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Virtual Teams: How to Ensure they Work Successfully

From video chat to autogenous training: Virtual teams require a new kind of management culture – and a high degree of self-organization.

June 26 2020Pamela Buchwald

Virtual teams: It's the mindset that makes them so successful

Home office, video calls, digital collaboration tools: The Covid-19 pandemic is driving forward the digitalization of the world of work. However, it isn't just workplaces and digital tools which decide the success of virtual teams, the culture of leadership and effective self-organization also play a considerable role here.

After corona: Brave new world of work

A man sitting at his desk saying “Hi” to someone on his laptop

Virtual onboarding of new employees, staff meetings via Microsoft Teams, online conventions instead of physical trade fairs: within a very short time, in Germany alone, the coronavirus has sent almost half of the workforce to work from home, as a study by the digital association Bitkom shows. Web meetings, video conferences, and working with digital collaboration tools have become part of everyday life for some time now. Even many initially rather skeptical companies found it easy to adjust to across-the-board, decentralized virtual working. The result: going back to a way of working together which requires physical presence is hard to imagine. In fact, according to a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering, 43 percent of companies in Germany want to expand their capacity for home working. Almost as many company are thinking about it. The adjustment to a new flexible world of work appears to be a done deal.

“New Work”: more than digitization

I am noticing on an increasing basis that this “new world of work” is being confused with the term “New Work”. But beware: “New Work” means much more than working from home and the digitalization of communication channels. The Austrian-American social philosopher, Frithjof Bergmann, who coined the term in the mid-1970s, was not really referring to the superficial, technical possibilities, but rather the values that were to shape this new kind of  collaboration: more freedom to act and make decisions, as well as greater independence and ensuring that employees feel the work they are doing is meaningful and has value. 

So “New Work” refers to two aspects in particular: flexibility and focus on the role of employees. This is a philosophy that an increasing number of companies have been entertaining, even before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the introduction of new, creativity-enhancing workplaces such as open spaces with desk sharing or agile working methods like Design Thinking and Scrum.

A good and meaningful development. And yet, according to my observations, “New Work” has established itself as a holistic concept in very few companies. I believe the coronavirus pandemic can change that. After all, it offers the opportunity to consistently bring together new workplace concepts and working methods and – especially important – to breathe life into them throughout the crisis and beyond. Among other things, this means dealing with issues such as leadership culture, the challenges of virtual work, self-motivation, and resilience.

Managers must be willing to trust

In my opinion, managing virtual teams is mainly a question of trust. And the key to this is communication. The changeover to working in virtual teams is particularly easy when employees have already been given responsibility and can make decisions. But, as so often in life, the self- and external perception of managers and employees diverge significantly, as shown by a StepStone study. Some 90 percent of managers are convinced that employees should always be involved in decision-making. However, only 42 percent of the employees state that they actually have a say in decision-making. Consequently, 62 percent would like to see more exchange with their superiors. The assessment in terms of trust, on the other hand, is much more consensual: 9 out of 10 managers surveyed say they trust their employees. And at least 7 out of 10 employees surveyed feel the same way.

In order to initiate goal-oriented communication in the team, it is worth setting up regular meetings in which tasks are distributed and their duration and structure are clearly defined. For example, a daily meeting lasting no more than thirty minutes, in which everyone answers the following questions: What tasks have I completed since the last meeting? What tasks do I plan on completing by the next meeting? Which obstacles might I face along the way? Depending on the area of responsibility, weekly updates can also be useful; these should take no longer than 60 minutes to complete. Through close coordination, misunderstandings and a duplication of work can be avoided, and all employees will have the same level of knowledge. It is also important to ensure communication is not merely functional , which means social exchange should also be encouraged, for example, with a daily  "virtual coffee meeting"  of about 15 minutes or a shared virtual lunch once a week.

Inform, but don't overburden!

One person holding two cups of coffee, on the opposite another one holding a tablet

In virtual teams, employees often have several roles and functions at the same time. These roles and functions should be set out in writing and should be visible across teams. Otherwise it can quickly happen that the working day for some individuals consists primarily of ad hoc reactions to instant messaging or video calls, because colleagues, customers, and service providers need information or make project inquiries. For one thing, this increases the probability of overburdening the employees. For another, it also increases their error rate. So, in addition to role and function plans, it is also advisable to establish disruption-free periods, during which meetings and calls may not be held. Briefings and feedback are also becoming increasingly important in virtual collaboration: All members of a virtual team must clearly communicate goals and expectations, structure and express their wishes for improvement in an appreciative manner, and, what's more, successes achieved both individually and together should be celebrated together. 

Plan your day and take care of yourself

Last but not least, virtual work requires a high degree of self-discipline, self-organization and – not to be neglected – self-protection from each team member. This includes maintaining structured to-do lists, prioritizing and scheduling tasks, and keeping your time management under control, which requires taking regular breaks. Tools are available for this, such as the Eisenhower method or the Pomodoro technique. It is advisable for every employee to develop their own way of dealing with stress and difficult situations. Because this is not always easy, especially when you are on your own in your home office. With the ABC model, for example, situations can be better assessed, your own reactions can be checked, and you can also learn to deal constructively with stress. Methods like autogenous training and yoga can also help you to get through the day well and relaxed. 

About the author

Pamela Buchwald

Senior Expert Digital & Content, T-Systems International GmbH

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