In the last 3 years, I have grown a virtual team of people and worked from my home office. I never thought that my expertise in leading a virtual team would be so in demand right now as Europe and the US goes into lockdown due to the COVID-19.
Therefore, in this article I have tried to decode exactly what has worked for me and my team as a virtual team who all work from home. Caveat: Whilst I may have been doing this for 3 years, it is always a work in progress. And some days I do get it right.
The key areas I look at in this article are: (Click on the links to go directly to the part of the article… this is a 3692 word article)
- Keeping yourself strong and positive
- Creating your new structure and routine for you and your team
- How to keep employees motivated when working virtually
- Controlling and managing workflow when you are not sitting next to each other
Keeping yourself strong and positive
You may be thinking, I thought this was an article about leading and motivating virtual teams throughout the Coronavirus Crisis. Remember the last flight you took (it may be the last one for a while!), and how the safety briefing told you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. To take the metaphor one stage further, you are now on a plane and the oxygen masks have just come down. Before you can be the strong leader your team needs you to be, you need to put your own oxygen mask on.
As a leader of a team in a time of immense uncertainty coupled with the double whammy of fear and doubt, this is the time to find and display your leadership skills. As the saying goes “cometh the hour, cometh the man“. This is about giving strong direction to your team and keeping them positive. However, this isn’t about bottling your fear or ignoring what’s going on in your mind. One of the best things you can do to create a strong virtual team is to share your own vulnerabilities. The more you model that it is OK to not feel OK, the more your team will feel comfortable to share this with you and their team members. Don’t be tempted to ignore your feelings or how your team is feeling. The more you ignore them or pretend they don’t exist, the more these ‘squashed’ feelings are likely to damage morale going forward. However, after you have shared how you feel, you then need to help pick your team up and create a plan of action for how the team is going to work together to get through the crisis.
Dealing with your own fear and anxiety
If I had a pound for every time I have thought my business is going to crash around my feet in the last two weeks I would be a very rich person. It’s the same for everyone; we are all fretting about the future and the security of our jobs and the health of loved ones. When we are afraid or anxious this is normally all very future projected. Therefore, mindful techniques, which force your mind to be present, are excellent for mitigating these negative feelings which can be derailing your ability to step up and lead your team. These mindful techniques could include:
- Meditating. I am a big fan of the headspace app, and they have put together a collection of resources from headspace which you can access free (no email needed) to help at this time. Click here to access these resources
- Journaling – this is where you write down what is in your mind at the moment. It is a great way of reflecting, and acknowledging what is real and what is not real in your thoughts.
- Gratitudes – this is where you consciously take a few moments to acknowledge what is positive right now, or what you are grateful for. We do this every day within our team and it really does help to lift our moods. (See later in this article for how you can incorporate this in a structured way to do with your team.)
- Doing exercise – it’s a great mood enhancer
- Mindful hobbies such as playing a musical instrument, art, needlework etc
Prioritising your own self-care
Stress, not sleeping well, not eating well and working long hours are great ways of reducing the effectiveness of our immune system. At just the time when we want to stay strong and healthy with a nasty virus circulating! Now more than ever is the time to prioritise your own self-care. For example, in our own home I have banned the rolling news which my husband had taken to watching now someone has stopped his live sport…
Create your new structure and routine for you and your team
I fully understand. In an ideal world you would have had months and months to plan for you and your team working remotely. We are not in the ideal world, and I am guessing with the speed the Coronavirus forced onto you remote working as the norm, that you and your team are making it up to a certain extent as you go along. I am assuming that for many of your team, particularly the more junior and inexperienced members of staff, this is a big change and something they are not used to doing.
Tip 1: Don’t try and recreate your office life at home
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to re-create your previous office life. It doesn’t need to be this way. But what you do need to do is make a decision on how you will work, and also help your team to do the same. So, what do I mean by this? For example, if you are a morning person, does your day need to start at 09:00? Or can it start at 07:00? Can you block out times when you are normally at your least productive to go for a walk?
Of course, if you are running a virtual team, one of your key challenges is to help the team communicate together. So, of course there are going to be some non-negotiables, for example when in the day does your team need to be online for a team meeting? But as the leader of your team, it is not just your responsibility to create your new normal working from home, it’s your responsibility to help your staff create their new normal as well.
It’s really easy when working from home to get sucked into the myriad of distractions available… laundry, Netflix, social media, kids …. Therefore, you may need to have a 1:2:1 with each member of staff to help them think through how they are going to structure their workload, particularly if they now have the kids at home and need to spend time looking after them.
Tip 2: Create a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ for your team when working virtually
This tip sounds like common sense, but this may have been missed off the list in the rush to get everyone working remotely. Or you may find as you all adapt to this new way of working, then you may need to make some changes. For example, our clients have found that when running team meetings virtually they get much better interaction and social bonding when their team has their cameras on.
