COVID 19 will continue to result in profound short term implications for organisations. This challenging time has made managing a team virtually not only a necessity but a key component of business continuity.
Managing people virtually has never been straightforward. Many people have become accustomed to the increased use of technology, such as FaceTime at home and the occasional conference or skype call at work. However, the new reality of using technology to get all or most of our job done, and in some cases, to manage an entire team virtually for the first time, will pose real challenges.
Adapting to change and new ways of working, particularly in very short timescales, is seldom easy and stress free. Managing an entire team virtually, therefore, possesses multiple simultaneous challenges. Despite these challenges, however, there are practical considerations which will help. Furthermore, opportunities can be created, and lessons learnt, which may help working and, team working in particular, in more “normal” times.
Communication - Clear, simple, frequent and consistent
The importance of this should not be underestimated. The way we communicate in regular (face to face) teams will simply not cut it in a virtual environment.
When communicating virtually, important verbal and body language cues may be missed so it is important to actively listen and look out for signs which may point to something being wrong.
Communication should be clear and straightforward and not convoluted. Elaborate video calls with colleagues using technology may confuse rather than clarify. Regular contact with team members should be maintained through the scheduling of regular calls. Consistency of messaging is also important during this difficult time.
Honesty and transparency – Being candid with the team
Team members will inevitably have a range of questions. These will be regarding their work but also in relation to personal circumstances and impacts.
Questions should be answered honestly and openly - no question should be dodged or answered with obfuscation. Smoke and mirrors will not work – credibility will be lost and trust eroded.
If an answer to a question is not known then this should be stated. If a question is asked which has a potential negative connotation or meaning, then it should be answered, head on, directly addressing any potential negative implications.
Being honest and transparent is important in engendering and maintaining critical trust and confidence.
Goals and Performance – Let team members know what is expected of them
Some established goals may need to be changed and there are likely to be new priorities during this difficult period.
Whilst some decrease in output is to be expected during this extraordinary time, due to illness for example, performance standards should be maintained and people should continue to be held accountable for deliverables.
The key is managing performance differently - more empathetically; being conscious of people’s wider circumstances, feelings and concerns.
Team members should be reached out to and be provided with appropriate guidance and coaching. As this type of support will be provided remotely to team members, it is even more important to manage performance in a people orientated rather than task orientated way.
Technology – Understand the technology and the capabilities of the technology being used
Whilst this is seemingly common sense, the practicalities of this can be easily underestimated. New technology – platforms or software – are likely to be used during this difficult period.
Familiarity with new technology will clearly need to be made in a short space of time. Everybody in a team is likely to be in the same boat so tolerance and flexibility is required.
It is important to collectively learn as a team. Learning - and even making some mistakes – together, will help comradery and strengthen the team for the future.
Achievements – To be recognised and celebrated
In a difficult climate, it may be tempting to underplay or gloss over success.
Team success should still be recognised and celebrated, as in more normal times.
This is even more important during tough times as it enables people to come together and delivers positivity to a team. This is also, of course, important for team morale.
Whilst managing an entire team virtually will clearly pose challenges, a number of key practical considerations and actions will help.
Managing teams virtually during this difficult period will enable new skills, greater resilience and yes, introduce a new normal of greater virtual team working for the future.
Tejal Fatania is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the People Management Teaching Discipline Group at WMG, University of Warwick. Tejal is leader of the Organisations, People and Performance module on WMG Master's programmes.