COVID-19 has led to unprecedented changes in the way we work. Seemingly overnight, 88% of businesses encouraged or required their employees to work from home. Since then, we have been heavily reliant on technology to allow us to continue to work and remain connected to our colleagues.
But what makes a successful virtual work environment? And how can organisations overcome the common challenges of remote work? We spoke to team leaders who have been at the forefront of creating a strong COVID-19 work environment.
Cultural differences: Virtual vs in-office
By not going into the office every day, the culture of a company changes considerably.
“Our traditional methods to connect with one another, whether it be seeking advice, learning, sharing ideas or simply socialising, differ significantly with the absence of face-to-face contact,” says Toni Vlatko, Associate Director of Digital Technology Platform Management at Optus.
“Usual practices like popping up over the petition, chair swivelling, hallway and café discussions have been replaced. Video calls, virtual team meetings, sending messages and sharing updates on internal channels is our new normal. The challenge here is keeping up the team rapport and maintaining a caring, collaborative and empowered team dynamic.”
James Comer, Head of HR at Cisco, believes that a strong virtual team culture comes down to two key factors.
The first is “Trust. Cultures in a virtual team need to be anchored in trust,” Comer says. “Teams need to find comfort in an environment where work may be done in different ways, times, and locations. And that’s fine – that’s work-life integration. So long as the commitments, outcomes and trust are there in a context where there are no physical ‘eyes on’, that team will thrive.”
The second factor is “Rituals. Whilst teams trust in each other to integrate work and life effectively and productively, team rituals become even more critical to creating bonds across the team. Rituals keep teams connected, aligned and engaged. They also provide the structure and predictability that most humans crave. This enables teams to have regular forums to connect, so they are not forever in ad-hoc meetings and instant messages!”
Some of us may forget that working from home was not unusual before COVID-19. Many companies are distributed all around the world, and have had to maintain culture through virtual means.
“Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, about 40% of Finder’s global crew were distributed or remote so we were relatively well-positioned for our move to entirely remote working,” says Anna Podchashynska, People Operations Manager at Finder. “That being said, we made a deliberate effort to maintain our culture and values virtually.”
“The main difference now is that we actually need to invest effort into the activities that previously seemed to be obvious and simple. We have established a global calendar that allows our teams to informally connect across all time zones such as updates over virtual coffee or Friday drinks after work.”
Recognising communication obstacles
The reality is that not being able to quickly turn around and talk to co-workers in the office comes with communication challenges.
“Without the luxury of seeing if your colleagues are busy or are ‘in the zone’, we can worry about being disruptive and avoid connecting for short quick chats,” says Vlatko. “However, these face-to-face chats can save hours of unnecessary work.”
“It is really important to create an environment that encourages this type of communication in our new virtual team setup.”
Comer talks about how technology can actually complicate, rather than simplify, the communication process when working remotely. “If you do not have the right technology-enabled and you are relying on written methods exclusively, you lose the 90% of communication and connection that exists via body language in an office environment.”
“This can lead to misunderstandings and emotional turmoil if the right culture, norms and expectations are not set within the team. The struggle is real!”
“There is also the added issue of how secure is your digital and online communication? How do you know that your digital communication channels are secure? Online communication is necessary, but so are proper implementation and programs.”
Podchashynska talks about the more personal struggles of working from home. “Arranging the workday efficiently and setting up boundaries between work hours and personal life can be challenging, especially when the company operates in multiple time zones as we do.”
“Since there is no commute involved, some of our crew members switch on earlier and switch off later, which we have learned means longer working hours and higher rates of fatigue or overwhelm.”
Overcoming challenges: Tips and initiatives for virtual teams
The goods news is there are many ways to circumvent the challenges of working remotely. Vlatko shares the strategies she has implemented to stay connected with her team:
Mandatory 9am 15-minute video conference stand-ups: “This is an opportunity for each team member to share their priorities for the day ahead and call-out if they need any support.”
Social check-ins: “Keeping the 9am stand-up conference call open for an additional 15 minutes each day allows interested team members to have a social chat.”
Reflecting availability in calendars: “This is to give team members the confidence to reach out to one another when they see their calendars are clear.”
Fortnightly 1:1s: “Meeting with each team member at a set time every fortnight for 30 minutes ensures time is made for any private conversations, coaching and development.”
Active meetings: “When suitable, the team is encouraged to go for a walk or a bike ride while meeting.”
Judgement-free work: “Appreciate it when kids and pets interrupt the meetings or when team members get online with their bed hair and PJs.”
“As a leader, I make a concerted effort to connect the tasks each team member is working on and encourage collaboration,” Vlatko says. “This is done much more effectively in our current remote working environment thanks to our daily virtual stand-up meetings.”
“Optus has done an amazing job of providing us with access to the right technology to be able to work remotely. They have also supported flexible working hours which has been very helpful for those of us with children at home.”
Comer talks about the technology side overcoming these communication challenges. “From a technology perspective, invest in secure, reliable collaboration platforms to conduct all your team and customer interactions with,” he says.
“Make sure your digital channels are protected with a robust security solution. Remember it’s not just your business at risk, but your people’s personal information as well.”
“It is also important to remember that as a leader, the way you choose to give attention may not be the way your individual team members prefer to receive it. Keep open multiple channels of communication – text message, instant messenger platforms, or a phone call.”
“At Cisco, our flexible policies enable and endorse our people to fully embrace a work-life integration that meets their needs and circumstances, but also clearly sets expectations for the outcomes they are responsible for delivering.”
For Podchashynska, “there is no such thing as over-communication in the virtual environment. It’s the task of leaders to create an inclusive environment, to keep every team member informed and engaged.”
“It is worth moving the usual team bonding activities into virtual space. Those can be team lunches, trivia nights, drinks after work, virtual quest rooms. Sharing those experiences, though remote, brings the team together and creates a positive vibe.”
“Finder’s flexibility of work hours is important now more than ever as many people are taking care of their loved ones, homeschooling kids and juggling household maintenance. We’ve acknowledged these challenges in All Hands meetings and across our People & Culture sessions.”
“We just want everyone to feel supported, heard, and take care of themselves.”
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