Leading your virtual team

If your employees are some of the many thousands of workers who have made the transition to working from home, it pays to be aware that it isn’t always smooth sailing.  

Expecting virtual work to run as it would in the office, with a basic nine-to-five schedule, is a mistake, according to business and management experts from the University of South Australia (UniSA), Shruti Sardeshmukh and Chad Chiu.

Sardeshmukh says there are a host of both real and imagined hurdles to leap “but if businesses want to support employees and maintain business continuity, they must thoroughly explore their options.

“It is important to solve all the usual hurdles – will the technology work, will your business be able to maintain data security, can employees establish safe and healthy home offices?”

They point to are some key things leaders of remote teams should avoid doing.

“Expecting work to run as it would in the office, with a basic nine-to-five schedule, is a mistake,” Chiu says in a media release.

“Particularly, in the current environment, team members will be juggling a range of circumstances, for example children being at home from school, so it is not realistic or even effective to expect to operate as usual.

“Instead, discuss key meeting times and periods where collaboration will be required but be flexible about when other work can be done.

“This can prove more effective in maintaining the overall productivity of your team and acknowledges and respects that team members may have a range of responsibilities they need to juggle in this new environment.”  

For team directors and managers, leadership when teams are working remotely has its own set of challenges.

Chiu says because teams are a collection of individuals, it is important to remember to take actions for the team and its individual members.

“A big challenge when teams go remote is uncertainty – so leaders should set some rules or guidelines for how the team will operate – clarity around meeting times, when to telephone for instant help, flexibility of deadlines and the types of technology you will be relying on, are all important,” he says.

“While you need to keep work on track, it is also important to acknowledge that work teams feature both task and relationship-driven interactions.

“Research has shown that both aspects of intragroup interactions are important to predict team effectiveness, so managers should encourage the team to be socially connected and offer each other both relational and task support.

“Take advantage of video conferencing technologies… to unite the team; set up chat channels for social conversations as well as work interactions; host a virtual lunch or morning tea to support social engagement.”

In this brave new world of virtual working, Chiu says not everyone is equally equipped.

“Virtual collaboration has several limitations which are best overcome together,” he says.

“Not everyone will be equally familiar with the technology the team adopts, so managers can encourage team members to help each other to overcome technical difficulties and use online resources to learn how to use unfamiliar meeting and management platforms.

“When leading in this framework, its valuable to remind yourself and the rest of the team that difficulties will happen. Patience and empathy will go a long way in overcoming challenges.

“Leaders who can acknowledge their own limitations and show how they are willing to adapt and learn with good humour, will signal to the team that you are all in it together and can help each other grow in capacity.”

He says too that managers should pay attention to signs like decreased responses to emails or being absent in group conversations.

“These signals could suggest a team member might need help or encouragement to complete their tasks or they could be struggling with the new work environment or other issues,” he says.  

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