Five things managers can do to help virtual teams thrive

A man sitting at a counter in his kitchen, smiling into a laptop screen as if on a Zoom meeting

As WFH enters into its third year, shouldn’t we be focused on thriving, not just producing?

One of my personal goals is to continue to work out with my personal trainer once a week. Rather than this happening in a gym, I’ve actually been working with my trainer from the comfort of my living room, live on Zoom. 

Pre-pandemic, I would never have seen this as an option. I would have baulked at the lack of sophisticated fitness equipment or the inability of the trainer to supervise my workout routine adequately. But you know what? I underestimated my trainer’s ability to adapt to a virtual environment, in particular, her capacity to track my progress and give the vital feedback I need while exercising through a tiny camera lens. In fact, I discovered that my trainer is very adept at communicating the small adjustments I need to keep on getting the physical and mental benefits that come from working out.

The way we adapted to this new training environment brings to mind the myriad challenges managers and teams have faced with the seismic shift to working from home ushered in by the pandemic. With little or no prior experience working in remote setups, managers were forced to quickly get up to speed and focus on productivity. Thinking the situation temporary, few companies invested in training staff and managers on how to work remotely.

Pandemic Year 3, time to level up our game

As we enter 2022, working and managing from home is no longer new. This is a good time for anyone who oversees staff to reflect on the last two years and assess how well they have managed factors other than basics like team productivity. Managing teams for their development and growth is particularly important in light of rising burnout and resignation rates.

Drawing on my more than 20 years of experience working remotely and managing large teams distributed across the globe, I have seen first-hand the benefits of putting staff care and development high on my agenda and ensuring they are an integral part of my managerial mindset.

If we want to get the most out of our teams, prevent burnout, mitigate productivity dips, then we must shift towards managing development and growth in virtual settings. Now, more than ever with today’s skilled staffing shortages on the rise, too, talent retention is critical to sustaining competitive advantage.

5 things your virtual team needs to develop

1. What does success look like? 

Setting clear goals and aligning expectations around what success looks like can reduce unnecessary staff stress and improve performance. When staff understand the part they play in the bigger picture, they tend to experience a sense of communal ownership and pride.

2. Communication, beyond Zoom!

Given the prevalence of ‘Zoom fatigue’, a good strategy for managers is to proactively discuss how communication streams work for each team member and together seek out more optimal ways. I have found asynchronous communication methods to be very useful. For example, the use of exchangeable video logs can be great in offsetting the problems of staff and managers sitting in very different time zones. Another way is the use of written updates instead of some Zoom meetings. Basically, seeking ways that allow for tailoring to individual situations, personalities and styles, can bring many benefits.

3. Move beyond tracking productivity

Attending to each team member’s socio-emotive needs is more important than ever. Managers who strive to understand what else their team is having to juggle outside of work ensure sufficient space is planned in their agenda to talk about how people are doing. Flexibility from the manager can alleviate pressure and help with work-life balance. Emotions underlie performance and motivation, so ignoring this side of things is never a good move.

4. Teams are made of people

Team members are not one-dimensional clones. Each member has their quirks and experiences that impact how they work and what they bring to the team. I, for one, find the Kolbe A Index a very insightful tool. It measures the instinctive way people take action and can provide valuable insights and talking points to ensure each person’s individual development goals are catered to. It can also provide a non-judgmental, non-threatening basis for discussing role fit. 

5. Shush! Don’t speak

Managers who understand motivation and development as intrinsic to good performance ask a lot of open-ended questions and spend more time listening than speaking. It is a good idea to create enough virtual space for these types of qualitative interactions between managers and team members to take place, as this contributes positively to healthy team spirit and cohesion.

Managing for development and growth requires the type of adjustments that will help optimize the team’s professional performance and promote creativity. Just as my trainer and I have learned to adapt to the virtual tools available and ensure that we continue to make progress; managers can refine their approach to how they interact with their teams through setting clear goals, communicating in personalized ways, supporting work–life balance, understanding the individuals that make up your team, and listening. Doing these 5 things will elevate leadership beyond managing for productivity and towards thriving!

Linda Secondari is the Founder and Principal of Studiolo Secondari. Linda has an extensive background in publishing, most recently as the Creative Director for Oxford University Press. Her time working in publishing instilled in her the belief that through using intelligent design strategy and inspiring design solutions, we can improve the world through better communication.

Linda is a firm believer that design goes far beyond appealing book covers. Design Thinking (DT) and Organizational Design (OD) profoundly impact the way businesses do work, which has a knock-on effect on the lives of employees as well as the engagement of their audiences. By using DT and OD concepts, Linda helps businesses address challenges – like hybrid working environments for creative teams and managing the ‘pandemic of meetings’ – as well as develop empathetic solutions. She also makes a mean puttanesca.

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