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Five tips for managing virtual teams in the age of coronavirus

David Bernal is a business strategist, management consultant, and entrepreneur. He teaches a course on Managing Global teams in the MSC program.

As a management consultant working constantly with virtual and geographically dispersed teams, I have experienced firsthand how, in the last few weeks, being an effective virtual team manager has become more crucial than ever. Many companies have had to accommodate and transition to become almost 100% virtual organizations overnight, having to modify processes and operations while having to respond to a very uncertain and rapidly-changing business climate. On top of that, we have also the serious responsibility and personal challenge to protect the health of ourselves, families and communities during this time.

There are multiple things that managers can do now to transform this situation into an opportunity for growth, find new ways to relate and work and contribute to building more effective organizations for now and into the future. Many opportunities will come from this challenge: First, it will force us to focus on keeping quality relationships, interactions, and productivity with our coworkers while working 100% via virtual means. Second, it will challenge us to find ways to still be “human” when our interaction will be mostly via screens, emails, and phone. Lastly, this will transform our organizations focusing on servicing our teams, customers and society by improving the team management approach by fully leveraging accessible, easy-to-use and widely available technologies, management approaches, and web-based tools.

There are five broad tips I would recommend to a manager today to achieve the above:

1. Start with yourself:
The start to being productive in times of extreme uncertainty is to create what I call a “bubble of control and certainty”. Yes, we know that the news is crazy. Yes, we know that the management of most organizations is blindsided by the situation. However, as managers, we can ensure our “little world” is under control.

  • If you work from home, create a comfortable, bright, happy space where you can work and concentrate. Find a good chair, a comfortable desk and a bright spot where you know you may be able to work during your workday.
  • Create a routine. Even if you are at home, ensure you have a repeatable schedule. Use your calendar to plan your day and do not forget to take little breaks to ensure your energy is high and you keep your focus up. Eat well, exercise, and sleep. This crisis may last for several months so think of it a marathon not a sprint. 
  • Control your exposure to the news. I know we want to keep up to date about how the pandemic is evolving. However, if we spent too much time dwelling on what is beyond our influence, anxiety will increase and productivity will suffer.
  • Building on all the above, focus on what you can control. Map all your worries and focus on those where YOU can have a positive impact and try to put out of your mind those where you don’t. Build a plan around areas of control and ensure you focus your energy every day in moving those things forward.

2. Be patient with yourself and your team:
Unfortunately, this is not a hurricane that will pass in a few days. Nobody knows for certain, but it is very likely that the situation is going to have a long-term impact on the way companies work for the foreseeable future. This means that not only you, but also everybody around you are also adjusting to the new reality. In that sense, be patient with yourself, your team and your organization during this adjustment period.

3. Exercise your leadership muscles:

Ensure that project objectives, teams and team processes are well defined and clearly explained so you can work efficiently as a virtual team. 

  • Define and communicate your team charter properly:for any given project, team leaders should craft the team charter and should have very solid project management, planning, and communications skills. Ask yourself 3 key questions:  1) Is the charter defined correctly? Explicitly discuss the team’s agenda to ensure that the right problem is being solved.  2) Is it framed correctly? Work with your team about the way and scope in which the problem is formulated. 3) Is it clearly understood? It is critical that EVERY person on the team understands the charter and how they fit into overall team objectives including roles and expectations.
  • Assemble the right team for new projects: virtual team members by definition come from diverse cultural and work backgrounds. They may also represent different organizations whose agendas may not be congruent or different functional units with varying priorities and perspectives. Assembling the right virtual team is part science and part art ensuring that complementary skills, work styles, and background are included but also that also potential frictions caused by such diversity are under control. Part of this is defining effective team size and who should occupy leadership positions.
  • Define, lead and manage team processes:  Teams need a process that facilitates open, information-rich communication among the team members to build a culture of trust especially when working virtually: Focus on 3 areas: 1)  Language and culture via language education and cross-cultural awareness if that applies to your team, 2)  agree and communicate norms of behavior by defining ground rules of interaction, acceptable behavior, and expectations; and 3) adopt data-driven decisions to prevent reliance on opinions in the absence of facts. By bringing facts to the table, conflicting ideas can be evaluated more objectively. Data-driven decisions enable alignment and drive performance.

