Making virtual teams work

Dec 07, 2020
Prof. Na Fu shares her five tips to help you benchmark your performance as a virtual leader and make your remote teams excel amid the uncertainty.

Most organisations experimented with flexible and remote working in recent years, but COVID-19 forced many to go virtual overnight. Now the dust has settled in that respect, how can leaders adapt and succeed in this ‘new normal’? The five tips that follow will help you benchmark your leadership skills in the virtual world.

1. Mindset change: being a leader, rather than a manager

There is a significant difference between leaders and managers; they are not just titles. While managers focus on tasks and projects, leaders have a vision, influence, and positively stimulate team members. Leaders are role models. They influence team members to share a vision and empower them to achieve that vision collectively. In virtual teams, leaders not only communicate information to team members, but they also explain why it is important. Leaders must encourage team members to challenge their assumptions and take risks. They must enable team members to see technology as presenting opportunities and stimulate their creativity and innovative thinking. For example, leaders should ask team members for new ways to solve problems rather than direct them on what needs to be done and how. Finally, leaders must develop team members’ potential while paying attention to their individual needs for achievement and growth.

2. Being both compassionate and productive, rather than merely productive

Virtual teams during a pandemic are different from those in ‘normal’ operating environments. People with caring responsibilities (e.g. childcare or home-schooling) may struggle to achieve work/life balance. Those without caring responsibilities may have trouble with loneliness and switching off. Leaders are under time and resource pressure. They must occasionally focus on tasks and deadlines, and we call these ‘productive’ managers. Human beings are not machines; we have feelings and are motivated by several factors. Emotional needs and feelings are an intrinsic part of our DNA, and how leaders behave can profoundly influence how we feel and do our work. As the cliché goes, people do not leave organisations – they leave bosses. In these times, leaders must have (and show) empathy for those struggling with remote working from home and those who miss human interaction. How to do that? Each leader has a unique style but you may find the next two points, hearing and checking in, helpful.

3. Hearing rather than listening

Clear, transparent, and direct communication is needed during a crisis. Two-way communication is also important where the employee’s voice must not only be listened to, but heard. Listening is vital in all contexts but listening alone is not enough. Hearing equates to listening, followed by actions. Only when you meet people’s worries and expectations with change and actions will they be genuinely motivated. During this process, consistency and transparency must be applied to all team members; this is a foundation for fairness.

4. Checking in, rather than checking out

We have never experienced anything like the current situation. The last generation in Ireland and most of Europe that experienced a lockdown (during World War II) are now 80+ years of age. We have no experience to fall back on, and that causes severe stress in certain people. Already faced with work and family struggles, the last thing people need is monitoring and micromanagement. People need check-ins from managers about their concerns and expectations, rather than check-outs to see if they have done their work. Empowerment is based on trust, and the check-out is an indicator of low trust from managers. This will damage people’s motivation and lead to counterproductive behaviours.

5. Being adaptive, creative, and resilient 

Something that worked well in the past may not work now, so everyone must be prepared to adapt. During this pandemic, we all share mixed feelings (both positive and negative), and these are influenced by the media, work, and things around us. We can learn from this experience, however. Leaders must be creative in finding solutions for people and clients, so do not be afraid to try. The familiar challenges of uncertainty and disconnection have led to stress, not being able to switch off, and burnout. To be resilient, here are two practical exercises for leaders and employees alike:

  1. Pause and notice the details around you: colours or patterns, for example.
  2. Go for a walk or run, or do whatever you like to do.

Conclusion

You may wonder why professional competence has not been mentioned yet. Digital disruption is affecting all industries, and the accountancy profession is no different. To remain successful and stay ahead of the curve, accountants must of course understand, adapt to, and master new digital technologies. However, a people-centred philosophy is the key to all technological, digital, and managerial changes. Getting virtual teams right begins with the ability to understand and respond to people’s individual needs. Successful leaders always put people first. They care about their people, they emphasise the personal development of others, and they empower others to achieve. These traits will be essential for the survival and future prosperity of the workforce, with new generations requiring the support of leaders to thrive in an increasingly volatile and fast-changing environment.

Prof. Na Fu is an Associate Professor at Trinity Business School and Co-Director at 
the Trinity Centre for Digital Business.