Monday, September 21, 2020

Five in 10 remote workers say they don’t want to go back to the office after COVID-19. Perhaps you don’t want to go back either. No matter how you feel, smart leaders know it’s time to stop thinking of working from home as a short-term solution to a temporary pandemic.

Remote work is here to stay, so now is the time to get really good at it. To help, we turned to science to find answers about what makes for high performing virtual teams. Thankfully, researchers were digging deeply into this topic for decades before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The research shows that successful virtual teams have mastered three areas of focus:

1.    Trust

2.    Connection

3.    Performance standards

Trust: Before the coronavirus forced us to go virtual, we often heard leaders say they were concerned about trust. How will I know people are doing their work if I can’t see them at their desks?

While there’s always an outlier, research says your worries about trusting team members are unfounded. Gallup agrees, telling leaders to ditch their trust issues. Their advice aligns with ours: study past performance, and trust that. If someone has always been a good performer, they’ll continue to be, whether working from home or at the office.

Where you do need to think about trust, however, is the trust your team has for its leader and the organization. Institutional trust is important in virtual teams. Research suggests that teams perform better when they trust the organization. We can build trust by sharing information freely and fairly and by resourcing teams and individuals equitably.  

Also important is relational trust in virtual teams, especially when a team is new. One way to do this is to make space for non-work talk on your teams. Dedicate the first few minutes of every meeting to checking in as human beings, rather than co-workers. Share appropriate information about your personal life and affirm the personal lives of your colleagues. Making space for social interaction help develop trust and high-quality relationships.

Want more info on trust? Check out our new eBook, Leading High-Performing, High-Engagement Virtual Teams.

Connection: Virtual teams start to feel disconnected when there’s a communication breakdown. One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to assess how knowledge is shared in your team: is it reaching the team members who are most at the periphery? Is it timely? Is it efficient, with the right medium (email vs. video conference, for example) for the task? If so, you’re establishing strong connections.

Researchers say another type of connection is also important for high-performing teams: high quality connections (HQCs). HQCs happen when we have regular, short, positive interactions at work, no matter if those interactions happen over Slack, email, or Zoom. HQCs give us a sense of positive energy in the moment, especially when we can tell the feeling is mutual. Researchers believe HQCs lead to higher performance because high quality relationships and the resulting psychological safety allow for greater learning in organizations and may contribute to innovation.

How can you create more HQCs? There are lots of ideas in our new eBook for virtual team leaders. But to get started, think about the colleague you work with most. Now think about something he or she has done this week that made your work easier or better. Drop him or her a note, something like, “This may seem small, but I was just thinking about how much I appreciated …”

Performance standards: Finally, virtual team leaders need to put their focus on performance standards. Leading management scholar Edgar Schein says extraordinary teams have a sense of distinctiveness that is often driven by high performance standards.

That probably seems obvious to you. But we actually find it’s an area in which most teams struggle because they get complacent. Once we figure out something that works, we just keep doing it over and over again, ignoring the fact that what worked efficiently in person is clunky online, or that the market is changing, competitors are developing, and what was fresh a decade ago now looks stale. High-performing teams push themselves to take it up a notch, over and over again.

How do you set high standards for your virtual team? First, make sure every team member knows why they are there and how their work connects to the organization’s mission and the project’s purpose. Being clear on that helps the team understand why their work matters.

Then connect each person to clear goals that are a stretch to deliver. If your goals can be reached just by working a little harder, you haven’t really stretched. Challenge your team to set goals that require thinking differently in order to succeed. That will push you and your team to innovate.

Find more resources on virtual team leadership: For the rest of this month, we’ll focus this column how to build a connected and engaged virtual team. We’ll ask what a future of remote work means for consultants, like those at Accenture, who have always spent most of their time onsite at client offices. We’ll talk tech with Bank of America’s Chief Technology Officer. And we’ll consider how remote work helps or hinders your efforts to build an inclusive organization. Check back here for more content and be sure to download our eBook on virtual team leadership or join us on September 24 for a webinar with more great content on leading high-performing virtual teams.

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