3 Key Steps to Aligning Your Teams in A Virtual World

Richard Brady, Andrew Salisbury

The idea of widespread virtual teams is not a new concept, but the challenges of 2020 have caused many office-based workers to work from home for extended periods.

Recent research based on 4700 remote workers shows that people are generally more satisfied working remotely than working in an office. Only 12% wish to return to full-time office-based work, and 72% prefer a hybrid remote-office model. But this way of working, while offering advantages, can lead to inefficiency. An MIT study of 70 virtual teams found that 82% fell short of their goals, and 33% rated themselves as largely unsuccessful.

A way of working that became prevalent with globalization is now here to stay – what does this mean moving forward?

The Future of the Workplace

It’s easy to get over-excited about the potential of this revolutionary way of working, but it’s also important to understand that the office isn’t going away. There are interpersonal aspects of working together in an office that cannot be recreated in digital communication. Looking at the act of conferencing, it can essentially be compared to being invited into someone’s home. Zoom recognized this element of personalization, which is perhaps why its virtual background has been so successful.

The office is also a great enabler: by reading body language or picking up subtleties of language, we can engage with even the most introverted staff members. Working relationships are built on reputation, rapport, authenticity, and trust. Arguably, these are typically provided and enhanced by both familiarity and proximity. These are hard to acquire and maintain from a distance. In addition, with delayering and changes in the nature of work, key relationships are now less boss-subordinate and more peer-to-peer, making them increasingly ‘informal’ and not subject to command and control.

It’s also easy to underestimate how much work is done in brief office interactions. Only in the office environment is it possible to check something in five seconds with a colleague sitting nearby or to ask someone to look at an email before sending it. Dealing with these seemingly minor interactions can be cumbersome when done virtually – either scheduling 15-minute meetings or waiting for return voice calls.

The last six months have seen a lot of thought leadership published on making virtual teams work. But the reality is that there is no universal solution. It’s very different to get a team of 15 to function effectively compared to a company with several thousand employees worldwide.

Post Pandemic Expectations

One immediate impact of 2020 is that CEOs and senior executives have had to consider implementing a strategy when the execution teams aren’t physically in the same space. In many cases, business operations severely undermined by COVID-19 have also found response difficult with dispersed delivery and execution capacity.

The promise of vaccines has led to a collective hope that the world may return to normal. The reality is that we are not going back – this is our new normal. Virtual teams, in some form, are here to stay.

But for managers, executives, and staff, expectations have also changed. Staff may be happier at home, but the sudden drop in travel costs and office space is also attractive. Nevertheless, there are still persistent issues with going virtual:

  • Misunderstandings around objectives, vision, and strategy lead to duplication of effort, poor collaboration, withholding, and a lack of clarity and purpose.

  • The lack of immediate communication, infrequent communication and the limitations of messaging and video conferencing limits employee productivity.

  • Confused leadership or followership blur accountabilities, and silos and political influences lead to problems with morale and motivation.

  • Over-reliance on virtual meetings through applications like Teams, Skype and Google Meet, means that extraverted voices may dominate. Cross-cultural clashes may also result. It is a well-established principle in social psychology that people tend to make the strongest relationships with people close to them, both physically and psychologically.

  • Conferencing becomes exhausting – ‘Zoom fatigue’ – with expectations that every meeting must be attended.

Key Steps to Aligning your Virtual Teams

To overcome these hurdles, we must understand the balance between short, medium- and long-term actions. The pandemic has resulted in extreme short-term focus, especially for those in adversely affected sectors like tourism or retail, where rapid adaptation has become necessary. Long-term success will be driven by how organizations adapt and transition from existing structures. In the case of highly structured or complex organizations, there will be varying degrees of difficulty in shifting to more matrix-based working with virtual teams. But even organizations with virtual teams and adaptive cultures will have to change how they act and learn. Therefore, medium- and long-term adaptivity is based on the social capital elements currently present in an organization.

Given the uncertainty, what actions can we take to align virtual teams? This can be broken into a three-step process:

  1. Turn intangible into tangible. By nature, virtual teams are intangible, so the aim must be to make their dynamic and impact as tangible as possible. Create meaningful, measurable, visible milestones toward company goals and objectives. Recognize and reward the ways that teams and individuals contribute toward shared successes. Encourage outcome-based interactions that yield measurable results, rather than simply logging time in meetings.

  2. Focus on interpersonal dynamics. Many consulting organizations have advocated measuring employee engagement, much of which appears to be based on increasingly outdated assumptions about both the working environment and the criticality of a ‘leader’.

    Organizations must explore patterns of communication, collaboration and trust between individuals and teams. Using a company-wide survey of interpersonal dynamics is of great value, eliminating intuition and guesswork.

  3. Focus on impactful virtual networks. Analyze your networks and focus on those that will have the biggest impact on your organization’s success. Is it the innovation network? Is it the sales network? From here, allocate extra resources to set up this virtual network for maximum success.

How Network Centrality® Can Help

Every organization has its formal structures. But traditional organizational charts do not represent true interactions between individuals and teams. Network Centrality® is our innovative tool that explores the patterns of communication, collaboration and trust between individuals and teams. It looks holistically at an organization instead of focusing on individual employees. By analyzing and visualizing the formal and informal relationships in your organization, it helps you identify where your network structure needs to be improved and how to allocate resources effectively.

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