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Contributing to Healthy Virtual Teams

Team Leader: Good afternoon, everyone. Look, I know it’s Friday afternoon and you are all likely pushing pins into my effigy right now (attempt at humor), but let me say that we couldn’t do what we do without you and how much you’re appreciated. So, let’s get to it and see if we can wrap up in the hour we’ve scheduled. Ummm, did everyone get the agenda?

Dalia: Not me.

Rick: Nope.

Jayant: Me neither.

Team Leader: I guess I forgot. My bad. Okay, let’s just go around the table. Let’s do a wellness check and then we’ll discuss the marketing for our new line of plush animal toys. Should be a huge hit out there. With real animals, you’ve got to feed them and take them for walks. We can’t miss.

Okay, so a little bit of tongue-in-cheek. But as you read this, I bet you weren’t thinking of sitting around a meeting room table, but you pictured the team leader and team members parked in front of their laptop. It has only been a year since remote work became a reality for most of the workforce, yet it is so firmly embedded in our day-to-day reality, the old ways of running meetings seems almost prehistoric.

Beyond eye fatigue, remembering where to find the Zoom link, and forgetting to turn on your microphone, let’s explore how we are relating to new ways of working and what these new ways mean in terms of human connection and our well-being. I want to leave you with tips on how to make your day more relaxed and productive at the same time.

The Pandemic Challenges for Teams

In the initial stages of the pandemic, employers had to figure out how to realign systems, work processes and workflows, and sorting out people’s roles. Then, appropriately so, came a collective thirst for workplace self-care and a concern for physical and mental health, work-life balance and continued redefining of roles and expectations. I say “appropriately so” because the shift to a virtual way of working brought with it a horrible premonition that we could lose our human connection, our sense of belonging and our shared identity with the team and colleagues.

Even in an office setting, simply determining “whose team am I on” was not always straightforward. With funky reporting relationships in non-traditional workplaces, ill-defined reporting relationships, or individuals who sit on a number of project or task teams in addition to their “department” or work unit, sorting out whose primary team people are on was critical to involving them in the right virtual get-togethers.

Within the team, are team members truly interdependent in the sense that one team member’s workflow depends on a colleague’s output? Or is the team a short-term initiative to solve a specific problem or take advantage of a specific opportunity? Different types of teams or workgroups require different approaches and processes. However, there are things we can do to make the virtual team experience more fun and positive for all.

Tips for Preserving Human Connection on Virtual Teams

It is in everyone’s interest that we get really good at being a positive contributor to our virtual teams. Here are a few things we have learned and can all experiment with to foster a climate of collaboration, trust and better problem solving with our colleagues on our virtual teams:

  • Ill-timed cameos by kids and pets: Try making a convincing argument with a client when your cat jumps on your head, you’re having a bad hair day, or a child has a boo-boo. Unplanned cameos and bloopers humanize us and add little collective silliness, which our brains love. Don’t sweat it.

  • Isolation is real for extroverts , and a thoughtful exploration and specific action plans with scheduled human contact to remain connected to others is a must to remain positive and energized.

  • Buffer times mitigate burnout. Back-to-back commitments or meetings are a sure way to drain energy and create anxiety. Creating five- or 10-minute buffers in our calendars can make a huge difference for our energy, rehydration and an opportunity to stretch. And yes, there are apps for that, and most calendar systems allow for the creation of 25-minute or 50-minute meetings as your default instead of 30- and 60-minute respectively to instill buffer times automatically. Just add a bit of discipline.

  • David Burkus, the author of Leading from Anywhere, highlights ideas like people sharing meals together virtually (sometimes everyone eating their version of the same thing. A group I know has bi-weekly pizza get-togethers for Friday lunch, homemade, microwave or delivery. The oddball concoctions by avant-garde amateur chefs have proven joyful and powerful social glue.

  • Try scheduling virtual coffee breaks or lunches with others on a weekly schedule to only talk about non-work matters and discover our “uncommon commonalities.” (If you’ve ever serendipitously discovered you share a passion for knitting, running or any other life-affirming activity with a colleague, and witnessed the bond it creates, you know what I mean.)

  • Virtual tours of home offices, show-and-tell rituals and other brief and punchy themed add-ons to virtual get-togethers are also powerful team builders. Other ideas include “working alone together” by opening a video conferencing call for three colleagues who are all working on their own thing but know they can pop their head up and ask a question to one of their other two colleagues or just share a laugh.

  • Periodic and regular evaluation of virtual get-togethers. Many effective teams I know who meet regularly (virtually and/or in person) have a standing agenda item to evaluate their meetings every so often on a regular schedule. Some do it every five meetings, others every month or quarter and some I know do a quick evaluation at the end of each and every get-together. They all do a version of “On a scale of 1 to 5, five being excellent, are our regular meetings helpful and worth your time?” done openly or anonymously, during or after the meeting. They then debrief the evaluation and agree on what they’ll start doing, stop doing and keep doing as experiments or permanent hacks until the next evaluation. This is a foundational process of an effective learning team and virtual polling tools in video conferencing apps make it super simple.

  • Better brainstorming. Simply taking ineffective in-person brainstorming techniques and attempting to do them virtually is a recipe for failure. However, when we bring certain rules of engagement around virtual brainstorming, the process delivers on the potential of better problem solving and creative idea generation. Simply guiding how and when people participate while brainstorming, assignment of various roles and regular evaluation and debriefing are hugely beneficial.

  • Over-communicating is the norm on effective virtual teams, because clarity of communication reduces anxiety (“I don’t know what I am supposed to do next”) and consequently increases efficiency. Try asking more questions in more settings more often.

  • Loving learning. If you only do one thing from this list to better your experience in a virtual team, make it about learning. Thankfully our access to digital tools for learning has never been better with company supplied e-learning courses and the goldmine that is LinkedIn Learning. I’ve been impressed by the number of people who have adopted lunch and learn habits, or a dedicated hour per week with short LinkedIn courses. Our best future-proofing of ourselves, our colleagues and our teams is through deliberate learning.

We’re built to work in groups. We are rewarded for collaboration when our brain releases dopamine for cooperating with our colleagues. When virtual teams create the right conditions, the difference in employee experience, effectiveness and team success are well worth the effort.

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