career tips

New rules for a virtual world: How to stay connected to your remote team

Boris Joaquin

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New rules for a virtual world: How to stay connected to your remote team
Here are S.M.A.R.T. tips to keep your team engaged

Recent disruptions have forced us to dramatically rethink how we communicate with our teams, colleagues, customers, and stakeholders. Organizations are using video apps such as Zoom, Cisco Webex, MS Teams, and Google Meet to engage others in day-to-day business that historically had to be done face-to-face. 

While successfully engaging, leading, and communicating with others have always been challenging for many professionals, doing so remotely due to public safety and social distancing restrictions has brought forth new challenges, along with potential opportunities. 

Moving to a virtual world puts leadership skills to the test. Some still work under the misapprehension that they can only manage teams effectively face-to-face. Our lack of confidence both in our team and ourselves, as virtual leaders, often translates to micromanaging – or “controlling every part of an enterprise or activity, however small.”

How much do you micromanage your team? Take this simple survey. How many of the five lines below are you guilty of using in your daily communication with your team?

  1. You ask, “Just checking in on this” before the project is due. 
  2. You say: “Here’s how I would do it…” even before the person asks. 
  3. You take every notification that someone is online as a cue for you to follow up.
  4. You say: “Let me just do it…” 
  5. You ask: “Can you ‘cc’ me on that?”

Looking back at the last year and a half, how do you assess your confidence level as a virtual team leader? Have you learned to create trust in your team without micromanaging? Are you building processes that promote shared values that help team members to stay strong, calm, and resilient in the face of change? 

Leaders need to be on their A-game consistently to have their team deliver excellent performance while working away from one another. Given this scenario, let me give you some S.M.A.R.T. practices to consider when communicating remotely. These will help you build your trust in your virtual workers to complete their tasks and meet expectations without micromanaging their planners. In the end, these can also help develop solid interpersonal bonds between team members in these unprecedented, difficult times.

S – Set clear goals and expectations

Team members need to know their role and what is expected of them related to the larger strategic and operational vision for the organization. 

Lead your team into discovering your team’s purpose and involve them in forming a collective shared vision. This ensures that everyone understands how their work fits into the overall direction of the organization. Build accountabilities: create work processes that drive personal ownership for outcomes. People who connect with their organization’s vision become more emotionally connected and contribute more as a result. 

With this, the organization can focus on resources and activities that will make a difference; it will not be wasted on tasks far from the core objectives. Because COVID-19 has forced organizations to look at how and where they are allocating precious resources, decisions are being made to cut costs and get one’s fiscal house in order. 

Now, it is essential to communicate those changes to the team, along with the specific goals and expectations for the organization in the near future. 

You see, remote work has less to do with the tools and more to do with effective people management practices. Hence…

M – Manage relationships

These are unusual times, and many continue to transition in both the new landscape and just about everything else. 

Go out of your way to check-in and ask your team members, “How are things going working remotely?” “What is especially challenging for you given this situation?” “What, if anything, can we do to help you be more effective in working remotely?” This simple action lets your employees know that you value them. 

Beyond technical and task-related support, your team members might need more encouragement and emotional support. Leaders need to build better personal relationships with team members to understand what’s happening in their lives. Make time to catch up with team members and get to know them as people. Listen to and empathize with their anxieties, fears, and concerns. Discover their interests, concerns, and other skills. 

When a team or community moves to a more virtual model, your team members need to feel valued and affirmed. 

Connectedness will require intentionality. Create moments to socialize. Allow a few minutes every meeting to talk about non-work-related matters – like what they have been streaming on Netflix or what they did over the weekend. Schedule non-work-related video chats. Occasionally go for a virtual food party, and have fast food delivered to your team members during the video conference, or just for a virtual “happy hour.” It is essential to connect with your team on a social basis to help prevent feelings of isolation. 

The same is true for your stakeholders – clients, customers, or vendors; these are people who matter in your world. Stay connected. Create a prioritized list of calls, texts, or emails that you will use to connect and communicate with your people. Keep track of who you communicate with, when you last did it, and any action you agreed to (and be sure to follow up). 

