Virtual teams, staying together apart


Annelieke Jense, Global Managing Partner TPC Leadership and Jacco Levits, Executive Team Coach TPC Leadership, discuss the impact of teams working virtually and how we can maintain connection.

As the separation from working with your team physically in the office continues, what is the impact of this extended period of working from home on the team spirit? How do you effectively work together at a distance and how do you keep the connection with each other?

Virtual communication offers new possibilities

The major difference with the pre-corona period is the lack of physical contact and non-verbal communication. The impact of making eye contact or leaning forward is different during a virtual interaction for example. Research shows that these kinds of signals boosts confidence and contribute to a sense of belonging. During videocall sessions, there is little to no non-verbal communication. Furthermore, in a virtual workplace, we are missing out on the informal chit chat at the coffee machine.

Yet the new reality also offers opportunities for a team. For example, it is easier to create more equal voice time during a virtual meeting. The chat function lowers the threshold for team members to get involved in a discussion or to bring in ideas during a brainstorming session. This also supports more in-the-moment involvement from the people with a preference for introversion. Besides, there is little opportunity for subgroups to emerge, simply because you are not together in a building, making the team more of a whole.

Three lenses for the well-being and effectiveness of virtual teams

By looking at legal firm virtual teams through three lenses: the team itself, the individual and the team leader, then overlaying some core coaching and leadership models we deep dive into how the current virtual reality just requires a different emphasis.

The team

The first lens Jacco illustrates with the pyramid of Patrick Lencioni. This consists of five functions of a team.

A team functions optimally when all five functions are well developed. The team leader has an essential role in this. The foundation is to create an atmosphere of trust, in which every team member feels free to express his or her opinion and ask questions. Vulnerability and being vulnerable in your team feeds trust. As a team leader you can do this by sharing a bit more about yourself, for example what difficulties you encounter during this period. Expressing genuine interest in the well-being of your team members is a second element that nurtures trust. The virtual space might actually be helpful in this. As a team leader, via Zoom or Teams, you now literally enter the living space of your people, and for some it might come more naturally to ask how someone is doing and to work on the personal relationship.

In addition, involving people and delegating responsibilities is really important, for example by embracing initiatives and allowing team members taking ownership for them.

The individual

A team benefits from everyone performing well and leveraging the individuals’ potential. But the virtual environment and an economically uncertain time could actually create new external and internal interferences that might hinder individual excellence. Externally, because working from home with children around and lack of a sufficient workspace might not be ideal. Internally, because potential concerns about job, health or family might cause ‘noise’.

Coaching often makes use of Timothy Gallwey’s model, Performance = potential – interferences. A team leader can help the individual by putting extra focus on the potential; confirming the qualities of an Associate or Partner peer and emphasizing the ones that are specifically beneficial for the team in the current virtual situation. Allowing flexibility with regard to working hours and sharing a considerate smile observing the home distractions and background noise will mean a lot. It will help the inner voice of “feeling guilty” to tone down.

The team leader

The third lens is that of the team leader who one could consider having three roles: leader for the long-term vision, manager to make sure things get done and coach to help people with their performance. In times of crisis, a different balance between these three roles seems necessary.

Annelieke indicates that in times of a crisis, a leader tends to quickly get into the doing modus. Whereas there is a huge need for a team leader with a focus on team well-being and who continues to consider the long term. Hence a focus on the role of coach & leader. As a team you can manage and “do” together. For example, small task forces within teams appear to work very well in the virtual space. In this way, the creativity and the need for individual contributions and sense of adding value are fulfilled. In the meanwhile, the team leader can focus on the longer-term agenda and guidance.

Virtual teams in a legal setting require a different way of working together and ask for more attention and care for each other. They benefit from the right balance between driving the business agenda and care for the people – between action and connection – and that can be quite a challenge for both team members and team leader.

However, “Never waste a good crisis,” according to Winston Churchill. Good things can be obtained from every crisis. Helpful to keep that in mind.

Book Tip: Jacco recommends the book Culture Code, The secrets of highly successful groups by Daniel Coyle.

Want more insight on how to move forward with your virtual teams? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.

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