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Managing virtual teams

With coronavirus leading to mass home working, how do we get the best from our now virtual teams while supporting their health and well-being

With phrases like ‘social distancing’ and ‘working from home’ almost certainly becoming some of the most used in 2020, we find ourselves in unprecedented times. Working virtually is not new, however, and thankfully most companies are able to adapt their systems or utilise the many options that are commercially available. We all, therefore, hopefully have access to the necessary technical infrastructure. Conversely, for people who have traditionally been office based, the concept of suddenly working virtually can be a daunting prospect, as can virtually managing teams that would normally be just a few desks away. But, by remembering the basic principles of managing teams and considering how we adapt these to the virtual world, we can ensure that we keep our teams healthy, happy and productive over the coming months.

Start as you mean to go on

Uncertainty breeds concern, which can lead to negativity and unproductive tendencies. It’s also not good for mental health or team cohesion. So, it’s important that you decide/agree on how you are going to work virtually as a team as soon as possible. A documented Charter may sound a bit over the top, but don’t underestimate the clarity it can give in terms of expectations and providing a clear framework for everybody to work within. It can cover many of the points mentioned in this article, as well as basic expectations, for example, around appropriate attire for online video meetings – office casual, not beachwear or pyjamas. These may sound trivial, but they can help maintain the work ethic when people are working from home on their own.

Over communicate

When judging the appropriate level of communication, a good guide is that you almost certainly need to do more than you think. It is also essential to integrate regular one-to-one communication with each team member as well as group interactions. Personal relationships with team members are important, so it is key to have both regular informal and business communication. These are particularly relevant when we consider many mid-level team members will be millennials whose characteristics suggest they desire openness of information, strong connection with supervisors and immediate feedback.

Openness of information, of course, extends beyond just individual teams to the company as a whole. Particularly when there is economic uncertainty, as we are currently experiencing, regular and fully transparent organisational level communications, delivered from the very top and preferably by video conference, not just written, are vital to maintain employee confidence and lessen internal ‘fake news’ or speculation.

Consideration should be given to having regular check-ins, while keeping in mind that the format of communications also has an impact. Our brains react differently to seeing faces and hearing voices and these can help achieve more meaningful interactions. With individuals working from home, less reliance on email and more on video call or phone and at the very least live chat will help enhance the interaction.

We all recognise that in some teams there are people who contribute more in group meetings than others. This challenge can be exacerbated when those meetings are virtual. Recognising that and helping elicit input from those more reserved individuals needs particular attention.

Clearly, managers have their own challenges to deal with alongside work, not least with children now being home schooled. However, making yourself available as much as possible for your team is still a worthy goal within these understandable constraints.

Physical distancing not social distancing

Some people need more social interaction than others, while some work better virtually than in the office. If you were recruiting a virtual team, there would be specific characteristics you may look for in an individual. However, as everybody moves to home working, it is important we ensure that the distancing we are achieving is physical, not social.

Some team members may live alone, but even for those who live with others, their work interactions probably help support their general social well-being. We need to try to maintain these in the virtual world. A daily virtual coffee break(s) is just one idea of how to help fill this potential void. These should not be work-focused but should encourage the interactions one would normally have over a coffee chat. And managers can encourage these types of virtual interactions without being present, as the team will ultimately benefit from them. If you were traditionally a very social team, going out after work or organising work events, then ensure you maintain this enthusiasm. Virtual quizzes, after work virtual drinks, book or film club or even sharing cooking or cocktail-making tips with live video sessions are just some simple ideas. I have no doubt that with all the creativity in our sector we will hear of many more exciting virtual activities over the coming weeks.

A simple guide that may help team members is to suggest that if they have not connected with somebody within the last few hours, they should reach out and initiate an interaction. As humans we are instinctively social. Maintaining these interactions will, therefore, be key to keeping a committed and engaged team as well as helping ensure their good mental health.

Share leadership

Managing virtual teams can put extra pressure on the leadership role. If that’s you, this presents a great opportunity to delegate more and test the capabilities of others in the team. Perhaps create small project teams who can meet virtually to address specific business challenges. You could even consider designating an individual(s) to champion the team’s virtual social activity.

Don’t forget the basics of people management

In our focus to respond to the changed working environment, it is essential we don’t lose sight of the basics of everyday people management. Maintaining reward and recognition helps generate self esteem and motivation.

Similarly, individual career aspirations will not stay on pause while we face this health crisis; continuing to recognise and support their development remains a priority if we want to retain these staff once we have got through the current situation.

Indeed, now may present a very good opportunity to support training for team members or to encourage them to learn new skills. Like many organisations, the HCA, for example, is working quickly to bring more CPD online, so the opportunities will be available.

On the same principle, we need to resist the temptation to put off annual reviews and should even increase our regular feedback to compensate for what might normally be received on a more adhoc basis in the office environment. This way we will ensure our people continue to feel valued and understand the areas they need to develop.

Help your team set themselves up to be productive, healthy and happy

Working from home has its own practical challenges, some more obvious than others, but all affecting how well an individual can adapt to the new way of working. Talking to team members about how they are set up to work from home, any challenges they are facing and providing helpful tips and advice can all make a difference to their productivity and general well-being. Some areas to consider are:

  • Finding or creating a space/room to designate as an office which staff can walk away from at the end of the day
  • Set up a table and chair so staff are sitting correctly at their computer to avoid bad posture (eg, use pillows to support your back, don’t work from a sofa)
  • Keeping a daily work routine (dressing for work, set start time, breaks)
  • Building in time for exercise/fresh air (while staying in line with current government guidance)
  • Participating in social interactions organised by team members, the organisation or other networks
  • Contacting their team leader, peers, HR, a mental heath first aider if your organisation has one, or a helpline, such as the Samaritans if staff are feeling anxious or alone.

We are now living in an unfamiliar environment. How well we navigate this period will depend on being flexible to the changes needed without losing sight of the basic guiding principles we all know, learning from each other and remembering we are all in this together. If we do this, we will stay productive and successful in our work, healthy and happy in our body and minds and possibly even richer from the experience when we emerge on the other side.

Mike Dixon is CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association and a communications consultant

7th May 2020

Mike Dixon is CEO of the Healthcare Communications Association and a communications consultant

7th May 2020

From: Marketing

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