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Leading Virtual Teams - Q&A

Insight

With a huge number of organisations going almost entirely virtual in the midst of the coronavirus, Consultant Director Paul Jewitt-Harris (PJH), and Account Director Emma Rowe (ER), shared their advice and experience of leading and working with virtual teams. Watch the webinar here on-demand, or read the write up of the webinar here.

Emma Rowe and Paul Jewitt-Harris

Paul and Emma’s tips and advice sparked some insightful questions from our attendees, which are answered below. If you enjoyed the content and want to find out more about how Lane4 can help your leaders and teams remain high performing throughout these new norms, get in touch today.

I trust my team and we’ve built good rapport and honest relationship. However, my boss is old school and struggles with the concept of remote working. How can we build his trust and shift her mindset?

PJH: An expression you hear a lot in leadership conversations is being able to “step into other people’s shoes”. When someone is uncomfortable with working digitally, the first question should be: what's behind that? Asking your boss that question will help you understand what is concerning them, and mitigate against it.

If we start with the belief that people do their best with the information they have available to them, we can assume that we can change their behaviours by helping them confront their fears. If your boss is afraid that remote working will reveal their weaknesses in using technology, that fear may be determining their reluctant behaviour towards remote working. Unpicking these beliefs and putting effort into understanding where your boss is coming from will result in a stronger relationship between you and your boss, which will ultimately build trust.

 

What’s the most important thing we can do to help employees work remotely, more successfully?

PJH: I would start of by asking them directly. A good friend of mine is an estate agent, and was talking to me a while ago about how to motivate his team. I asked him if he had asked them directly what their biggest motivators were, and he revealed that he hadn’t. He felt that as their leader he was meant to know what motivated his team intuitively.

Whenever I encounter such beliefs in my coaching work, I think it’s crucial to flip them on their head: it is not a leader’s role to know what motivates their team, it is a leader’s role to find out. In this instance, ask your team directly what their circumstances are with regards to remote working, and about their worries and challenges, and listen to their answers!

ER: If you are finding yourself leading an existing virtual team, posing those questions is just as important. Ask your team how their context has changed in recent times, as by doing so you are acknowledging the monumental shifts in circumstance which many are experiencing. It’s also worth doing some contracting as a leader, as this is new for everyone.

The final thing for leaders to remember in working with remote teams is to not underestimate people’s ability to problem solve. Letting go of the responsibility to have all the answers yourself will give your team space to work things out for themselves.

 

Any advice on how to handle meetings that typically would have been a 1.5/2 hour in person session in a virtual manner?

PJH: Begin with the end in mind by asking what the outcome of the meeting should be. By having a clear aim, people will be galvanised around a common goal and keep each other accountable throughout. When determining the desired outcome, try to divide up what agenda items are critical and what could be saved for another time, as this help avoid the meeting overrunning.  

Another tip would be to chop the meeting up. When operating virtually, we tend to take fewer breaks, or none at all. In the webinar, I spoke about determining the how and the what of meetings’, and this includes recognising people’s states. If your team is dealing with new circumstances such as parenting whilst working from home, think about how you might take that into account in your facilitation.

ER: Consider how many people are in the meeting. Face to face facilitation techniques may change depending on how many people are in the room, and it should be no different virtually. Some of our research shows that virtual meetings can help teams have a greater equality of voice, so see your virtual meetings as an opportunity to aim for that. Think about how you can achieve parity of voice by facilitating for both those who speak to think and those who think to speak.

 

What is the best way to ensure that we give people enough time to switch off? How do we deal with making sure people still get their days off?

ER: The past few days I’ve been working from home, and at the end of the day I find it much harder to determine when is the right time to stop working. In the office, I know that when I look up from my desk and everyone else has left, it’s probably time for me to log off, but virtually it's much harder to do that.

PJH: A challenge for those in the leadership space is conciliating the need to be responsive with the desire to be a good role model. It’s important to remember that people are on the receiving end of an email you send at 6am or 9pm, and those behaviours are being integrated as the team norm.

