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Leading Remote Teams Webinar Summary

Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis: Faculty panel discussion on what leaders need to know about managing virtual teams and how to keep team members engaged and successful in this rapid transition to remote work.

Cornell University faculty members from the ILR School and the SC Johnson College of Business participated in a panel discussion to share their expertise and insights on how leaders can manage the shift to remote work.

The panel included Dr. Brad Bell, Professor of Human Resource Studies and Executive Director of CAHRS (Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies) at the ILR School, Dr. Elizabeth (Beta) Mannix, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Management at the SC Johnson College of Business, and Dr. Tony Byers, Senior Extension Faculty and Director of Diversity and Inclusion at ILR Executive Education. The panel was moderated by Dr. Diane Burton, Associate Professor of Human Resource Studies at the ILR School.

Below is a synopsis of the discussion, including questions provided by the audience:

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations have quickly transitioned employees to work remotely. There may be many leaders who are new to remote teams and worry about productivity—what do these leaders need to know?

Professor Brad Bell kicked off this question by acknowledging that there is a perception that remote teams are less effective than their traditional counterparts. However, research shows that remote teams are capable of achieving the same levels of productivity as in-person teams. To meet these levels of productivity, the team needs to achieve high levels of cohesion and team commitment, team identity, trust, psychological safety and the belief that they can accomplish their goals. These criteria are key predictors for any team—whether virtual or in-person—but the conditions to meet these criteria virtually are different than meeting them if the team were in-person.

For example, virtual teams tend to focus on communicating about tasks rather than interpersonal topics, which happens naturally in the office. This makes it a little more difficult to create cohesion and trust.

Leaders must then be more deliberate in creating these conditions for their virtual teams. While they should be formal in their communication about work processes and strategies, they also need to cultivate social interactions and relationships. The best time to accomplish this is when the team first starts working remotely, when norms and expectations are set for how the team wants to work together virtually.

Dr. Beta Mannix identified three actions leaders should take with new remote teams:

  1. Create a communications plan that includes social communication. The plan should outline how the team will communicate, when, how and with whom.
  2. Clarify the purpose of the team. Identify the team’s purpose and how individuals contribute; this will also help the team focus and agree upon how work gets prioritized.
  3. Agree to an operating plan. Establish how to coordinate and collaborate together. While collaboration can take place easily on the fly in-person, this needs to be spelled out for virtual teams.

How can leaders keep teams motivated, engaged and feeling included?

Dr. Mannix pointed out it is very important for leaders to recognize we now have a different shared reality. In the office, everyone’s day is quite similar. But in remote settings—and even more so during this global crisis—everyone’s day drastically differs from each other. Leaders must not succumb to negative inferences (e.g., did I not get the report because my employee is lazy) and seek to get perspective rather than take perspective. This means asking questions to understand everyone’s situation individually and adapting leadership styles to this new role.

How do you create trust across differences?

Dr. Byers advised leaders to create opportunities for everyone’s voice to be heard and making it comfortable for them to do so.

For example, some employees may not feel comfortable answering questions on the spot or sharing their perspective on a video conference call with lots of participants. Ways to include their voice is by sending questions before the meeting so they have time to reflect and prepare a response. And to request for additional comments to be sent via email after the meeting so they can be incorporated into a summary.

These actions are small steps that will help everyone feel engaged and able to contribute, which leads to increased trust.

What are other ways of working and interacting remotely besides through video conference calls and meetings?

Dr. Bell noted that while we are fortunate to have technology like video conferencing platforms that allow us to see each other, these types of meetings are very formal. We miss the informal, spontaneous communication that happens naturally in in-person settings.

Leaders need to make sure there is a variety of communication channels (e.g., chat platforms) for informal, spontaneous interactions for creativity, innovation and sparking new ideas.

When formal channels are used, leaders should ask themselves how they can break down the social distance and encourage social interaction. Social interactions need to be orchestrated more, like dedicating the first 15 minutes of a team meeting to team members sharing something personal or creating a meeting for a virtual coffee break or happy hour. There must be opportunities to break down the social distance without a set agenda.

Dr. Byers also challenged leaders to consider everyone by thinking about accessibility during these opportunities.

What about managers who are responsible for a group of people rather than a team that usually works together?

Dr. Mannix acknowledged that managing virtual teams is much more difficult than managing face-to-face; this kind of work places an enormous burden on the manager of the team or group. But the advice is the same: don’t make assumptions, supplement communications tools in addition to one-on-one communication, and create a communications plan that identifies frequency and mode of meetings, check-ins and one-on-ones as well as ways to avoid solely email.

What can leaders do to create an inclusive environment?

Dr. Byers advised leaders to:

  1. Listen intentionally and with empathy; in other words, listen fully before responding
  2. Acknowledge the contribution of each individual
  3. Intentionally create a safe environment
  4. Collaborate within the team and with the broader organization
  5. Be consistent in practicing all these behaviors; it is inconsistency that deteriorates a team

What is the responsibility of remote leaders to go beyond productivity and engagement with work?

While some leaders are more comfortable doing this than others, Dr. Mannix shared that leaders do not need to do it all by themselves: reach out to others on the team to provide insight and share ideas. Recognizing we can all help each other will take the pressure off.

Dr. Bell reiterated a previous point that managers and supervisors need to ask questions instead of assuming how their team is doing and feeling. Remote workers need to feel supported, which can be accomplished through leaders’ flexibility and a community where they can connect with others.

What do you do if upper management is resistant to remote work? How can you persuade leaders that remote teams can be effective?

While leaders need to have patience and understanding, Dr. Byers recognized that the shift to remote work depends on the environment. Certain industries may have security or confidentiality challenges. But if organizations hesitate to allow remote work due to productivity concerns, there are tools and other mediums that allow for transparency. Agreeing to a schedule of reporting out and providing feedback can be helpful, as well as leaders identifying what information they need to know so they can feel more comfortable with the remote work.

What should leaders and team members do to avoid micromanaging?

Dr. Mannix asked, “What do we actually care about? Results.”

Leaders should create a results-only work environment and hold the team accountable for the result. Questions facilitate achieving the result: What can I do to help? What do you need from me? What challenges are you facing?

The hour the word gets done does not matter—leaders should give flexibility in this. There can be an agreement of a pilot to show that the result can be achieved. And if the result is not achieved, leaders should find out the underlying issue.

Does it help to get clarity to when to report out? For example, setting a specific date and everything in between in just work?

As a follow-up response, Dr. Mannix added that asynchronous tools can be used to provide updates. Constant meetings are not necessary when updated are provided. Meetings should be used to problem solve and collaborate instead of just sharing updates.

What do we know about creating effective and inclusive climates in a team?

Dr. Bell shared four tips on creating inclusive climates:

  1. Articulate meaning and expectations: why is inclusion important and how does it contribute to success
  2. Role model behaviors you want the team to exhibit
  3. Hold members accountable for their behaviors
  4. Understand others by checking in, listening to questions and concerns

What opportunities is this shift to remote work creating for us as a society? What can we learn from this to change or create the future of work?

Dr. Byers considered this crisis an opportunity to hone our skills of being a stronger leader and creating inclusive environments. The situation has forced us to think about talent in different ways and even tapping into your team differently to contribute to success.

Dr. Bell thinks this situation is an opportunity to bust myths around remote work. Traditionally, virtual work was at the whims of the leader. Now, we are able to see that people can still be productive, success and thrive working remotely.

Dr. Mannix believes boundaries are now more permeable and there are more chances to expand our working world.

Watch the recorded panel discussion.