With the widespread advances of COVID-19, companies and organizations around the world have been thrust into working remotely. Team leaders understand this is necessary for the well-being of their employees, as well as to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But as many are discovering, having a virtual team is very different from working face-to-face—and requires a new set of leadership skills.   

This is particularly trying for managers because they tend to be hard on themselves. Only 15% of managers feel they’re very effective, while 53% say they’re only moderately so. That’s during normal times, and now they’re trying to lead a remote team with no training on best practices. Many are flying by the seat of their pants. 

I first recognized the need for virtual team building some 30 years ago. I was teaching a seminar that included a portion on virtual teams when one participant raised her hand and asked, “Why are you talking about virtual teams when my team isn’t here?”

Seeing how people needed more information and understanding of what a virtual team is and how to build it, that question changed my life. I thought, “Why not create a team-building course for virtual teams done virtually?”

I went home and founded Virtual Team Builders. Since then, I’ve helped thousands of managers reduce costs and reach their team’s maximum potential through training, coaching, consulting, and designing.  I’ve also authored six books and e-books on the subject. And yes, my entire company is structured virtually.

Adapting to a new way of working

As you can imagine, due to the impacts of COVID-19, Virtual Team Builders is in high demand. We even had one company call us because their current virtual partner is sick. We’ve had other companies turning to us because they don’t know where to start but they need to continue working to keep their companies afloat. Others don’t know the best ways to effectively engage and lead their teams in this remote new world. 

To help, we’ve set up free mentoring (really, just call me!), free webinars, and we’re donating funds to GlobalGiving Coronavirus Relief Fund. We also have a free resource section on our website, and you can check out our YouTube Channel for strategies on working virtually. We would love to hear your thoughts, comments and opinions. 

For companies transitioning to remote work, here are five tips for virtual team building:

1. Look at this as an opportunity, not a temporary fix 

In the past, team managers typically approached Virtual Team Builders as part of a planned strategy, especially when expanding their business beyond Canada’s borders. But today, due to COVID-19, millions of teams around the world are being forced to work remotely and many have been completely caught off guard. They view virtual teams as temporary—something that will be done away with “once things get back to normal.” 

Trust me, this isn’t going away. Like 9-11, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and lots of other global crises, restricted travel and gathering is not a one-time thing. That’s why this is the perfect time to set up your company to work remotely when it needs to, rather than thinking of this as a temporary measure. 

Employees hold an online video conference

There are a lot of benefits to be gained. Setting up effective ways to work virtually can help you: 

  • better accommodate and communicate with customers and suppliers in different time zones;
  • participate in an increasingly global market;
  • access the global workforce; 
  • connect with and have meetings with employees and suppliers in multiple locations and branch offices; 
  • provide training and development opportunities online;
  • give employees the flexibility to work from home, or any location; 
  • create a smaller environmental footprint with less office space, commuting, parking needs, etc.; 
  • save costs—approximately $2,000 for the employer and $7,000 for the employee, each year;
  • reduce stress (but only if you do it right, as described in tip 3).

2. Learn how to use your virtual technology

Companies and their remote teams need to be set up for success, and having the right technology to support them is an excellent first step. But almost every company I’ve worked with doesn’t know how to use their technology to its full advantage. 

Obviously, this can lead to time-wasting delays and loss of engagement during team meetings. But it can also mean your team is missing out on better ways to receive communications, share information, collaborate, brainstorm, track and manage projects, document changes, and more.

Fortunately, there are lots of ways you and your team can get up to speed. Virtually, all technology companies post their user manuals online, and they also offer video tutorials, PowerPoints, written instructions and even free help desks and chats. 

But keep in mind that this technical training will only tell you what button to push; it won’t teach you how to use the technology to engage your team or lead or work within a virtual team and that’s something your entire team should learn.

3. Leading virtual teams is different than face-to-face

Getting your technology set up is only 10% of the equation for successful virtual team building. The other 90% is understanding how you work together virtually as a team.

For example, contrary to the popular myth, employees working at home are more productive. That can be a good thing, but it needs to be managed properly. At-home employees also tend to work four more hours a week on average and are more likely to answer email after hours. As the line between home life and work becomes blurred, stress and burn-out increase. It takes a strong team leader to set boundaries and help employees achieve a healthy work-life balance.  

