HOW TO MANAGE IN THE NEW “VIRTUAL WORLD” – CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
by Allan Robb
On the assumption that the Covid pandemic will continue for some time yet, and that virtual working will most certainly continue to a great extent after that, it is clear that executives and managers need fully to understand the dynamics and issues in the “new normal”.
Many global organisations have been working in this way for many years now to avoid travel costs and time, but now it has become much more prevalent in every country with the edict to “work from home if at all possible”.
From my experience of the last 9 months (and before), my insight and learning are that there are many advantages of virtual working for both organisations and the individual including the reduction of office space required for employees, reduction in travel time, etc. With continuing pressure on costs, more globalisation, more international, cross border trading, improvements in technology etc, this trend is likely to continue.
But there are also some down sides. The first six of these are task related
Whilst the second six are softer, people/relationship issues:
There are eight “big components” which need to be addressed and understood to ensure virtual working succeeds. These are:
1. Building Trust
2. Improving Ways of Working /Collaboration
3. Focus on Performance
5. Meeting and email etiquette
6. Understanding /acknowledging individual working preferences
7. Building a team manifesto
8. Get the Technology working 100%.
1. Trust is the key component and the hardest to achieve quickly. This is only developed over time, often after the typical forming, storming and norming cycles. But it is essential, because without it, effective Virtual working and virtual team working are very difficult to achieve. There is no quick fix here and will only happen over time – and mostly by addressing the next set of issues.
2. Ways of working can be broken down further into these components:
· Clear terms of reference/objectives/goals – must be much more precise;
· Clear roles and responsibilities – ditto;
· Clear planning and reporting processes – ditto;
· Effective investment and appropriate and consistent use of systems and telephony.
3. A focus on Performance is the key. To make a team feel like a team, you need to set very clear goals, objectives and vision for the team. What are we here to do? What and how can/will we each contribute to achieving our goals? How are we going to support each other to reach a successful outcome?
It is important to set SMART goals. These will become really important if you don’t see people every day. It’s all about measuring output, not time and attendance. You can track these in a spreadsheet on your team site and ask people to update it every week by a set time. You will then be able to see what people have achieved at a glance without lots of emails. Make clear the dependencies/inter-dependencies and how each team member’s contribution supports overall achievement.
4. The quality of the team’s communications should also be considered – both in terms of written communications and verbal communications. Written communications must include high standards of grammar and punctuation and sensible document management. For example, when using Powerpoint, make use of standard company templates and high quality graphics where possible. With lengthy documents, insist upon a contents page, an executive summary, focus on the important subject matters and put the detail in appendices.
Managing or working in a team that doesn’t sit together every day takes more discipline and very clear ways of working. Much of this is what many consider to be “good management” and normal ways of working, but in a “virtual” world, these are even more important.
While these will take additional work at the beginning, this discipline will benefit any team in the long run. Those working this way say their performance, team effectiveness and personal lives have all been enhanced.
Set out, agree and document the expectations, encourage the team to challenge each other in a professional way if the agree standards are not delivered. Be prepared to re-negotiate the “standard” if it is not working for the team and your key stakeholders.
5. Meeting and email etiquette
It is vital that the organisation and the team agree standards, guidelines and etiquette to ensure the team is not left with poor meeting outcomes and drowning in emails. Some examples of this include: having an agenda, starting and finishing on time, taking notes and agreeing next steps, involving everyone if possible, etc
6. Individual working preferences
These need to be discussed and agreed at an early stage., Some specific issues include:
7. One way of developing high quality, clear team ways of working is to prepare a “Team Charter” or manifesto – more on this in part 3 below.
8. Getting the Technology right. It is essential for productivity that the necessary technology is in place and working 100% – this includes broadband/wifi quality, having a large (second) screen, working software (Teams, Zoom etc) and all of the training being delivered as required. However individuals’ home IT will vary considerably – e.g. rural internet functionality can be hard to change quickly – so it may take time to achieve 100%.
THE TEAM CHARTER
Based on the above, to make the Virtual Team even more effective, should include:
1. Building a Team Charter – see below;
2. Understanding the organisation’s and team’s wishes and constraints;
3. Identifying and agree the new ways of working;
4. Agreeing roles and performance measures;
5. Documenting gaps in your current knowledge or team ‘set up’, including meeting and email etiquette;
6. Agreeing communications protocols and standards;
7. Getting the team assistant trained on all of the technologies and video conferencing;
8. Ensuring team has good “homeworking” set up;
9. Agreeing a file sharing solution the team will follow – e.g. Sharepoint;
10. Working with your IT and HR business partners to help address these gaps.
To build an effective Team Charter, I have the following suggested steps.
These are the main components which need to be considered and it is up to the organisation and / or the team to put in place to ensure the benefits of virtual working are achieved, the team is productive and the objectives are met professionally and timely.
*Allan Robb is an independent management consultant and former partner of KPMG Consulting who focuses on change programmes, programme management and portfolio reviews, particularly in the Finance function. Allan can be contacted on
07802 804 818.