7 Steps to Virtual Togetherness


I refuse to believe that this is the new normal, but for now it is “the next normal” and we need to make the best of it. Employees love the freedom of working from home, but are now feeling the hidden costs. Keep reading for our tips on how to more effectively lead remote teams and counter these hidden costs.

Remote work has long been lauded for its benefits – employees are often more productive and experience a more gratifying level of work/life balance when the drudgery of long commutes and limitations of working from an office are removed. As more and more people and organizations shift from a dedicated environment to a remote-work model, it’s important to ensure that organizations recognize the new skills that a manager needs to successfully lead in the next normal. 

Our clients are questioning how managers can be fully connected and effective without being onsite or embedded within their teams. As a specific example, we recently we engaged a client looking to hire a new CCO. They were energetic about a candidate with a compelling set of skills and experience, but the new executive would be working remotely from one coast while the rest of the team operated from other side of the country. Further, the existing executive team was highly collaborative; real time, impromptu communications made up the core of their cultural fabric. How can this new CCO effectively drive results while operating from across the country? We recommended two primary areas of focus to help the new leader hit the ground running while managing virtually, and now offer them to you.

Free yourself through structure

You don’t have to look far to find leadership content that drives home the need for a well-defined and well-communicated structure. We all crave guardrails that let us know where we can operate, but the rules for managers building those guardrails have changed some with our new reality. What used to be easily done by walking around, quickly re-directing, etc., now requires video calls and emails and other activities that burn everyone out. Use these four methods to set the structure up and get back to running the business.

1. Set definitive rules of engagement, team norms, and expectations.

More than ever, managers need to set clear expectations the incorporate the unique circumstantial needs of each direct report, while also embracing approaches that support asynchronous communication. Set clear guidelines around the appropriate channels and expectations down to the granular level, such as Video (Zoom, Teams, GoToMeeting) is used for daily check-in meetings while IM should be used only for urgent matters. Spell out the best way and time to reach their manager outside of regular calls, such as late in the day is best for impromptu conversations, but text in the case of an emergency.

2. Establish a regular cadence of productive, agenda-driven meetings for accountability and keeping goals on track.

This tried and true approach evolved from decades of work in the field having examined well over 100 companies. We find most firms need to implement more structure in managing the team. Institute regularly scheduled meetings to review goals, ensuring alignment and driving accountability. Many successful remote managers establish a daily call – multiple one-on-one calls if individuals work independently or a team call if the work is highly collaborative or some kind of hybrid structure. Jared Sparato, Microsoft 365 Corporate Vice President, reportedly encourages his managers to maintain a set timetable of meetings and/or lunches to foster and maintain team morale. 

3. Plan ahead to minimize focus-squashing switches.

In a world where the team works in different time zones and requires flexible hours, managers may find themselves backed into a corner if they rely on last-minute, immediate requests. Society’s “always on” mentality (how many of us sleep with our phone next to our heads?) causes constant interruptions, making it more difficult for individuals complete projects, especially those that require a high level of cognition like strategizing and problem-solving. Managers need to operate even further out into the future than before. Deliverables need to be managed through detailed timelines that build in enough time for everyone to see and respond to requests.

4. Leverage documentation and asynchronous tools built for your team’s operational needs.

To execute the advanced planning outlined above and wrangle a virtual team, managers need to explore and deploy new tools that keep initiatives moving forward while incorporating a window of delay. Building in that window is huge shift for many of us. A 2015 study conducted by Yahoo Labs found that most people respond in under two minutes to an email from their boss. This level of responsiveness is no longer realistic as employees build a flexible workday that takes into account other responsibilities — like assisting elementary school children with virtual schooling. Today there are a plethora of robust platforms like Twist, Github, or DropBox Paper that can support these efforts.

Lead with compassion and empathy

Structure and accountability are, and have always been, a core component of good team management but it is often not the “what” but the “how” that makes good managers great leaders. Think about your best-ever manager; do you remember exactly what they did, or rather, how they did it and how that made you feel? Soft skills like empathy and understanding act as the grease that keeps the cogs of delivery moving forward without locking up.

5. Reframe your method of accountability for employees juggling multiple demands.

Face time in the office has now become tracking hours sitting in front of the computer as one measure of productivity. Rather than focusing on who moves their mouse every five minutes, results must become the measurement tool of output. Managers need to assess and hold team members accountable for their performance at a higher level. Dig into tools that will measure team and individual efficacy based on timelines and milestones. This kind of transparency provides both accountability AND affirmation to team members that their efforts are valued and measured.

6. Boost interpersonal interaction and collaboration with video.

At the end of the day, we are all social animals that require the kind of daily interaction we used to get from just being in the same building. When that cannot happen, the next best option is video calls, a better vehicle for establishing rapport as much of our language is nonverbal. This is not just about “warm fuzzies”. Boston Consulting Group surveyed 12,000 professionals and found that those who are satisfied with their level of social connectivity with their colleagues are two to three time more likely to maintain or improve their productivity on collaborative tasks. It turns out that social connectivity drives collaborative productivity!

7. Schedule coffee breaks, birthday celebrations, and chats about life in general.

Many employees today describe missing the connectivity they previously shared with colleagues in the office. Creating virtual team-building rituals provides the opportunity for people to interact and establish relationships with their co-workers, laying the foundation for future collaboration. Leave some time at the beginning of team calls just for non-work discussion, set up virtual birthday celebrations (even delivering cake to people the day before), or devise an interactive happy hour event. At first this may seem frivolous, but studies show these events reduce isolation, promote a sense of team, and create a desire to work towards common goals.  

The bottom line

With the normalization of remote work and the need to expand hiring pools across time zones to build world-class teams, it has never been more important to understand the nuanced skills required to successfully manage remote and virtual teams. Once you understand the techniques and mindset required in this new environment, you are well on your way to successfully leading teams near and far!

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