Building trust, creating inclusion and fostering collaboration on virtual teams.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 in 5 worked remotely (20%).

Now, an astonishing 71% of all workers work from home. And very likely, that number will remain high as many companies—and many employees—are realizing the benefits of remote work.

Which means, “going back to the office” won’t be the same. So we better get used to the new morning: at least part of your team, if not the whole team, will be working from home. For some, this shift will be massive. And it means learning new ways of work, and new ways of managing.

For “high-touch” managers—those who manage by walking around—and for employees who work best with social interaction, who thrive off the motivation contact with others brings, this will be a challenge.

And there are other challenges as well: working across time zones, and the extra burden some employees have with caretaking responsibilities.

It’s going to take extra effort and extra skill to create trust and teamwork, the sense of inclusion, and to ensure everyone has what they need to succeed. It’s clear that creating a high-functioning, collaborative, and inclusive team in the era of working from home requires a whole new set of skills.

If you’re a manager, there are three important skill-sets needed to create and lead inclusive teams remotely:

  1. Make diversity the default
  2. Manage the whole person
  3. Facilitate rank differences

 

Make Diversity the Default.

When the massive shift to work from home happened early on in the pandemic, it suddenly became clear that diversity is a front and center issue not just for some, but for everyone. Consider our diversity when it comes to remote work:

  • Remote work requires new ways of working, new technologies, and new tasks—all of which highlight our differences in terms of our ability to learn and adapt and our resilience.
  • Remote work blurs boundaries between work and home, between in-office and out-of-office hours. Between Slack, Teams, and other messaging apps, we’re expected to be always available. And this highlights the diversity of our home life. Parents and those who may be caring for loved ones have a harder time getting their work done without interruptions which impacts their responsiveness and ability to collaborate in real-time.
  • Our personality and age differences result in a diversity of work preferences. Some people work well alone—they can prioritize, structure, and organize themselves easily. While others, including younger employees, feel isolated and need more interaction to feel motivated. And some prefer more guidance and to have a structure set by others.

To manage remote teams effectively, you need to make diversity the default. Expect, anticipate, and accommodate these different needs, styles, and circumstances.

When you accommodate diversity—people’s differences—you are giving everyone a chance to show up at their best.

How is it done?

  1. Frequent and regular 1-1 check-ins. You should ask, at minimum:
    • How are you doing?
    • What do you need?
    • How can I help?
  2. Accommodate time zones. Rotate the times of meetings. Even if you’re all in the same time zone, some people will always have a childcare issue at 4 pm, or be busy getting their children ready for work in the morning. If it’s a global team, adjust the times of meetings so the same person doesn’t always have to be on the call at 11 pm or 3 o’clock in the morning.
  3. Clarify your expectations. Be clear about the scope, expectations, and deadlines. Check beforehand if there may be obstacles. Don’t assume each person will understand the task in the same way.
  4. Start meetings with introductions (if people don’t know each other) or check-ins (if they do). This brings people into the room, so to speak, and helps them contribute later on. The sooner someone speaks in a meeting, the more likely they are to contribute. It also illustrates diversity: where people are, how they’re doing, what challenges they’re grappling with, which increases understanding and empathy on our teams.
  5. Compassion. Be compassionate with yourself and with others. Working from home is still new, and it’s stressful to adjust to it. We all metabolize change and stress differently. Compassion helps us appreciate and be patient with our unique natures

 

Manage the whole person

Remote work is isolating. And Isolation and loneliness impacts enthusiasm and engagement. It can also put people at risk of mental illness.

Humans need social interaction, affirmation, and reflection which face-to-face interaction provides much more than at-a-distance contact.

And connecting with someone on Slack, video or phone lacks the facial expressions, nonverbal communication, movement, and physical closeness that enrich our relationships.