4. Distance doesn’t mean disengaged: virtual teams need to focus on developing successful remote working relationships, maintaining open communication and managing employees and team performance to ensure that results are achieved.

    • Establish clear goals and expectations at the beginning of new relationships or projects: Work with your direct reports to create clear goals and expectations at the beginning of your working relationship. Establishing goals and expectations will help you both know where to focus efforts, even if you have few opportunities to interact in-person in the following months to come. 
    • Consider work styles, abilities, and preferences when setting ground rules: You and your direct reports will have different working styles that will affect how you work together, especially since you are not in the same location. Partner with your remote direct reports to discuss each of your work styles, abilities, and preferences, and use the information gathered to inform the ground rules you set for your remote working relationship.
    • Meet one-on-one even virtually as often as possible: While lockdowns and lack of physical interaction for you and your employees may mean scattered opportunities to chat in person, nothing can help you build a strong relationship better than working together one-on-one when possible. Make a special effort for one-on-one coaching with those resources that require special support, training or are part of critical tasks or activities. 

    5. Communicate, communicate and communicate… but smartly: overcommunicate if possible using the multiple methods at hand, however, please be very concise, deliberate, with clear points and direction. Although additional communication can compensate for the lack of physical interaction, don’t overdo it wasting people’s time or focus.

    • Make communication a shared responsibility for you and your direct report: Open lines of communication are critical to a successful partnership with your direct reports, but particularly when you work in different locations and have few face-to-face interactions. While you, as a manager, must take responsibility for communication, let your direct report know they share responsibility and that you expect them to approach you with anything that needs to be discussed.
    • Establish ground rules for how and when you will communicate: Communication can be especially difficult when you and your direct report don’t work in the same location, so work together to create ground rules about how and when you will communicate with one another. Focus on 4 things: 
      • Methods you will use to communicate. Discuss methods you will use to communicate, such as telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, social networking sites, and videoconferencing., 
      • Timeframe for responding to communications: Determine an appropriate timeframe for responding to avoid “virtual silence”, which can cause confusion and damage remote working relationships 
      • Methods for sharing sensitive issues. Impersonal communication methods are not as appropriate for sensitive issues and can hurt relations with your direct report. Instead, use private telephone calls or face-to-face methods such as videoconferencing, 
      • Reaching each other outside of regular business hours. Employees in remote working relationships often work in different time zones, so your normal work hours may not always overlap. Agree on acceptable hours for communication and decide how you and your employees can reach one another outside of normal working hours in case of an emergency.
    • Use a mix of structured and informal communications methods: To have a trusting, collaborative relationship with your team use a blend of structured communications approaches – such as weekly telephone “check-ins” – and informal, real-time communication methods – such as instant messaging. Structured approaches make sure you reserve time to discuss ongoing needs, such as performance or vacation schedules, while informal, real-time communication methods allow immediate needs to be addressed.
    • Identify methods for sharing knowledge and work: Determine how you and your direct reports will share information and work so it is easily accessible. Use technologies that can be accessed remotely and on-demand, such as project rooms, databases and intranet portals. If you or your direct reports are not able to access knowledge and work as needed, you risk slowing productivity and missing deadlines.

    Remember that like every crisis, this too shall pass. Use this time to turn this crisis into an opportunity to improve the way you manage yourself and others and make your organization more resilient and efficient in the future. By keeping in mind all the above tips, not only you can enhance your skills and improve your team productivity but also build a better and more human-centered organization once the coronavirus crisis is gone.

    David Bernal

    David Bernal is a Business Strategist and Entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience in growth strategy and planning, market research, marketing, sales, innovation, new products, and ventures with multinationals and leading organizations in the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia. He has successfully conceived, developed, and launched new products and businesses and solved complex growth strategy problems at corporate and SBU levels. Mr. Bernal is Adjunct Lecturer of Management at Northwestern. Mr. Bernal holds an M.B.A. in Management Strategy, Marketing and Technology from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, and an M.S. in Finance and Marketing from University de los Andes. He holds a B.S. in Industrial Engineering with Honors from P.U.J. in Bogotá, Colombia.