Virtual communication is another important skill for team leaders to build. Fewer visual cues can create misunderstandings, increase feelings of isolation, and erode trust and engagement. Employees also have concerns and fears about working remotely— they’re going to be out of the loop, their leaders won’t see or be aware of their achievements or, when it comes to promotions, they’ll be out of sight and out of mind. 

One way to overcome these risks is to create operating rules of engagement for your team to help create structure. The rules of engagement can set out:

  • how you’ll work as a team
  • the protocols for response time
  • how we communicate
  • how we stay connected personally and professionally
  • how we manage conflict
  • how we make sure people know our schedules, and whether you’re unavailable
  • and any other needs you want to include.

You can also establish a virtual open-door policy. Let everyone know that every Monday and Wednesday, from 10 a.m. until noon, your door is open and anyone can “come in” and talk to you about anything work-related or personal. 

Another best practice, if you have some people together in an office and others working remotely, is to be sure that you don’t create an “us versus them” attitude. What often happens is that the people in the office are talking and laughing, while the people on the outside are on mute and feeling disconnected. Level the playing field and have everyone work remotely, especially during this time and as much as possible, keep people off mute to increase engagement. 

4. Trust your team

Even though research has shown time and again that employees working from home are more productive, it still makes some team leaders nervous. How can they hold their employees accountable?  

The answer is in the deliverables, which is the same metric you would use on-site. Does the work get done? Are deadlines met? Do they attend meetings? If they don’t, then have a discussion. But if they do, then it’s OK to give them flexibility, as long as they let others know when they won’t be available.

That’s especially important now, with daycares and schools being closed. People can’t simply put their toddler in a high chair and walk away for eight hours straight. 

Giving your team some flexibility is also a way to help them avoid multi-tasking. While multi-tasking was once considered a great skill to have, research has shown that the practice actually wastes $450 billion a year by corporations around the globe, and that it decimates personal productivity. That’s because 40% of an employee’s productive time is spent switching between tasks, and a higher susceptibility to distractions and errors doesn’t help.  

5. Bond through moments of connection 

When working remotely, it’s extremely important to help your team bond through “moments of connection.” 

One of my favourite techniques is what I call “While you were waiting,” such as when you’re waiting for others to join a meeting. Don’t simply do the round table of what everyone’s working on. Create a slide that invites everyone to share what they did that week that they’re proud of or a tip that others might benefit from. Ask them to share one word on how you’re coping right now or put up a map of the world and say, “When all this is all over, where would you want to go?” Make an online message board where you can collaborate and share ideas and experiences. 

Another way to connect is to pick up the phone and call your leaders and team members. Don’t start off talking about the tasks that need to be completed. Ask about their lives and how they’re doing first. Or what about hosting a virtual wine and cheese or dinner party? Get creative!

If you need help, don’t be afraid to reach out

These are unprecedented times and the entire world is connected under the same virus. Everyone is going through the same thing. So put people first, and tasks second and if you’re stuck, feel free to reach out. Visit our website, sign up for one of our free webinars, or just call me for some free mentoring. 

Virtual teams need more support than ever, so we’re pleased to offer our Virtual Teams Support Centre to help you and your team thrive remotely.

You can also tap into our Virtual Teams Support Centre to help you and your team thrive remotely.

  • COVID-19 Proves It: Virtual Teams are the New Normal, a report explaining why the ability to work virtually is an essential skill for any resilient workforce.
  • Supporting Virtual Teams in a COVID-19 Environment, including the latest research and statistics on virtual teams to help you plan your transition to the remote office.
  • Surviving and Thriving in a Coronavirus Environment, an essential guide to the basics of working from home while maintaining team productivity and morale.
  • Seven Deadly Sins of Virtual Teams, laying out the most common pitfalls of working remotely, and how to avoid them.
  • The Virtual Team Leader’s Guide to Success, providing essential tips for managers on building resilience, running meetings, managing multitasking, and more.
  • Videos from our new YouTube channel include tips you can implement immediately to benefit your virtual team.