To manage high functioning teams remotely, it’s important to manage the whole person, i.e., prioritize mental health. Here’s how:

  1. Check-in regularly. Asking employees how they’re doing acknowledges that they have a lot going on. There are stressors at home, at work, and stressors related to the world at large.When people feel their whole self is welcome, they feel more included, and thus more engaged.
  2. Keep people informed. Uncertainty is a major cause of stress and anxiety. And the experience of distance amplifies the feeling of uncertainty. It helps to update employees about changes, shifting priorities, and how their work fits into the bigger picture. This lessens anxiety and adds relevance. People are more engaged and committed when they feel connected, informed, and understand how their work fits into the bigger picture.
  3. Create peer groups. Buddy systems or affinity groups allow team members to provide each other support, advice, and resources. Ideally, the peer group should form around shared challenges: caretaking elderly parents, homeschooling, parenting young children, grief and loss, or combatting isolation and loneliness. Make this a part of work, not something extra they have to add to their schedule.
  4. Make time for informal socializing. Remember, social bonds are vital for mental wellness. Things like virtual lunches, coffee chats, games and quizzes, book clubs, and other informal times for conversation, connection, and relationship building are ways to provide for people’s well-being.
  5. Set up, maintain, and honor boundaries. Working remotely expands work time; It’s not uncommon for some employees to be on their devices answering texts and emails from the time they wake up until they go to bed.
  6. Develop protocols for working “in and out of the office”. If working across time zones, find hours that overlap and request people have the software open and accessible during that time so they can communicate and respond in a timely fashion. But encourage employee to set “away” statuses (e.g., “at lunch,” “on the phone,” “gone for the day,” etc.) so that they can set reasonable boundaries.
  7. End meetings with 100% clarity about next steps. What was decided, who does what, and when? Otherwise, people will be overloaded with follow-up phone calls, emails, and messages clarifying the decisions. A lot of stress is out of our control, but a lot of stress is optional. We create it. And not ending meetings with 100% clarity is one of the biggest—and most optional—stress creators out there.

 

Facilitate rank dynamics.

It’s not just individuals who have to care for their mental health.

Teams, too, have to care for mental health. What is ‘team mental health?’

We commonly call it trust. And the signs of good team mental health, or trust, are great collaboration, engagement, risk-taking and innovation, and a feeling of belonging. And what destroys trust?

Rank dynamics that aren’t properly managed.

Studies of employees’ experience of workplace culture have shown that rank dynamics are the number one issue people complain about: in-groups and out-groups, cliques, bias, discrimination, gossip, power struggles, silos and turf battles.

Rank dynamics create an unfair distribution of influence. Some people dominate, others are excluded or ignored. And any time a group meets and is unfacilitated, the loudest, most dominant member or members will take over.

And remote work itself comes with its own rank dynamics: rewarding those who are self-motivated and self-assertive and leaving those who need or want more interaction, coaching, or support at a disadvantage.

How can we facilitate rank dynamics on teams?

  1. Rotate assignments. Make sure that people get a chance to work with different people to build trusting pair relationships.
  2. Make sure that everyone has access to the same information. That agendas are shared in advance. If people have unequal access to the issue being discussed, to the data or background context, they will be excluded from being able to participate.
  3. Notice and call out differences. Especially differences that create a lack of equity or opportunity in participation: people not speaking in their native language, people calling in from other time zones, people who are new to the team, etc. Making people aware of
    those differences fosters more understanding.
  4. Make speaking time more equitable by calling on people. Don’t use prompts or encouragement—things like, “anyone want to add anything?” or “the floor is open.” Instead, invite people to speak directly, and make it clear that you want to hear from everyone.
  5. Acknowledge and reward participation by giving feedback. Online meetings are especially bad at showing that people are listening. There is nothing more dampening and demotivating than speaking and having absolutely zero feedback. When someone speaks, nod, smile, give a thumbs-up, use an emoticon, or acknowledge their contribution with an, “mhmm,” or “I see.” This lets the speaker know that they are being heard. Appreciate the input, even if you disagree. Show people there is a positive consequence for taking a risk.
  6. Be present. Watch your nonverbal communication. Lack of trust comes from lack of congruence between what is said and how it’s said. Your words will be nullified by non-verbal signals of inattention or distraction. Don’t look away, or look at your phone, or show obvious distraction when someone speaks or presents.

 

As we move into the brave new world of remote work, team trust and inclusion should not be a casualty of the new normal. Make sure your teams have trust, engagement, and a sense of inclusion by:

  1. Making diversity the default.
  2. Managing the whole person
  3. Facilitating rank differences

 

How about you? How is your team adjusting to the new normal of working from home? Leave a comment and let me know. I look forward to hearing from you!


 

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Learn more about the art of building trust in my book, Power: A User’s Guide.