Leading virtual teams can become untenable if you expect the virtual world to correlate perfectly with a traditional office environment. According to a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, 82 percent of virtual teams fell short of their goals. With that said, everything that makes for a strong leader in an office is twice as important in the virtual landscape. As a hospitality professional and a distributed team leader for many years, I’ve put a lot of thought into how to make the online work experience as personal, human and accountable as it is in the real world (if not more).
Of course, opening up to the possibility of a distributed workforce requires that leaders have a great deal of trust in their team members. This also affords them the perfect opportunity to display that trust in meaningful ways to ensure that relationships grow and trust becomes deeper, broader, and most importantly, reciprocal. Trust is so important that recent meta-analysis confirmed a clear, positive relationship between how much team members trust one another and the achievement of team goals. One thing I’ve learned as more and more meetings are held over video conferencing platforms: we are all welcoming our coworkers into our homes and, sometimes, our most personal spaces by joining a meeting remotely. With that comes a sense of vulnerability. Is my house or home office clean enough? Is my hair messy? How’s the lighting in here? Will my dog, cat or kid come into the frame and destroy my credibility? I can’t tell where they’re looking, so how are my peers judging my appearance, my tools or my personal space? One of the best ways to combat these feelings of vulnerability is to be just as vulnerable and real on the call as your colleagues are.
I always let my two dogs into the picture (as if they’d give me any other choice) and talk about what’s going on in my life outside of the work in front of us. It is important to stay on task, but opportunities for connection are rarer in a virtual environment, so you need to grab hold of them and allow yourself to be present in the moment. When you do, it helps reassure your coworkers that there’s no shame in being human, and that it’s not a catastrophe if a rogue family member or pet pops up on camera. In fact, the opposite is true! We’ll often take a moment to say hello. The photobomber appreciates the acknowledgement and both they and the team relish in an opportunity to build a sense of collective trust. In fact, candor is the number-one indicator of team productivity.
Through these micro-moments, we’re able to build relationships both on and off the team. We can use them to inform future small gestures, like sending a balloon to a coworker’s sick child or mailing a handwritten thank you note to a spouse for taking extra time on a special project. In the past, I’ve even sent personalized notes on anniversaries and cheesecakes on Thanksgiving. Every year, this provides a sense of ritual that people love and share with their families. Over time, this level of care and understanding fosters an environment of appreciation and gratitude, allowing everyone to feel confident in giving their best efforts and realizing that their investment in the team and the work we do is always time well spent. A new study supports this thought process for “busting all excuses for not saying thank you more.” Although individuals predicted that the recipients of thank you letters would feel positive about what they received, recipients reported even more surprise and delight than what the senders expected. Moreover, expressers of appreciation overestimated the awkwardness that the recipient would feel, according to The Association for Psychological Science blog.
Being open and vulnerable with your team is always important, but to really feel appreciated, your online team needs you to be timely and candid with your feedback—both positive and negative—and to check in whenever you can to make sure they feel supported and aligned with the team’s goals and tasks. I do this by greeting the team at large every morning, and also throughout the course of the day with individual pings and phone calls. By casually dropping in, whether by Slack or phone, I’m able to touch base in a personal way as if we were sharing physical space, gauge how everyone is feeling and determine if there’s a need to course-correct or adjust strategy to better fit the team’s mental and emotional state. Think of any time your past managers stopped by your desk to see what you’re working on and acted on the feedback you gave them. Much like a regular exercise regimen, these actions have a cumulative effect that brings a little more trust and mutual respect each time.
As a distributed team grows and develops, keep in mind that, while you’re sharing this virtual space, the work doesn’t happen in a vacuum and your colleagues might be a time zone away, or maybe even 12! Out of respect for their time and space, be cognizant of this when you reach out and cater your expectations to the channels of communication used. Intentional or not, a group-chat platform brings with it an inherent sense of urgency. So, if what you’re saying or asking would be reasonable to mention at the appropriate time in their workday, by all means, chat away. If it can wait until morning (either your morning or theirs), shoot them an email or wait for a more ideal time to ping them directly. Often, especially when people are just starting to work remotely, they’ll fail to set boundaries and might burn themselves out. Try to help set these boundaries for your team by respecting their time outside of the workday.
Your team needs your time and support in the office—but in a virtual environment, it’s doubly important to overcommunicate and over-support in every way. In challenging times like these (or on any given day), being there for your team is all about meeting them where they are and making sure you’re able to share as much of your humanity as possible in your role.
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No matter where you work, there are several ways to make the most of your time and develop the necessary routines to help you feel confident and secure in your ability to achieve great things. Host produced the following articles to offer some advice to help you create a personalized work environment that lets you be at your best, regardless of your surroundings.