Instead, role model taking care of yourself: go out and do some exercise, tell people it’s okay for them to take breaks and remind them to “log off, it’s late”. There are times when it’s important to be responsive, but there are also times when wellbeing should be the priority. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and maintaining balance is crucial to remain productive on the long run.

 

Can you give any advice on code of conduct and best practice for virtual meetings?

PJH: Here are our top 5 tips for code of conduct and best practice for virtual meetings:

1. Start on time - Think about when that time is! Global meetings shouldn’t always be held at a good time for London: check what would be best for your client or colleague who is working elsewhere.

2. Focus on the virtual - If you are having a meeting for which some people are in a room and others are virtual, shift the focus towards those who are dialling in. This means you won’t risk forgetting the people on the screen.

3. Encourage your team to turn on their webcams - Your team deserve your full attention, and the accountability of video means people won’t worry if you are listening to them or hanging up your washing!

4. Look people in the eye - The more similar virtual meeting can be to face-to-face ones, the better. Making eye contact (even if it’s through a webcam) helps you pick up on your team’s virtual cues, such as engagement, anxiety, and excitement.

5. Set up team traditions - A “Virtual Coffee break” every morning, for example, can be a great opportunity for your team to connect and catch up about things outside of work, and will increase focus in meetings for the rest of the day.

 

As a team used to working virtually as well as face to face, my biggest concern is how we maintain the social interaction in the team. Did you mention a ‘coffee break’? Is this a social call just to keep everyone engaged?

ER: We have been running a “Virtual Coffee break” at 11 o’clock each day. The aim is to keep the team connected and to provide some social interaction – it can be lonely to work from home when you’re used to being surrounded by people in the office! It also ensures that the times you're coming together as a team aren't just meetings. Check out our Instagram to see an example of Lane4’s Marketing team’s “Virtual Brew”.

 

With the current global situation where a lot of people have been forced into remote or virtual working what should a leader do to get the team working effectively and efficiently in the new world?

ER: Our top three tips for leaders to get their teams working effectively and efficiently are:

1. Define your why 

Both for new virtual teams and existing teams that have now gone virtual, investing time in defining the team’s purpose is paramount to galvanising people together when their contexts are particularly challenging. This should then be linked to the organisations purpose and goals, which will help maintain motivation for teams through a clear line of sight.

2. Put time in to understand your team 

When getting to know your team members, the default often is to ask about their family, hobbies and interests. Although this provides a sense of personal connection, as a team leader the most important thing to know is what each of your team members needs to be at their best. It may feel challenging to ask, but it will allow you to be really clear on what you need to do each day to get the most out of your virtual colleagues. Especially given the current global situation, it’s important to understand the contexts your team are operating within too.

3. When having meetings, contract well up front 

A simple way to action this is to consider the three P’s at the start of a meeting:

-          Practical: what are the practicalities we need to think about in this team? E.g. timings, technology you're using, code of conduct for how to manage the virtual meetings. 

-          Professional: what are we trying to achieve here and how might we do that?

-        what are your hopes, fears, motives and reasons for you being here?

 

How do you manage channel fatigue? We use Outlook, Slack, Monday, WhatsApp, Text and, lastly, the phone. It's challenging to define which is the best platform.

PJH: In the consulting community at Lane4, we had a similar issue a while back. We had lots of communication platforms, and there was confusion as to what the aims of each one was. In the same WhatsApp conversation you would have someone sharing some bad news from their personal life, someone asking a question about processes and someone else sharing a photo of their pet!

As a consequence, we allocated clear purposes to each channel, even using multiple streams within one channel, and made sure that everyone knew where to go for support, connection or work queries. If you are suffering from channel fatigue, it might also be worth asking if all of those channels are needed – hopefully in determining the purposes of each one, any superfluous channels can be dropped, and the cute pet pictures can be shared on the right WhatsApp chat!

 

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