Research Update: Extraordinary Teams in the Age of Telework and Virtual Workgroups— Accountability, Just Enough Structure and Shared Leadership

By Kevin Coray

A retreat I recently ran for a scientific organization began with an amazing fashion show. The show started with staff members discussing a new closet section for their telework wardrobe—you know the waist up outfit.  As co-workers began to cross the cat-walk in pajamas, work out clothes, bike pants, grass-stained garden clothes, weight lifting attire, scarves to hide unkempt hair, satin robes over blue jeans, and clashing above and below the waist combos of every type, the MCs’ mentioned that one of their pet peeves about telework was that there was no one to tell them how cute they looked.

The purpose of the retreat was to sustain productivity and excellence while embracing the benefit virtual work settings offer. Over 90% of this workforce uses some form of flexible schedule, telework, or virtual working agreement.  Yet, working remotely brings challenges both in staying engaged for remote participants and for onsite team members to come to grips with the shift in communication required to bring remote participants present. Teams that have a high degree of telework risk moving down a rung on the continuum of extraordinariness, from extraordinary to solid or from solid to ordinary.  No one wants to lose this productive edge.  Yet, the same areas that distinguish ordinary teams from extraordinary ones emerged as cornerstones of maintaining excellence and productivity in these increasingly mobile and virtual work environments.

Extraordinary teams are not just high performing.  They also provide opportunities for personal transformation while delivering outstanding results. In development of the Extraordinary Teams Inventory (ETI), we’ve identified five characteristics of extraordinary teams in our work: Compelling Purpose, Profound Learning, Full Engagement, Strengthened Relationships, and Embracing Differences.

Much of the solution to maintaining excellence in a virtual work environment lies in bringing the remote participants into presence, not losing site of purpose, and embracing the increased differences that virtual teaming produces. New research completed since the ETI was launched in 2014 indicates that Just Enough Structure and Shared Leadership can significantly add to the accountability and extraordinariness of all teams and are particularly relevant for virtual teams.

Research Update:

One of the new ETI questions asks team members about the extent to which their team has enough structure to do its work effectively (but doesn’t get bogged down by too many procedures or rules).  This is particularly important for virtual teams.  Another new question highly related to Full Engagement focuses on accountability, asking to what extent do all team members take accountability for team results? So for virtual teams, it’s worth considering what’s just enough structure to have remote as well as on-site team members feel their accountability to the team.

Three more important findings emerging from our recent research are: 1) not surprisingly, people are more fully engaged when the team’s purpose is compelling; and 2) when people report that they share in group leadership, they are more fully engaged. Finally, 3) the ETI score called Embracing Difference is also related to people reporting more shared leadership.

Five Ideas to Improve Virtual Team Effectiveness

Here are five ideas that will help capitalize on the extraordinariness of your virtual team:

  1. Meetings need agendas. But too few have them. Virtual participation makes the need for an agenda that is visual and tactile even more important. Further, the agenda needs to recognize and address the shape-shift that the virtual attendance brings. Specifically, build the agenda in such a way that teleworkers have actions and pre-work prior to the meeting and have specific time on the agenda. Use people’s names on the agenda, both virtual and onsite members.  When team members report that homework is completed, Full Engagement is higher.
  2. When the meeting starts, acknowledge the virtual participants and bring everyone present by centering the group in purpose. Never miss an opportunity to remind a team of its compelling purpose.  Then take an embodiment check—go around and let each person say how they are feeling or what their sensations are right now.  As a leader, model this by going first.  Turn off your cell phone and put it away and say that you are doing that in the process. Verbally bring yourself present, mentioning what you are letting go of to focus on this meeting and purpose.
  3. Ground rules for virtual teams are critical. Besides cell phone distraction rules, make the invisible visible. Require teleworkers to be on camera where they can see and be seen. In that way the huge contribution to that body language makes to communication is not lost. Use structured conversations such as round robins so that every team member has a voice whether remote or on-site. Share leadership by having team members lead parts of the agenda; and, don’t omit remote participants from this responsibility. Make a rule about resolving technological issues prior to the meeting start time so that remote participants are seamlessly present when the meeting starts and technology is not a time sink or distraction. Make sure people mute themselves when they are not talking.  Make a rule about paper rustling only away from microphones. Require materials to be shared via email well in advance of the meeting so all participants have the same materials to work from.  If new materials are brought into meetings, make sure they are emailed to remote participants before they are discussed.
  4. Teleworking and technology adds another big difference to embrace on top of those that are already inherent in teams such as personality, position and expert power and communication dynamics. Conflict is hard face-to-face. It’s harder when we can’t see each other and react to body language. When conflict is apparent, facilitate the virtual presence of each other. Say how you are feeling or what sensation you are having. Slow the conversation down to add that embodiment check to each participant’s engagement in the higher conflict discussion. Say something like “I’m feeling uncomfortable about …” and then make your statement. End by asking the virtual participant to state how they are feeling about the position. Open space for “seeing” the remote participant. Try, “So, how does that sit with you?”
  5. Having technology filter the finer points of hearing and understanding people can contribute to less tolerance. Figure out ways to bring patience and appreciation into the discussion. Don’t just talk. Share real time visuals like things being developed live on flip charts by taking pictures with your smart phone and sharing these across the telework gap. Or invest in a camera that can be focused on a whiteboard. Or, use whiteboard technology that can be shared on screen.

This article was reprinted with permission from the author.

Kevin Coray, Kathleen Ryan, and HRDQ-U are hosting a free webinar on February 17th. Register here! 

Recognized as an executive coach and an expert in large-scale organization change efforts, strategic planning, and executive teams, Dr. Kevin Coray is the past president of Coray-Gurnitz Consulting, a Washington D.C. firm that was twice awarded the Washingtonian’s Great Places to Work Award. He earned his Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Kevin is currently working on a new assessment on embodied leadership.

3568dd56637b16d667f462a0eb35c8ba_headshot-Kathleen-Ryan_100-200-cKathleen Ryan has more than 30 years of experience as an organization development professional. As a mentor and executive coach specializing in change efforts, executive development, and senior-level team development, she has an instinct for translating complex human behavior into practical concepts. Kathleen is the co-author of several human resources books, including Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results, The Courageous Messenger: How to Successfully Speak Up at Work, and Driving the Fear Out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust, High-Performance Organization.

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