How Leaders Can Sustain Team Performance in a Remote Environment

Todd Fryling

The last several months have challenged many of our assumptions about teams’ ability to work effectively virtually.  Long-time skeptics were pleasantly surprised to see how decisive, agile, and execution focused teams could be in their virtual war rooms. Even with only four months of experience, more and more leaders are challenging a new set of assumptions around the value, ROI, and need for office space in light of the new revelations of the virtue of virtual work.

Team Challenges in the New Normal

The next six to 12 months, however, will likely surface new challenges with virtual teaming. A key reason it worked so well over the last several months is that the pandemic created a level playing field: offices were shuttered and everybody, at all levels of the organization, were forced to work remotely. However, as more offices begin reopening in phased approaches (e.g., 25% capacity or only opening up to those with offices, etc.), a new version of haves v. have nots/in the know v. not in the know is starting to take hold. The new “hybrid” team is creating a new strain of organizational anxiety within team dynamics, resulting in undercurrents of stress, fear of missing out, and even skepticism that leaders must address.

In some ways, it is the 2020 version of an older debate around the efficacy of open-office work environments. As an alumnus of a very successful global consumer products organization whose open office layout was a defining characteristic of its culture, I would argue that it worked because every employee from the CEO to the payroll clerk had the identical same cube layout and height. In contrast, companies that go halfway with the open office (e.g., VPs and above in offices, everybody else in an open office) struggle to realize the same benefits of the design. Today, those who rely on Zoom for all of their team engagement and communication feel disadvantaged compared to those who can now resume the physical office “drive-by”. Yet, as we continue with re-entry in a measured approach, it is the new reality for leaders.

Advice for Senior Leaders

As those who have led global teams with members scattered across multiple time zones know, managing the hybrid team requires a new level of awareness and intentionality to ensure the team maintains a healthy and high performing dynamic. To sustain the performance during re-entry there are several ways leaders should consider:

1. Maintain a consistent cadence of communications. Over the last four months, I’ve seen several CEOs write a brief update note to the next several layers of leadership to keep them in the loop on major announcements, progress against key initiatives, milestones, or issues on a regular basis.  Some do it weekly, some even do it daily. What’s important is that it’s consistent and people can rely on it as a level communication playing field.

2. Design your team interactions around your remote players. Make your virtual communication the default tool for team communications. Even if a couple of team members are now in an office, power up the Zoom and get the Web camera out. Switch to Slack, WhatsApp, or Teams messenger to communicate to the full team in ways that foster real-time connection.   

3. Invite the virtual team members to take the lead. Have them present their topics first during meetings. Call on them first for questions and comments. Check-in with them twice as often as you do your FTF colleagues. Get their perspectives, see how they’re feeling, and what they need from you.

4. Reinforce your operating norms and ensure they work in virtual and physical work environments. In other posts, we’ve stated that building culture virtually requires a strong set of operating principles that hold all team members accountable. Design these operating principles to ensure they can be upheld in hybrid work environments. Better yet, establish an operating principle that specifically addresses a challenge that the team has in working in a hybrid work model. Check-in with the team on these operating principles regularly.