In these interesting times, many of your team members may have children at home with them. Therefore, you and your team need to agree how this will work. But also agree that it is OK to have to attend to children’s needs during a call or virtual team meeting. (I am still scarred by the memory of my 3 year old son yelling very loudly when I was on the call with a very prestigious managing partner, “mummy I have done a poo”.)
Tip 3: Set up a ‘home office’ which is conducive to working
Working from a kitchen table may be your only option at the moment. But the reality is that it doesn’t take long before a poor workstation set up really starts to hurt your body. (See here for a guide on good workstation set up.) Therefore, if you can:
- Try and use a big screen rather than a laptop screen, and get it at the right height.
- Take regular breaks away from your screen
- If you are using a laptop screen then raise your laptop. A pile of books can act quite well as a way of raising your laptop.
- Don’t plan to work from a sofa with your laptop or tablet on your lap, as it really doesn’t take long for a back problem or RSI to start up. (I speak from personal experience!)
- If you are working from communal rooms in your house then enforce a tidy away at the end of the working day policy. (You may have to if you are working from the dining room table!)
You may find that the broadband speed into your house isn’t enough for your work needs. This is the time to speak with your internet provider to see whether you can increase your line speed. (Your firm may allow you to expense the extra cost back to them.) I have personally found it very useful to have a router that allows me to prioritise certain electronic devices on the house wifi. (Although my teenage kids don’t appreciate it when their collaborative minecraft sessions slow down significantly.) I personally use the Google Wifi set up to make sure there is enough coverage around the house to work from any room, but also to prioritise my own device when working.
Tip 4: Create a dividing line between work and home
When you work from home, particularly if the kids are at home, it can become ever so easy for work to take over your home life and vice versa. This is why creating some structure to your day can really help. When will you be at work, but just working from home? And when will you be at home and doing non-work stuff? If you don’t want your family to become jealous of your laptop, you will need to decide with them when you will be working and when you will be not working, and so truly present for them. Believe me, I learnt this one the hard way.
Many people find it useful to go out of the house in the morning for a short walk, and then when they return to the house they are now ‘at work’. You could also do this at the end of the day. Remember that if you are working from the house with other people in it, this agreement of ‘when am I working‘ and ‘when am I not‘, is best done as a group. I still have memories of my kids, when they were much younger, coming into my study when I was on a call with the nanny in hot pursuit.
Tip 5: Use technological solutions to help you concentrate
Let’s be honest, there are a lot of distractions at home. And when you are having an unproductive day, it’s easy to get sidetracked into social media and TV box sets. Therefore, I recommend using technology to help keep you on track.
I personally use these tools to help me stay focused:
- Brain.fm: This plays ‘functional’ music tailored to your personal requirements to help your brain into a super-productive state. I’m not quite sure how it actually works, but it really does work. Here is a link which will get you a free month. (This is not an affiliate link, nor will you be asked to put in your payment details.)
- Freedom: This literally blocks access to the key distractions on your computer and tablet, such as social media, apps, websites. I am not sure how well it works with devices which are running on your firm’s systems, but it is a godsend for me personally. Here is a link to get you started. (This is an affiliate link) It’s quite a good one to use if you want to block access to the news sites and social media to improve your mental health…
- News feed eradicator for facebook: I have to use Facebook for work, sadly (I know, bad idea for productivity.) Which is why this free Chrome extension is worth its weight in gold. It literally removes your newsfeed on Facebook. So, no more time lost spending ages scrolling through the newsfeed.
Tip 6: Recognise that some days you are just not going to be productive
Are you always productive when in the office? Probably not. It’s the same when working from home. There are going to be days when you are amazingly productive. And days when, if you are honest, you would have been better off staying in bed and not logging on at all. So, if you are having an unproductive day, then don’t beat yourself up. Plan to start, for example, the next week or the afternoon or the next day as a fresh new day with the best of intentions.
How to keep employees motivated when working virtually
Working remotely for a day or two is often a welcome relief from the noise and distractions of the office. But after a while, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, the novelty will wear off. This set of tips will help you keep employees motivated when working virtually.
Tip 1: Don’t talk about people as ‘remote’ ‘workers’
The words you use when talking about people working virtually really do matter. Using the word ‘remote’ or ‘remote workers’ can highlight to many people that they are isolated and not part of the team. So, virtual rather than remote. And team rather than workers.
Tip 2: Regularly pick up the phone to talk to employees
Imagine you were back in the office. You’d probably now and then circulate around the office and have a natter with your team. Of course, with everyone working remotely, this just isn’t feasible to do. So, make a point of picking up the phone to speak with a team member or two each day, just to see how they are. It’s amazing how good it makes you feel to have a conversation with someone else – particularly given how socially isolated many of us feel at the moment.
Tip 3: Keep an eye out for who has gone quiet
In these uncertain times many people process their fear and uncertainty by going very internal. In other words, they will go quiet and not contribute much to any of the dialogue. If you have one of these members of staff, then make a point of giving them a phone call and asking them explicitly how they are feeling right now. And if your instinct says they are not fine if they say “fine” in response to that question, ask more questions of them.
