Running a virtual team in a post-COVID world

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Okay, so let’s all stop saying things like “New Normal” and embrace that as a society, we have all just been through over a year’s worth of trauma we are working on recovering from.

Unfortunately, trauma like that does not leave you unchanged. You, and the teams you manage, are not the same humans you were at the beginning of 2020 when the clock happily struck 12 a.m. on New Year’s Day, and everyone was getting new gym memberships. Our workplaces, our schools, our lives, and our daily interactions look a lot different now.

That means those in leadership positions must recognize the changes and adapt to our teams’ needs to function in this current environment.

Here are some tips to help you:

No. 1 — Mental health is going to be a prevalent issue

Pay attention. Your team could be suffering from all sorts of anxiety that was not there before. They could have anxiety about coming back to the office; they could have anxiety about leaving their family after over a year at home; they could have anxiety about wearing a mask or getting sick; they can have pandemic fatigue from constantly having to address all of the above.

Either way, it is essential to understand that the individuals you are working with may not be the same ones mentally or emotionally that you are used to having on your team. Make sure you take time to address individual work/life integration needs, self-care needs and pay attention to signs of anxiety.

You are not your team’s health care provider, but if someone’s performance is being impacted, now is a good time to proceed with caution on performance improvement plans and ask first how you can help them feel supported to be successful. You will get more buy-in and eventually healthier team members.

How to address it:

Make sure your team all has a clear understanding of office policies around returning to work and safety guidelines, has access to them, and the ability to discuss any confusion and concern with you. Consider being flexible with team members who may be asking for more remote or hybrid schedules than in the past. You may also want to consider adding mental health resources to an employee homepage where they have quick access to a support system, even if it is not employer-sponsored.

No. 2 — Make sure they have the proper resources

This can be technology, time management skills, decision trees, or more. Technology is critical here. You must know that they have proper setups to be the most productive at home. Beyond just sending laptops out, consider a technology stipend for team members who need better configurations at home. Teach them about a proper ergonomic desk setup (i.e., not the kitchen table), invest in headphones for everyone, and make sure you have implemented a solid team communication method. Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams can help your staff stay connected throughout the day with instant messaging and video calling features.

How to address it:

Ask team members what their biggest challenges are working remotely. Is it distractions you can help manage? Lack of clarity around their responsibilities? If they are invested in keeping their remote status, they will share roadblocks with you. If your firm doesn’t have an internal technology team, consider finding a consultant that especially has worked with other practices like yours.

Develop a plan to implement a tech stack that makes sense for your business size but also to address the actual needs brought up by your team members. Nothing is more inefficient than taking the time and spending the money to implement technology that doesn’t work or you don’t need, so the cost up front for good advice is well worth it.

No. 3 — Organize regular meetings but do not overdo it

I have found that most teams have replaced the office water cooler chatter with just being on non-stop zoom calls all day. We have zooms to talk about everything. You will burn your staff out like that, and you will not give them enough time to be productive.

Your team does need a regularly scheduled slot where they can all be face to face discussing the status of work, delegating tasks, and keeping up their team connection, because they need quiet work time too. You can help them manage their time by instituting one day a week with no meetings or instituting “quiet time” at varying points throughout the day.

It also helps to streamline communications that do need to happen. Multiple communication methods, such as teams, email, phone, etc., can become overwhelming. We all get burnt out on our email inboxes, and now it seems that has spilled over into other channels. Help by setting some ground rules about how each communication method should be used, how often they should be checked, how quickly your team is expected to respond, etc.

How to address it:

Things we have implemented in our practice that have had good results are “No Meeting Fridays” and “slack quiet times.” Our whole team agrees to respect these times as free of meetings and messaging to help support everyone having a break. It also gives everyone clear blocks of time that they know they will be able to schedule projects that they need to address without interruption.

Encourage your team to schedule meetings for 45 minutes instead of an hour or 15-20 minutes instead of 30, and leave 10-15 minutes between meetings. We all need water and snack breaks and scheduling them in can help make sure we’re comfortable and focused going into each new meeting.

Do not get stingy with the gold stars; a little recognition can go a long way to keeping your team focused and motivated.

No. 4 — Utilize project management tools

This is critical. You will never get the same type of work cadence and flow from a fully remote team that you get from an in-person team that can all sit nearby and keeps everyone productive throughout the day. To keep everyone flowing, it is crucial to ensure a centralized task location with regular status updates and clear delegation. Suppose you were going to try to bake a pie with a group of humans not physically located in the same spot.

In that case, you would have to make sure you were very clear about what ingredients are needed, the step-by-step instructions, and the checkpoints throughout the process to check their pie progress against expectations. A robust project management tool can act as the centralized location for this to happen. It provides you as a manager the ability to review status and progress on projects without interrupting your team’s workflow for constant updates.

How to address it:

Our team has implemented programs like Canopy, Karbon and Active Collab. A key recommendation when considering what’s a good fit is to look for a solution with automation. For example, if a preparer has finished the steps on a project and is ready to send to a reviewer, they can automatically notify a reviewer that the work is ready to review.

Building in good timelines on all projects with these systems also can make sure that everyone—including supervisors—has a future outlook at workflow and capacity. Canopy provides a note section on each project that allows high level project information to be included so that anyone with access can get caught up on key project information without having to message team members.

No. 5 — Recognize achievements and reward good performance

We may have forgotten about positive reinforcement amid pandemic life. Yes, many employers struggled, staffing changes were constant, but we seem to have left achievement recognition on the side of the highway as we sped along. Now, more than ever, your people need to be reminded that they are appreciated and praised for doing a good job.

See mental health in point No. 1. The fact that you even have team members who were willing to adjust, adapt, and stay on board through so much change and home life challenges is a testament to their commitment to their organization. Do not get stingy with the gold stars; a little recognition can go a long way to keeping your team focused and motivated.

How to address it:

Our office implemented an “awesomeness” slack channel where we can shout out team members whenever we want to recognize someone for doing a great job. If your team is frequently remote, consider an in-person gathering and take the opportunity to hand out awards for jobs well done. Check in with people frequently to make sure they feel like they have a development plan for themselves to be consistently learning and growing.

Work can get stagnate when we are not always interfacing with others who we frequently learn from. We implemented 90-day action plans with our team and broke down their plan into 30-day actionable items to make sure everyone felt like they were on track towards their next goal and receiving the support they needed.

By following these steps, you can begin the process of helping you and your team adapt to the process of working in today’s virtual landscape.