to ensure individualized attention and appropriate support are given to each team member.

For effective weekly one-on-one meetings, managers should consider prioritizing the following four things in each conversation:

  1. Build the relationship: Set aside time for unplanned and informal communication.
  2. Discuss the work: Clarify priorities and milestones and explore current or anticipated barriers to performance.
  3. Share recognition: Remind employees how their roles link to team goals and organizational strategy while thanking them for their contributions.
  4. Provide support: Inquire about the specific remote work challenges each employee is facing and ask how to best support them.

Managers often over-rely on email, but multiple modes of communication are recommended. Instant messaging can be used for brief questions, and phone calls offer quick information-exchanging opportunities like those that would occur in the hallway and breakroom conversations of an office environment.

Managers should also encourage videoconferencing so that at least some meetings include face-to-face interactions. Even when used sparingly, video is an effective means of building relationships remotely. If your organization uses video intermittently rather than as the norm, it is good practice to provide advance notice before a video meeting. This prevents the call from feeling intrusive, and it gives employees time to prepare themselves and their surroundings accordingly.

2. Facilitating Collaboration

Social support is an important driver of engagement and retention. When working remotely for long periods of time, people may begin to suffer from feelings of perceived isolation. They often feel passed over for promotions or overlooked for recognition they deserve. They are also more likely to get stuck on a project because they are not sure where to turn for help.

Proper social support and recognition can mitigate the anxiety and stress that can lead to burnout or exhaustion. Managers are instrumental in establishing norms for remote teams that foster trust, support, and knowledge sharing.

To build your team’s virtual culture, schedule time to convene as a group weekly, or more often, depending on the amount of collaboration required for your team to perform. In team meetings, make it the norm to invite participation from everyone, as this gives quieter employees the opportunity to be heard. Managers can also encourage and role-model behaviors that promote productivity and knowledge sharing. This includes using meeting time wisely, allowing time for introductions and salutations, having an agenda for participants to follow, sharing questions for consideration in advance (or pre-reading if appropriate), documenting takeaways, and facilitating discussion.

In addition to meeting each week to align on work, virtual teams can also benefit from meeting regularly just for fun. These social gatherings should be inclusive and relaxed, and they should provide opportunities for employees to celebrate milestones, share personal updates, and find common interests.

Managers should also encourage efficiency when exchanging information. Relying on email to collaborate and share files can easily become detrimental. Instead, consider using services that allow for shared virtual workspaces and simultaneous collaboration. A good project plan, whether in a homegrown spreadsheet or sophisticated software, also helps teams and managers coordinate dependent tasks for large, complex projects. Planning and tracking work details is important when teams are co-located, and even more so when they are fully distributed.

3. Managing Expectations

One of the unique challenges facing remote workers in the current pandemic is that many of them are sharing their remote workspaces with spouses, roommates, or children. This is atypical under usual circumstances, but reasonable in an emergency situation. During extraordinary times such as these, managers should demonstrate flexibility while establishing important boundaries.

It is generally recommended that managers align with their remote employees on certain expectations, such as work environment and hours of availability. Having a quiet, distraction-free place to work may not be achievable during a crisis, but clear expectations can still be set for committed response times and core hours of availability. Committed response times give employees control over how to best focus their time while ensuring they are sufficiently responsive to others. Establishing core hours of availability ensures employees can access their colleagues during certain blocks of time each day. Such arrangements are especially important for teams in different time zones.

Trust is fundamental to managing remote work. Managers must shift to assessing employees performance based on results instead of observed effort. Remote managers should focus less on how and when work gets done, emphasizing instead whether the work meets quality expectations and is delivered on time. For this management system to be feasible, employees and managers must work together to set clear objectives, identify specify tasks to achieve, and document timelines for completion. Guidelines should also be established about when to provide updates to managers, how to review deliverables, how success is measured, and who will make decisions. This means explicitly clarifying any areas of role ambiguity for employees.

Remote workers are empowered and more satisfied when granted the discretion to determine how and when to do their work, within reason. So, assign responsibility but afford remote workers the proper amount of autonomy.

What counts as “proper” autonomy will differ based on each person’s individual needs and capacity for additional responsibility. Scheduling flexibility may be appreciated by newer employees who may still need guidance on work methods or priorities, while tenured employees are likely to prefer more discretion to make decisions independently. Identify what is meaningful to each employee and offer the amount of autonomy they can handle.

4. Coaching Performance

When it comes to coaching, managers often find it difficult to provide specific, timely, and objective feedback even when they observe performance daily. Coaching requires an inquisitive approach, but managers easily slip into “telling mode” regardless of whether they are remote or in-person.

Without the opportunity to read nonverbal and contextual cues during communication, remote managers need to rely even more heavily on open-ended questions. Some may find it useful to leverage a structured process or set of questions to guide each conversation. It is also advisable to invite others to contribute to the agenda and ensure there is ample time to discuss role and organizational expectations as well as employee well-being.

Remote managers have the added challenge of coaching without the opportunity to observe performance. As in any coaching situation, managers should focus on understanding each employee’s unique challenges and strengths while growing their capacity to handle decisions autonomously. When it comes to discretion, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Increased autonomy is generally related to higher job satisfaction for remote workers, but some people experience strain when offered increased autonomy. Remote managers want to be perceived as neither micromanagers nor too hands-off.

It is important to candidly discuss the amount of discretion you will require from employees and check in with them frequently to determine if they need additional support. At a minimum, managers should consider each employee’s capacity for added decision-making responsibilities, set boundaries, and explicitly communicate all the information employees need to make sound decisions.

On a regular basis, managers should inquire as to where support is needed and help employees overcome challenges without being overly directive. Figuring out what each employee needs does not have to be a guessing game. In fact, most people would appreciate if managers directly inquired about their needs and preferences more often. This sets a baseline for transparency and candor and sends a clear message that managers are open for discussion about topics that are important to employees.

For a manager to earn credibility as a coach and garner appreciation for their remote leadership style, they must role-model expected employee behaviors themselves. This will remind others of the standards and demonstrate the proper times and methods to implement them effectively. It is also important to be available to employees. Remote managers must respond with urgency to employees’ concerns. All team members should have equal access to managers, though some may require more time and support than others.

While remote managers must offer adequate support to their employees, they also require adequate support from their organizations and senior leaders. Senior leader acceptance is a very important ingredient. Senior leaders can provide managers with ongoing leadership coaching and role-model the healthy remote-work habits expected in the organization. During times of crises, senior leaders can also add value by communicating with employees more often, providing regular business updates, and making it known that employees are a primary concern.

Ultimately, managers and senior leaders alike should strive to build stronger relationships with their remote employees. To do this effectively, they can start by relinquishing control and trusting remote employees to exercise more discretion, while at the same time determining what they can do to help meet the unique needs of each team member.

Corina Rice is a senior consultant, talent solutions, at PSI Services LLC.

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Corina Rice, PhD, is currently a senior consultant on the talent solutions team with PSI Services LLC. She has 15 years of consulting experience, focusing on the assessment and development of talent within large organizations. Dr. Rice is also a certified coach delivering individual and team-based feedback on various development assessment and multi-source feedback tools. She has developed and implemented pre-hire assessment systems for the military, transportation, police, retail, banking, and technology industries, including off-the-shelf and custom-built solutions. Her work spans organizations with union employees, hourly workers, and salaried and executive positions.