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Leading teams virtually


This article was originally published on 11 June 2020 as part of our Leading through Covid-19 series.

When many of us moved to virtual working at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the experience was novel and somehow held more possibility for working well virtually than we’d imagined. However, we may have gone digital in much of our work, but we still need each other.

If you find yourself leading teams virtually, and need to recreate connections, trust and energy, manage performance or have difficult conversations online, here are some tips.1

Creating the new normal

  • Don't assume everyone knows how to do this. Make time to discuss how you are going to work together, eg, principles for running virtual meetings, the importance of starting and ending meetings on time, when to email, when to call, how much notice is needed, how much preparation is needed.

  • Build a team with rhythm. Some people find the lack of routine and boundaries between work and home difficult. You can create rhythms by having regular meetings, ideally at the same time, on the same day each week. For more formal meetings, establish and share an agenda in advance; but also create spaces for connecting informally by scheduling virtual coffee breaks once a week, or other team activities. Review these regularly to check they are still appropriate to people’s needs.

  • Teams will still have issues of trust and power, and dynamics may be harder to read, with emotions amplified in the virtual space. People may either say a lot less or a lot more than they ordinarily would. Provide space to surface issues and try to manage your own emotions.

Leading virtual meetings

  • In virtual meetings, people still need a chance to settle in and reconnect socially before working through the agenda. At the start of each meeting hear something from everyone to ‘get their voice in the room’, and at the end leave five minutes for everyone to say a few words to disconnect at a personal level. These ‘virtual handshakes’ are crucial to connectivity and trust.

  • Virtual meetings can lend themselves to lots of structure, which might reduce opportunities for spontaneous interactions. When possible ask people not to use the ‘mute’ or ‘chat’ functions at least some of the time, so conversation is encouraged. People soon learn to recognise voices and give space for others to speak.

  • Encourage people to work in sub-groups of two or three, who can interact online comfortably with less formality than is needed in the larger meetings

  • Plan how you will document discussion outcomes from meetings, large or small. Writing minutes and assigning points for action online, as the meeting is happening, can be helpful – everyone can see what’s being recorded and it consolidates understanding and commitment.

  • Make time for regular one-to-one meetings with team members and use the time to listen and provide feedback. This reminds people that you care and that you value their work.

  • Children, pets, partners now regularly feature in meetings. Deal with this gently – remember people are doing the best they can.

Working with individuals

  • Everyone’s home circumstances are different. You may need to develop metrics that focus on results, not hours worked.

  • Agree realistic deadlines together. Schedule check-ins at key milestones to assess progress, provide feedback and coaching, so expectations are clear for both of you and you don’t need to guess what’s going on.

  • Share calendars and action plans with the entire team so that everyone is aware of the status of projects.

  • Make sure you don’t micromanage – just because you can’t see people doesn’t mean they’re not working.

Leading through Covid-19

Short resources and shared experiences to offer some help in supporting leaders working in the NHS, social care, public health, local authorities and the voluntary and independent sector.

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