To be present in a virtual world, the leader needs to “reach out and touch” – metaphorically speaking. Reach out to people via text, email, and video. You “touch” them when you share yourself – your personal story – with them, and, in turn, you listen to theirs. 

A – Always appreciate team members

Take note of specific team members who are stepping up and embracing the drastic changes needed, not just to survive but even to thrive in difficult times. Let them know that you appreciate their efforts and, more importantly, their attitude. 

Leaders need to acknowledge that certain team members will have a tough time adapting to this rapidly changing and uncertain environment. Converse with them and encourage them.

Some team members may not have the privilege or resources to work as efficiently as they did before in the office. Some are not willing to think and act outside of the box. They will hold on to the past and say things like, “But we’ve always done it that way.” 

When these occur, make it a point to coach them. Start from a place of empathy. It is the leader’s responsibility to engage the struggling team members and offer alternatives to adapt to the changing environment while identifying the reasons for the hesitance. 

R – Realign rigorously

Leaders today should be innovative thinkers and transformational leaders. They have to be clear about their expectations from the outset and agree on the rules of engagement with everyone. Learn and evolve to keep pace without losing integrity. Adjust quickly to different teams’ rhythms and flows. Look outside of your unit or organization for knowledge or ideas to challenge conventional thinking. Determine what to hold onto and what to let go of but embed empathy in your process. 

These processes should NOT be a burden, nor should people be penalized for not following them. Be patient with people. Figuring out the best process takes time. 

Moving forward, even with help provided, if the team member still remains unwilling to adapt together with the rest of the team towards the “next normal,” you may want to rethink that person’s place in the bus. Because with the way things are going, the leader needs to build a team culture with the right people operating on shared solid values to stay strong, agile, and resilient in the face of change.

T – Tool up with technology

One of the biggest challenges when remotely leading is keeping employees engaged. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the type of coaching and communicating that will work best for your team or, for that matter, each individual. You can use email, video, text, conference calls, and file-sharing platforms to keep your team informed of important updates and deadlines. 

But to stay relevant, you need to know how to use the technology at a basic level for virtual teamwork. These are the trade tools – communication tools, file-sharing tools, knowledge base tools, design tools, project management tools, brainstorming, or collaboration tools. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s the default mode of communication (collaboration tool, email, video call, chat, phone call, etc.)? 
  • Which channel/tool should be used for which kind of communication? What are the pros and cons of each tool identified? Compare then choose.
  • Who else should be copied on a message, if anyone? 
  • When something is urgent, how should it be communicated? What about when it’s not? 
  • What’s the right cadence for checking in on a particular communication?
The next normal

The virtual workplace has presented leaders with a new set of growth challenges, among them, learning to have trust and confidence in your remote workers. By changing your attitude and management style, you can make remote work, work for your team.

Demonstrate an abundance of trust and respect. Trust glues the team together, and not doing so endangers productivity. Allow people to make mistakes. Your ultimate measure is the output. Trust your team. 

Some leaders hope to return to “normal” times. And while we all want this, it is no substitute for having an innovative and strategic communication game plan in this remote environment. The best leaders and communicators are really good at playing the hand they are dealt with – in this case, this pandemic and its myriad challenges. Being an excellent and engaging communicator in various remote and virtual settings will be a critically important skill set for any leader at any given time — even when things get better with the vaccine distribution.

The truth is that more and more organizations will have remote meetings, and leaders will be expected to make virtual presentations. We will also coach, mentor, and give feedback to team members using remote technology, in addition to whatever we do in person. 

I was doing remote meetings and engagements internationally before the lockdown, and this mode of communication just became local. 

The point here is that even though we all long to lead and communicate in the same space, the reality is that remote and virtual communication will remain a significant aspect of every leader’s future. This is why all of us must continue to innovate, learn, and grow our leadership and communication skills in every possible platform – because to remain in what used to be considered the status quo is no longer an option. –

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