We’ve been supporting the development of geographically spread teams for years; global project teams, functional teams spread throughout a region, and teams located in one office whilst the manager is in a different city. And now we have the enforced remote working team; the team that signed up for jobs in an office, with plenty of human interaction and opportunities for spontaneous connections, and who now find themselves working remotely. And not through choice.
Between our experiences pre-Covid 19 and what we've been through in these past 6 months, we are seeing that there are teams who are really struggling with the shift to remote working, some who are hit and miss, and around a third who are really getting it right and thriving. Below are the five things the thriving remote teams have in common, and do really well that we can all be learning from.
1. Get aligned on your new operating principles
The successful remote teams we've worked with understand that how your team will be working together remotely is going to be different to face to face. So how we collaborate, communicate and resolve conflict will all need to be done differently. The risk is that we each have our own ways of perceiving how those elements should happen, so the role of the charter is to do the one single thing that can set your team up for success the most. Make sure the team is aligned in a very clear and explicit way on how they think they should be working together in this ‘new normal’. All teams should go through this process – from the C-suite down. And the good news is that we have continued to work with teams and functions across many industries who understand this, and have been proactive with resetting the ways of working. The ones who are thriving have completed this step, and are doing a combination of the following steps.
2. Optimise how you work between teams
Work still needs to get done between teams – and for companies who have struggled, this is one of the forgotten aspects of converting a face to face business to a virtual business as the focus has tended to be more on how ‘a’ team works. So there is a piece of work that successful virtual teams have been doing that simply mirrors the principles of the first point, and provides a means for the leaders of teams to connect, share and be clear on expectations regarding priorities, eg; what business objectives are more important or how shared resources should be deployed. It also allows the team leaders to create some rules of engagement for how collaboration, communication and conflict resolution happens between teams. This is underpinned by the team charter, and the common feedback we get is that it allows guesswork to be replaced by real work!
3. Train and be coached for working in a virtual team
One team we have worked with in particular identified early on that working and leading in a virtual team would require a different set of skills and mindset. Their ability to understand and work with uncertainty and ambiguity, manage stakeholders remotely, build and maintain relationships and collaborate all require different development to that in face to face structures. There's no point training to ride a bicycle when you will be riding a motorbike! And this applies to everyone. Good remote working training combines behavioural skills with a focus on connection at a values and relational level. But we also know that on a deeper level, there are other factors that enhance or reduce our ability to be effective in a remote team; our confidence, need for recognition, cultural background and personality (eg; rigid vs flexible). Our rate of coaching has remained steady as there are leaders who have self-identified (or the company has identified for them!) that working and/or leading remotely doesn't fit who they are (yet!). But teams who have leveraged the capability development provided by their organisations, or those who have taken it upon themselves to get development for their teams, are doing well. And it is usually combined with the next point.
4. Things Change - so talk, review and make change if needed
This point comes into its own in these times of rapid change. The really good virtual teams look for opportunities to reinforce a culture of collaboration by using this as an opportunity to come together and to work on the team, and continually update their preferred ways of working. And when things are changing so quickly, you can’t afford not to be reviewing the way you work together. We are working with a handful of leadership teams, who are using this step as a an opportunity to pull out of the day to day management stuff, to take a helicopter view of their teams and functions and to make smarter and more strategic decisions. If you don't have an Agile mindset in you company, this is a nice step to implement that will help you move in that direction. The best thing about this step? It enables proactive conversations, that enable a more controlled response to change in a highly volatile and uncertain business environment. We are working with one leadership team who is working in an extremely volatile environment - on top of Covid-19 factors - and it is the ritual of regular team catch ups, in person, that is allowing them to extract themselves on a fortnightly basis to focus on themselves, the business and their people, in a more objective manner.
5. Culture Matters.
Successful remote teams are recalibrating their team culture to reflect the remote working environment. The really effective remote teams that I’ve seen acknowledge that the culture that got them here, may not get them there. A simple example of this is the shared thinking around how open and approachable we should be. In a face to face environment it may be ok that a new team member needs to work a little harder show how they fit in and being slightly more closed between teams may be acceptable. But in a remote setting that unspoken way of thinking won’t fly. One function we have worked with recently has decided to make their culture more explicit, and part of that was through the creation of a new team charter. But this function, also understood that culture is needed to drive the execution of strategy which is a critical point when we consider that plenty of strategies and plans have been revised and in some cases completely re-written. So, it makes sense that even at the level of the virtual team, a conversation be had around how the culture may need to be shifted to help them execute a little differently on their team objectives.
