COVID-19: Communicating with virtual teams during times of crisis

Article by Professor June West, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. 

Conference call, communication featured, virtual teamsThe coronavirus has pushed the world to an unprecedented lockdown. The challenges due to this outbreak are enormous and continue to evolve.

With the intention of coping with these challenges and at the instruction of governments all over the world, many organisations are exploring ways to help their employees work efficiently from home. Remote working arrangements or work-from-home have been common in many organisations for years, aided by constantly growing and improving technical tools. However, the COVID-19 crisis has fast-tracked the number of teams working virtually. Still, the transference from workplace management to virtual management can be tricky.

Managing virtual teams is fundamentally different from regular work teams. It needs planning, coordination and intentional management. Virtual work is designed to help one navigate this work shift from office to home while maintaining productivity, trust, and communication. But, all employees, managers and non-managers are experiencing these changes at the same time. 

While policy and procedure decree a change, the process that each employee will go through is subjective. It should be kept in mind that each employee will move through this transition in different ways. While there may be some team members who are ready to implement a fully virtual work environment, some will take time to adapt. So, as a leader, one needs to gauge where an individual team member is on this spectrum of change by constantly talking with them about their concerns and answer questions. 

The aim of the virtual team leader is to enable the success of the team in finishing its task and assignments. The symbol of a strong and well-managed team is efficient communication – a two-way communication. The team leader needs to be extremely vigilant, first about guaranteeing that his/her messages are clear and understood, and then about being mindful of the degrees of responses and feedback. Every virtual meeting or message sent must have a clear purpose so that the team members understand why the team is being assembled or getting the communication. 

First and foremost, team leaders should clearly put across their intent and expectations. This comprises outlining the overall objective and pinpointing the preferred response and/or outcome, then analysing the objective into explicitly planned action points and choosing a suitable communication style. Always bear in mind that spontaneous ideas that are created in one-to-one communication should be worked into planned action items to avoid any slip-ups.

Second, the communication style should depend on the composition and needs of the team members. This means that for seamless communication, it is wise to take into account what they already know and what they expect should all be communicated elaborately. It should also be kept in mind to keep a check on how much background information the team-lead needs to divulge and how much he/she needs from the employees. It is also wise to keep a tab on how the employees feel about the meeting or the message and whether they will have a strong bias – either positive or negative. It is the human tendency that people easily misinterpret messages without the aid of visual or verbal cues on tone and emotion. So, leaders must make sure that they are crystal clear in their communication.

While working virtually, it becomes important to capture the comments and feedback throughout the meeting or from the email responses. It becomes mandatory to circulate a summary or minutes-of-the-meeting and most importantly, which tasks were assigned to each team member including the deadlines agreed upon. The best way to go about it to make a virtual team meeting site where all documents can be uploaded.

Last but not least, team members should be encouraged and appreciated for a job well done. There should be a written, verbal, live or recorded appreciation celebrating team accomplishments. This shows care, holds the team together and helps them stay focused on the overall mission, which is usually difficult to do when working individually. Keep offering the team members help when needed, especially in times of such pandemic. This kind of communication goes a long way. The team should feel as one and cared for, even though working virtually.

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