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Leading High Performing Virtual Teams through the Pandemic

By Susie Kennedy

Manager leading virtual teamWhilst some leaders are enjoying the experience of their teams achieving  great feats and demonstrating levels of high performance previously unimaginable before the pandemic, other leaders are not having it so easy. Some managers say their teams are responding less positively to new ways of working and are discontent with practical attempts to manage their performance and create visibility of relative workloads.  This is especially true where digital technology and agile working practices have not been established. These teams are not yet virtual and they are remote in the worst sense.  In these situations communications and trust can quickly become victims leaving much work to be done to build high performance.

Many leaders have found themselves in the wake of a restructure with completely new groups of people they need to establish virtually and develop into high performing teams. In normal times this requires significant leadership effort, in this pandemic these efforts need to be refined and ramped up. Now more than ever high performing teams are needed because of two key factors. First, there is a higher level of complexity involved in tasks due to uncertain outcomes, non-standardised procedures as we tackle new ways of working, large volumes of information available and specialist knowledge and skill required. Second, this crisis requires higher levels of interdependence as people need to combine efforts, rely more on each other and interact in order to deliver results in different ways.

Leaders can adapt the way they lead their teams through the pandemic by ramping up support and refining communications in a number of ways.

Get technical

Champion your teams. Focus on getting the necessary technological resources for your teams to help them become virtual, work efficiently and connect effectively. Once the technology is deployed, encourage your teams to play with it. Promote and develop curiosity and reduce the fear of failure, for example, run informal “try-it” zoom sessions and explore different tools such as breakout rooms, whiteboards and polls. Encourage your team to help each other and be creative in finding solutions or workarounds. Be open-minded yourself, push yourself out of your comfort zone and don’t expect to have all the answers.

Build trust

When uncertainty increases relationships can strain. Now more than ever is the time to build trust with stakeholders whose influence you need to support your teams. Work on the relationship with union representatives and involve them in your decision making so they know what to expect to help them be in supportive mode rather than reactive. Build trust with your teams by involving them more in transparent decision making. Focus on creating an environment which encourages everyone to speak up openly and feel comfortable constructively challenging ideas, including your ideas.  Be especially conscious of individuals wanting to protect their jobs which can hold them back from coming forward to challenge their boss.

Why do we exist?

Help your team to think through what their actual purpose is because this is the glue that binds and energises them, whether they are an existing team or a new team. In ‘normal’ times teams can lose track of why they exist.  In COVID times their purpose can be much more compelling, for example key workers once so-called unskilled care staff are now critical life savers.  Ask your team to consider not only why they exist but what core principles guide their decision making. P&G has seized this  crisis to further step up as a force for good, their mission guided by three core principles is one their teams are passionately committed to.

Focus and visibility

Create energy and positive focus by clarifying what everyone is working on in the next few weeks or so. This allows short term specific goals to be set and the achievement of these goals will energise and boost the team. This also creates visibility of how work is distributed enabling team members to share tasks more equally. Technology helps with workload planning but remember to create an atmosphere where individual members can comfortably ask for support in sharing their workload or offer their support to others.

Connecting

During these times over communicating is preferable to under communicating. Some leaders are well organised in regular connections involving daily 30-minute team and 1:1 check-ins for work-related updates and weekly team social check-ins. As teams settle into “battle rhythm” after the initial crisis it is timely for leaders to review how they are connecting with their teams in terms of frequency, purpose, structure and usefulness. Gain input from the team on how best to connect. Critically, maintain connection discipline – keep to a routine for your check-ins, stick to the agenda and don’t cancel.

How are you feeling?

We regularly ask groups of senior managers how they are feeling about these times and the range of responses is remarkable. From “optimistic, driven, inspired” to “frustrated, stressed, fed-up” there is no standard. It appears leaders are having a range of very different experiences, positive and negative and it is highly likely their teams will be too. It is healthy and helpful for teams to share and discuss how they are feeling and experiencing these times at work and home and it is the job of the leader to create the atmosphere which allows people to share. Give license for others to speak by disclosing your own journey including vulnerabilities – this builds trust and encourages others to share.  Using tools such as menti.com to build a word cloud at the start of a check-in is a great visual start to sharing conversations. Getting the question right is important too, “What words describe how you are feeling about these times?” works well.

What’s our story?

To help the team coalesce, once they are clear on their purpose, go further and ask them to think about the reputation they want to build.  Exploring “What do we want people to say of us when this is over?” is a powerful way of clarifying the principles which the team can use to underpin decisions and actions. Remind the team how they act now and treat their stakeholders will define them in the future. Acts of compassion, tolerance and kindness will be remembered long after this pandemic crisis is over.

Susie Kennedy is senior partner of KBA Solutions Limited which she founded in 1993. KBA specialises in change leadership consulting and executive development. She has contributed to Thinkers50 most recent publication, The Transformation Playbook. Susie is Programme Director for KBA’s Institute of Leadership and Management Strategic Leadership programme for senior managers, with programmes in the University of Cambridge, Premier Foods and nationally for UK Local Government at Kings College London.

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