The one big thing to know about leading a physically distanced team: make the unconscious, conscious.

How do we ensure our team holds together, builds trust and works cohesively when we can’t get together in person?

It’s more than a year since many of us started working from home; for some teams, the lack of contact with our colleagues is showing up in miscommunication, increased tension and the threat of burnout. Are your team members working longer hours while your calendar is full of meetings with little time to get any work done? Veronica shares her experience with ideas to help you keep the team together and create a new, longer-term way of working at a distance.

When the pandemic hit, those who still had jobs adjusted to working from home. Senior staff members expected a drop in performance, but instead, we’re now more worried about team members burning out.

 

How do you know your people are coping okay?

The most important aspect of leading remotely is to make the unconscious actions you used to do in the office, conscious. This allows you to assess how well your people are coping. Then create the systems and processes to enable the previously unconscious aspects of working together to become your ‘new normal’.

 

Make time to catch up with each other

For example, make time for catching up with each other at the beginning of a team meeting. You might have 15 minutes in the agenda for everybody to check-in, say how they are and what’s happening in their world. It that feels uncomfortable, start with a warm-up question like, ‘Tell me something that is going well in your world outside of work?’ or ‘Tell us something about yourself that we’re unlikely to know.’

Find ways to have laugh together; I know one team that plays a game once a week. Whether it is ‘Battleships’ or ‘Geoguessr’, for a previously well-travelled team, they give people a chance to connect about something other than the job.

 

Build trust, slowly and steadily

In reality this means doing the small things consistently. It means consciously replacing those conversations you used to have while waiting for a meeting to start, or when someone poked a head around the corner of your office and asked ‘Have you got a minute?’; the shared cake on birthdays; the afterwork drinks when you reach a target or goal; finding out the weird hobby of your colleague – or them finding out about yours while waiting for the kettle to boil. In this online world it’s finding another way of achieving the same objective.

Lencioni[i] considers trust to be the building block for being able to create teams that deliver results. What small actions can you take to consistently build trust? Some examples are:

  • saying what you doing and doing what you say,
  • meeting deadlines,
  • having those difficult conversations where you disagree with each other, or when the new hire breaches a cultural norm of the organisation.

We may not be in the same room, but we can still achieve the same outcome. When you’re leading online, think about how you can build trust? What can you do to assist your team to thrive?

 

Think about the power dynamics in your organisation. Tsedal Neeley highlights that power, who holds it and the attitude towards each other, is often one of the unspoken tensions in geographically dispersed teams, especially those who haven’t built trusting relationships.[ii]

‘If creating trust is not actively and consciously managed in a geographically dispersed organisation, sub-factions will occur, eroding the ability of different parts of the organisation to work together easily and productively.’

And she considers mitigating social distance is ‘… the primary management challenge for the global team leader.’

 

What has changed culturally?

Another aspect to consider is around culture, which I define as ‘The way things are done here.’ What was the culture when you physically worked together and how has it changed? For example, if the culture was working 9am to 5pm what has happened to working hours now you have gone online? What do personal circumstances mean for everyone’s working hours and how are these circumstances accommodated (or not)?

 

Encourage work life balance

Another major issue is assisting your team members to uphold the separation between home and work. Are some members of your team working weekends or late into the night? What are the norms around working that you want to make conscious? I.e., is an eight hour working day is enough?

 

What is urgent and why?

Also decide with your team what makes something urgent. When is it okay to interrupt someone outside their working hours and when is it not? What were the norms when you worked in the physical office and have they changed? If they have, why? Is it boredom, inefficiency or isolation? Instead of addressing the symptoms, have discussions individually, or as a team, about what the accepted norms are when you’re working from home. When leading a team across EMEA, I used to ask, ‘Is anyone at serious or imminent risk of harm, if you wait and deal with this issue during your working hours?’ Invite your team to slow down, get off their electronic devices and set aside their work each weekend/evening so they can recharge for another day.

 

Make your values and norms conscious

All of these questions are about making the shared norms and values of your team conscious. The values of your organisation are probably written somewhere… do you know them? Discuss them with your team with the question ‘What does ‘respect’ (or whatever the value is) mean for you?’ and ‘How do you embody respect?’ Then listen. Take note. Make sure everyone’s opinion is heard, and use the results to start understanding (and possibly agreeing) some culture norms within your team.

 

Listen

As a leader, you probably have another goal – to enable your team members to thrive. To do that, you have to listen to how they are. What worked well for me in regular one-to-one conversations, was the simple question, ‘How are you?’ Like you would say if you were standing around the water cooler. The point is to be aware your team member feels connected and has a primary relationship where they can say what’s going on for them. Be consistent about this; some days they may not wish to answer and that’s okay. Other days they may be waiting for you to ask ‘how are you’, because there is something they have been worrying about, or they need you to know.

 

Listen some more

There is no point in using any of the tips I’ve shared above, if you do not listen. Listening is at the heart of creating trust and building positive relationships with your team. And once you have truly heard what is being said, be flexible and curious about the response. For example, if one of your team says something that you disagree with, set aside your personal reaction for a moment and stay curious about that person’s experience. Once you have understood their point of view, then express yours.

 

Your small next steps

Take 30 minutes to remember the small things you used to do with your team in the office and then brainstorm the next small steps you can take to make a thriving online team.

 [i] Lencioni, Patrick M. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass, 2002.

[ii] Neeley, Tsedal. 2015. ‘Global teams that work.’ Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/10/global-teams-that-work?registration=success

Download your free ebook to discover how to lead in a way that makes an impact.
Veronica Lysaght

Veronica Lysaght

Founder of Leading with Humanity

Veronica believes that courageous, compassionate and inspiring leadership is needed to deal with the crises we face in the world at the moment, and that this style of leading is something we can all achieve. Her mission is to play her part in making leading with humanity an everyday reality.
She has a background in business, journalism, counselling and association management. She is an ICF certified Integral coach and has more than 20 years’ experience coaching.

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