Tip 4: Set up a group chat for each individual team and encourage a mix of 50/50 work vs non-work stuff
If you were sitting in the office every day you wouldn’t just talk work, so it is the same when your staff are working from home. It may take a while for the conversation to get going on the group chat, so much sure that you take the lead. See something that makes you laugh? Then share it. Getting annoyed by the kids being under your feet at home now? Then share this. Loving the fact that the sun is shining, then share this. Etc (You get the idea…)
Tip 5: Encourage staff to look for the positives
Right now, it doesn’t feel like much is positive. However, looking for the positives is a great way to counteract all the doom and gloom, and constant fear in our minds. You will need to lead the ‘being positive’ attitude with your staff. For example, how about on the group chat ask everyone to tell them something good which has happened today. Or share something which made them laugh.
Tip 6: Set up daily team calls
It depends how many staff you have whether you have all employee calls or individual team-based calls, or a mixture of both. If you have young/inexperienced staff or staff who are struggling being remotely based from home you may like to have two of these calls; one in the morning and one after lunch. Ideally, in these calls you want everyone to answer these questions:
- How am I feeling right now?
- What am I happy, grateful or positive about?
- What am I planning to get done today?
- What help do I need to get this done today?
Tip 7: Encourage your staff to do some exercise and get outside every day
This isn’t the time or place to lecture about the benefits of exercise. But it is a great mood and immune system enhancer, and even more so when the sun is shining and we can get out into nature. (And we all need this right now!) Many of your employees may fall into the trap of working from their desk all day. So, encourage them to think about their own well-being and how they will look after their physical and mental health in this uncertain time.
Tip 8: Be the strong leader your staff need
You need to be there and present for your staff. Now is not the time to hide in a corner and stop talking to people. Your staff are looking to you to keep them calm, positive and motivated. This doesn’t mean bottling up your own fears and vulnerabilities. Actually, this is the time to admit to your staff that you are scared too. Strong teams form when leaders are prepared to admit their vulnerabilities.
Tip 9: Be clear about what you want your team to do
Morale is always better in a team when people know what their role is and what they are there to do. This is needed now more than ever – particularly if your team’s workload is changing by the day. For example, I have heard of law firms starting to reskill their commercial property teams as wills and probate lawyers. (Slightly morbid, but that is the reality is the situation.) This is definitely not the time to delay important decisions. Your staff need quick decisions AND strong leadership from you now.
Tip 10: Encourage staff to have a buddy to check in with
Remember that your business is not just you. How about encouraging team members to buddy up and look out for each other?
Tip 11: Remember to praise and thank staff more than normal
We often take our staff for granted, particularly for the stuff that they just do. So, now is the time to make sure you are showing how much you appreciate the effort from each member of your team. A little bit of appreciation or an extra thank you can really lift someone’s mood when they have a continual backdrop of doom and gloom.
Tip 12: Make it easy for staff to speak up in meetings
If you struggle to get your staff to talk in meetings, it is going to be even harder to get them to talk when you and they are working remotely. If this is the case for you and your team, then start a document which everyone can access remotely and contribute to with agenda items for the meeting. In addition to this, start each remote meeting by asking everyone to answer some basic questions in the chat box, such as “on a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 = very down and 10 = amazingly positive, where are you today”.
Tip 13: Send employees surprise gifts through the post
Of course, this tip assumes you can get out to the postbox. But we all love receiving unexpected gifts or nice things through the post. I know when my son’s English teacher sends us a postcard when he has done something particularly well, it means a huge amount to him and us. It’s the same for your staff. A handwritten postcard or card sent through the post can be a huge morale booster. If you are able to send through a small gift, then get them to open it with everyone else at your next team meeting.
Tip 14: Don’t forget the ‘relationship building’ behaviours
It is far too easy with email to just send off short emails telling people what you would like them to do. However, without the social interaction in the office, it is now more important than ever to add in some relationship building stuff at the beginning of an email or some ‘temperature’ checks at the beginning of a team meeting. Stating the obvious, we humans are not just robots. We are perfectly flawed humans who are probably, while working from home for an extended period of time, craving social interaction.
Controlling and managing workflow when working virtually
If you are reading this article now, I am assuming you have started to realise how much harder it is to manage your team’s workflows when working virtually. Many of the tips I am going to share are exactly the same if you are working together in the same location.
Tip 1: Have 1 source of truth which can be accessed by everyone virtually
There are many excellent project and task management tools which can be used virtually. For example, Trello, has an excellent free version. If you don’t want to use Trello, you can normally use Microsoft Teams or Google docs for a document to keep everyone on track with what they need to do. What you don’t want to have is everyone in your team having a different system to keep track of the tasks they need to get done to get work out the door.
Tip 2: Use the daily (or twice daily huddle) to keep up-to-date on workflow
Earlier in the article, we shared a simple routine for a daily or twice daily operational huddle with your team. (See here!) These daily huddles are great for keeping your team focused on what matters, and also good for your peace of mind that stuff is getting done.