Amity Institute Of Training & Development

Managing Teams - Virtually Read Time: 6 mins

A recently published research paper by Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and by other universities suggests that virtual teams may extract an unexpected price: People who add their hard-won knowledge to a common pool may become alienated from the organization and even fear that they are sowing the seeds for their own replacement. "It's a real fear," says Margret Neale of Stanford. She shares, “If your knowledge is deposited in a database for all to access, does the organization still need you? .Technology has the potential to destabilize the relationship between organizations and employees".

Employees working in virtual teams are, to a certain extent, isolated from their colleagues. Although they may have contact with other employees of their organizations, they don't spend much time with them. In this situation, the virtual team member loses opportunities to learn from his or her closest colleagues. In effect, there's a double forfeit. The virtual worker perceives herself as giving away her knowledge but not having the chance to "replenish her own reservoir of knowledge, and thus feels even more vulnerable”, says Neale. Because virtual teams use technology well, they are likely to share explicit knowledge with the rest of the organization better than traditional teams. But tacit knowledge is difficult to share without direct contact, which means that virtual team members will have a harder time sharing their tacit knowledge with teammates and learning from their team members. And that is one good reason which leads to isolation and frustration.

Sharing knowledge is not the only challenge with virtual teams. According to research at Havard Business Schoool, most people consider virtual communication less productive than face-to-face interaction, and nearly half admit to feeling confused and overwhelmed by collaboration technology. Communication can get muddled if teams never meet face to face, trust and collaboration suffer when workers are siloed, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if employees are tasked with too little—or too much.

Despite these challenges, virtual teams are here to stay as they happen to be the lifeline for fully-fledged offices during these unprecedented times. Remote work allows companies to compete in an increasingly globalized society, so the real challenge becomes adapting to the new workplace. Thanks to this COVID pandemic, statistics show a steep increase in the number of remote workers across the world, a trend that is only likely to continue. Rather than reverting back to the old ways of doing business, we can directly address the challenges of managing virtual teams. When we successfully identify and remedy remote workplace issues, we can build a strong, agile team that’s collaborative from their safe homes.

Challenge # 1: Communication

If we want to foresee and fix one issue, let's choose communication. It’s the cause of almost every other management issue. Managers provide direction at every step of a project or business initiative, so they need to be extremely good at communicating the strategy and understanding what’s happening within a team. Communication is key in any workplace—especially one where most interactions occur via email, chat, or calls. Ensuring free flow of accurate information throughout your company’s structure means assigning the right roles to the right people, fostering a communicative culture, and using the right tools for the job.

Jennifer Stine, former head of executive and professional education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology shares, “Close attention to relationship-building and a process to ensure good communication is really important. When the group or the organization has a strong culture that supports collaboration, this can stand-in for many of the detailed steps—it really helps.”

As a leader, it’s our responsibility to foster a culture of communication throughout the organization. Lead by example by giving regular updates and holding check-ins with your team. If our team sees that we’re an effective communicator, they’ll follow suit by picking up our good habits. Removing the ambiguity that so often surrounds workplace communication by providing written guidelines that outline what kind of messages should be sent through which mediums, and how team members are expected to interact with each other. We can make use of communication-based technological tools. Instant messaging, chat and other two-way communication channels make sharing problems and potential solutions easier than ever. Keeping these channels open, and consistently monitor them throughout the day. If an employee has a problem, idea, or thought that needs to be shared, we should be as responsive and available to a remote employee as we would to any office team member.

Challenge #2: Trust

Because we don’t see them working, it’s easy to assume any lull in communication means remote workers are toying their thumbs, procrastinating, or not aligned with team. The nicest part of working remotely is that we can easily build blocks of uninterrupted, concentration-time into your day. Set clear expectations for remote workers as to what communication best practices look like at the company, but we should not worry if we don’t get a ping from them at regular intervals.

Trust is key in any relationship. When employees trust their managers and believe they’re working toward a shared vision, collaboration and engagement happen naturally. But it’s hard-won in an environment where face-to-face interaction is a rarity. A shared mission, collaborative spirit, and can help instill trust.

What is your team’s overarching goal and how will it know when it has achieved it? We might have one goal, or we might have several. Regardless, it is vitally important that our team has a shared goal (or goals) and a common understanding of how progress will be measured. Effective collaboration helps team bond and builds trust as people get to know one another’s thought processes and working styles. When team members are able to build on each other’s ideas and play to their strengths, relationships flourish. Emphasize the importance of our organisation culture, our willingness to be there for our team and enabling them in all possible ways to help achieve the goals shared. . Despite being spread across multiple home offices - it’s important for team members to feel valued, heard, and trusted.

Challenge # 3: Productivity

Low productivity is an obvious risk when employees work outside of a traditional office. In an environment without day-to-day oversight, some team members may not use their time wisely. On the other hand, certain employees risk burnout when working remotely due to a lack of boundaries.

Without invading privacy, the best way to ensure everyone’s doing their job is to set clear expectations for each role and have regular check-ins to gauge progress. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to work at the same pace, but we should have a general idea of how long tasks take and how much each person is accomplishing week by week, if not day by day.

Be sure to pay attention to our best performers as much as we do for the rest of our team. These may be the people at risk of overworking themselves. Without the clear boundaries that office life provides, the go-getters on our team may have workdays that never end, setting themselves up for exhaustion and resentment toward the company. Encourage team members to keep regular business hours. Check-in if we suspect someone is burning the midnight oil. Erratic or moody behavior, emails sent at odd times, and a drop in work quality are all signs that a remote worker needs to take a breather. Conducting regular one-one-ones with each team member to not only hold them accountable for performance but also to check in on workload and support needed.

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By: Vaani Gandha


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