Leading and managing in complex organisations, such a matrix or a large global organisation, can be frustrating at the best of times. And now we throw in a new dimension, Covid-19. As if working in a matrix didn’t have its challenges before, the addition of forced isolation and remote working does not make things easier.
We know that in a matrix teams are typically spread out in any case; managers leading teams in different countries or sites, single teams dispersed over multiple sites or countries and teams that need to be collaborating despite distance. So there is already a measure of tolerance that exists for life in a remote working environment. But here’s the thing. Life pre-Covid-19 meant that we could still come together when we needed to discuss, explore and expedite decisions. Much of what we achieve in a matrix is done through personal interactions, influencing and optimising our connections and network.
But in our new reality, we can’t do that as easily. Nor in the foreseeable future.
So, what can you do to be an effective contributor or leader in a matrix organisation during these time? Well, the truth is, you should be doing what you were doing all along!
The elements that help us be successful in a matrix organisation are mostly the same for everyone who is now required to work remotely. A couple of years back we published the top five things that go into being a successful leader in a matrix. Today we've revisited these points and added a Covid-19 footnote, because whilst each element is still relevant, for all of them there is heightened sense of relevance and importance for making the matrix work in today's circumstances, and we believe, in the post-Covid-19 era.
Adapt to the Structure
What we said then: Traditional hierarchical structure thinking and behaviours (command and control) just don’t work in a matrix, and successful matrix leaders get this. They may not fully grasp the structure that surrounds them, especially if they are new to the business. However they still find a way of building an informal network that will support them and their team in achieving their goals until they get their head around the formal structure.
C-19: Apply the same principles in how you transition to remote working. And do not underestimate the necessity and comfort that a network can bring in these times. Also know that your team will be leaning a little more on you to know how they should be adapting and working in a remote structure. So even if you are finding it a bit challenging possibly one of the best things you can do is create an open dialogue in the team about how you adapt together.
Create a Support Network
What we said then: Leading on from the previous point, those who achieve success don’t do it alone! They identify very early the value of an informal network of internal coaches, mentors and friends from different parts of the organisation. It’s not unusual for these people to be recognised when they walk through the shop floor or when they head to the finance department. Their relationships are reciprocal and based on more than just, ‘can you tell me’. You may think that it looks like a benign coffee that the ‘connected leader’ is taking with that guy who works in the accounts payable department; but you can be assured that she now knows more about what it takes to get one of her suppliers invoices paid quickly, as well as having a colleague who is more than just another stranger in the elevator each morning.
C-19: Do the same…except it’s a virtual coffee/connection. You can’t physically walk to another department, but you can reach out virtually – touch base – and in these times bring a human touch to reducing the psychological distance, whilst building or maintaining a valuable connection.
Ask Questions and Seek to Understand (Not to be understood)
What we said then: Successful matrix leaders and employees remove as much ambiguity as they can by seeking to understand why things are the way they are, and aim to remove the shroud of mystery. They know that the first step towards success is not to try and force your way of thinking on to others, rather, they listen, and seek to create a shared solution. Chances are that if you listen well, you’ll be asked to share your thoughts in return. Role model the type of interaction you would like to receive. A great bi-product of this is that a strong rapport is built that reduces the impact or presence of silo’s.
C-19: This is of equal importance in a forced remote working situation. In fact, your ability to listen, and listen well, is critical right now. You need to be honing your skills that help you read between the lines, and to hear the things that aren’t said to get the full message.
Don’t Assume that Your Dual Reporting Lines are Aligned
What we said then: If you have two or more upward reporting lines, don’t be afraid to organise a regular catch up on the topic of alignment. Successful matrix leaders make the issue of alignment explicit and get the objectives of each reporting line on the table. Every time I’ve facilitated this occurrence, either for myself or others, it is a real value creator. Importantly though, a 30 minute conversation on the topic of alignment can prevent the many hours of frustration that comes with trying to balance competing interests. Simply put; you are one person. Where and how you invest your energy is critical and if those above you aren’t aligned in what they want from you, then it makes sense that your performance will be diluted accordingly.
C-19: If you weren’t doing the above point before then perhaps you should start now. The tyranny of distance can make it easy for mis-alignment to grow unnecessarily, and you can’t be relying on your two upline managers to be talking and ensuring your priorities are aligned (it would be nice to think this was happening – but it probably isn’t). Ensuring this alignment is in place is as important for you as it is for your direct reports – it’s hard for you to give a clear direction with confidence if you don’t possess either for yourself.
