AEGIS has had virtual teams for years now, with some having been totally online for over 10 years. As a result, many of our managers have gained extensive experience in effectively managing virtual teams. In our new “Managing Virtual Teams” blog series, we will be highlighting some of our managers as they share their best practices for effectively leading virtual teams.
There are two types of virtual teams: teams that are virtual by design and teams that are virtual by necessity. New COVID-19 virtual-by-necessity teams have a unique set of challenges brought on by having to convert to long-term, full-time virtual work in a matter of days. But because of COVID-19, some of those challenges have been introduced to long-standing virtual-by-design teams, even if they have been online for years. In addition to navigating the basic challenges of a virtual workplace, managers are now having to figure out how to manage effectively while team members are being pulled in new directions as they try to help their children with online school and mitigate background distractions at home with more people in the house during the workday. Additionally, many teams are now finding project funding issues, forcing them to downsize staff without a reduction in workload. Those remaining team members have to take on more responsibilities, and in many cases be tasked with work outside their wheelhouse.
All of these challenges have built up into an overwhelming amount of stress and frustration for everyone, which is why I—a virtual team manager for the last 8.5 years—would like to share some of my tips and tricks for cultivating a strong and productive virtual team environment.
Challenges of Virtual Communication as the Sole Source of Engagement
Regardless of whether a team is virtual-by-design or virtual-by-necessity, all virtual teams face one major challenge: communicating effectively without the benefit of the social cues present in face-to-face interactions. Misunderstandings, lack of clarity, and conflicts often run rampant when the majority of communication is done via email. That is why it is of the utmost importance for managers to find ways to stay engaged in email threads, proactively mitigate conflicts, encourage clear communication, listen attentively to team members during meetings, encourage active participation from all attendees in team meetings, and offer to moderate discussions between team members when tensions are high.
Social Interaction in a Virtual Office
Without the opportunity to socialize with co-workers the way we might in an in-person office, we miss out on opportunities to build personable relationships with co-workers unless we adapt to our virtual environment and create those opportunities ourselves. While it might not be as simple as popping over to a colleague’s desk or chatting by the water cooler, managers have the power to create opportunities for social interaction during the day-to-day operations of their virtual team. These opportunities for social interaction look different for every team and may change over time, but something as simple as starting off meetings by asking people about their weekend plans, sharing a joke or fun fact, or asking them about something positive that happened to them during the week are great ways to break the ice and get people talking. The beginning of a meeting is also a great time to celebrate a team member’s achievements so as to recognize their value as a member of the team and as a talented and hard-working individual.
Staying Engaged During Virtual Meetings
It is easy to get distracted during virtual meetings, especially if cameras are off. During the meeting, it is very important for managers to set an example by removing distractions from their environment so that they can devote their attention to team members and resist the urge to multitask during meetings. This means closing your email, setting aside your to-do list, muting notifications, and listening attentively to the speaker. By doing so, the leader can make team members feel heard and pick up on underlying conflicts and potential tensions so that they can be proactively addressed. Staying engaged also helps encourage meeting participants to follow suit, even when the discussion isn’t pertinent to them in a given moment. By implementing these tactics and ensuring that attendees have adequate time to review materials before the meeting, the team can avoid the “crickets” moments that are so common in virtual meetings when no one wants to be the first to speak up.
Give these tips and tricks a try in your own team and let us know what worked for you in the comments!