The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented an entirely new host of challenges to our modern-day workplace lifestyle. Social distancing recommendations and shelter in place ordinances have moved many office workers to mandatory telework arrangements. Where there were many team members in the office who could communicate by bumping into each other in the breakroom, there is now the home-bound isolated worker bee who has to intentionally include team members in email conversations. Virtual teams will be the new normal for many former office dwellers over the next several weeks, or even months, until the concerns from COVID-19 subside enough for public health officials to feel comfortable with offices reopening.
For some, moving their work online is not entirely a huge shift, but for others the virtual environment is a difficult transition that feels like an out of body experience. How then, do we get together online to make our online teams work? Through enhanced communication, clearly defined roles, and managers focusing on outcomes virtual teams have a greater chance of success.
Communication is an important piece of the puzzle where quality is more important than quantity. Because online teaming can feel fragmented and distant, it is important to use the most appropriate mode for your communication. Email and text communication can be abrupt or sometimes impersonal. The use of phone calls and video chat (e.g., FaceTime or Zoom platforms) can allow for people to continue to see each other while listening to voices and reading facial expressions and non-verbal cues. It is also more captivating to one’s attention span to actually talk face-to-face versus just to engage in a verbal exchange.
Understanding who does what and when is another linchpin of virtual team success. Clearly defined roles will allow for employees to work in their specific function without duplicating efforts or getting in the way of others. When office place interactions are removed there is less natural informal communication and more worker alone time. It is important for employees to understand their role on the team and distribution of responsibilities. With everyone working in their defined space, people feel comfortable to take ownership of their duties and perform at a higher level.
Managers who suddenly switch to a virtual environment may have a difficult time learning how to follow workflow or manage their employees without being in the office. If the team does not have a virtual project management system where all work is tracked or there is not a scheduled time to check in, managers can feel like they are on a different planet than their team. Finding a virtual task software where employees can enter tasks online with details for team members to help complete work is one step in understanding what your team is working on providing transparency for all team members. Managers who provide a focused setting with less employees on teams who have defined roles tend to be more successful.
Overall, learning how to avoid pitfalls of lack of quality communication, ambiguous roles on teams, and task-centered instead of outcome-centered management can increase your likelihood of virtual team success. Working alone online can feel very different than the reality we knew before in the office, but remember we are all in this together. Lean on your team with meaningful interactions when you need it in order to pull through the new normal of a virtual workplace environment.
Campbell, J. (2020). Virtual and traditional teams. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
Lepsinger, R., & DeRosa, D. (2010). Virtual team success: A practical guide for working and leading from a distance. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com.