They Don’t Become a Politician…But they are Aware of the Politics
What we said then: By taking care of the above point, you can reduce the impact of politics; however the larger and more complex the organisation, the more prevalent the politics. Those who have genuine success in complex environments don’t necessarily buy into the politics. That’s not to say they will completely avoid getting stuck in a political game every now and then, the reality is that this is likely to occur from time to time. But they are able to see the politics for what it is, and ‘work the sideline’. This means that they are almost like the political journalist who can see what’s happening, try to make sense of why it’s happening and is able to report on it from the sideline. In an organisational context you can also work the sideline. Observe the politicking; remembering you don’t have to choose sides. If you observe closely what is being played out you can make a more informed decision around how you choose to connect with those stuck in the games rather than feel as though you are being helplessly sucked into the political vortex!
C-19: There’s not too much to add here, except to remember that this continues whether you are in a face to face or remote environment. Don’t assume that because there is distance there are no politics. Groups will still split. People will still have agendas. They are just played out a little bit differently.
This closing paragraph was written in the original article, and it is truer today, than it was when it was written:
There’s one other thing about successful matrix leaders; and that’s their level of resilience. I’ve discussed this previously, and can’t highlight enough the importance of being flexible in your approach whilst at the same time being continually mindful of your situation and being prepared to adapt at short notice.
David is developer of global-minded leaders, teams and businesses.
Over the past couple of weeks, despite the Covid-19 impact on our world, many organisations are still going ahead with plans to build engaged and winning teams using virtual means rather than face to face.
And that is great news! What this means is that there is still a mindset in organisations and amongst leaders that getting your team on the same page, connected and engaged is still a priority.
In fact, I’d go one step further and suggest that these activities are more important today for the most obvious reason that we are forced to be physically distant. But just because you can’t be physically in the same space doesn’t mean you can’t go a good way down the track to building an engaged team. The quality of online sharing technology is such that there is almost no excuse for not being able to check-in on each other or share and create rituals that are good for you and the team.
However if you are looking for something that operates at a deeper level, that you would normally get from an in-person event where there is the ability to be in the same place to workshop your rules of engagement and shared values over a couple of days, you may come up a little short. The reality is that part of our decision making when it comes to building trust and closeness is driven by our ability to see, hear and experience each other in a group context. We only get part of that picture when we are seeking to do this virtually; we get it in snapshots from the waist up and in individual contexts without being able to see and experience the interplay and dynamic between people. As we know it’s the dynamic that we are working with to create the foundation for resilient and sustainable relationships.
So, what can we do to build engaging teams in this era of remote working?
The good news is that we can still build fantastic rapport in the team. We can still lay the groundwork for resilient relationships and an engaged team. And if your team has been together for a while before having to work remotely, then there’s a pretty good chance with the right guidance that you can maintain the momentum and levels of engagement that exist in your team.
Below are three principles to apply when thinking about your next virtual teaming event. They are principles I apply and that I’ve seen others apply to good effect:
Accept that it’s just going to look and feel different.
-This may be more targeted towards facilitators and those who lean towards being perfectionists, who love an event that looks and feels a certain way and delivers a known outcome. Accepting that it will be virtual and still yield good outcomes is a perceptual hurdle to get over, but once you do you will be glad you continued down this path.
Put time into your planning and communications for the event.
-You will need to plan more than you do for a face to face event. Contrary to popular belief, virtual does not mean less effort. Put the time aside to thoroughly plan your event and to rethink your event through a virtual lens. Once you have your agenda and the activities, a great idea is to visualise how you see the event playing out. Run through the agenda and activities with a colleague – test them out – do they work in a virtual sense? Do they deliver what they are designed to achieve?
-You will also need to communicate more than usual. For many people, teaming events can be uncomfortable under normal circumstances, coupled with the fact that you are doing this in a different way which represents change. Think through how you communicate this event, how you engage your participants before, during and after the event. You may even need to apply some of the principles of change communication given that we are not only asking people to do something they may not be comfortable with, but they may also be resistant towards as well.
Apply the Formula: 2 Days F2F = 2 Months PTT
-As mentioned above, we don’t expect that a virtual activity will deliver the depth of connection that a day or two in person will. But it can if you reframe it and apply the following formula:
1 day F2F = 1 months PTT (Planned Teaming Touchpoints).
For every day you would spend in a face to face teaming event, plan one month of team touch points beyond your virtual teaming activity. Design them so they link back to the initial teaming event, and so they build on from each other.
I hope this has been a useful piece of guidance for those who are designing or facilitating virtual teaming events for the first time. I will also leave you with a personal mantra of my own that I find very useful in these circumstances: