Working together virtually, the right way
Working together is an art that no one masters as well as we humans. Our ability to collaborate has enabled us to shape the world to our liking. But although we have been practicing this art since time immemorial, we have still not perfected it. Organisations know all about it. No matter how far we have come, the bottlenecks remain: interests diverge, colleagues misunderstand each other, departments work in parallel and so on.
One year ago, an unexpected complication was added to this: from one day to the next, we (almost) all worked at home. Suddenly, we only see each other through screens. The connection is hard to find, body language becomes invisible, there is only room for results and spontaneous meetings do not happen anymore. And then of course there are those other obstacles we have been struggling with for millennia. Cooperating at a distance can therefore rightly be called a complex challenge.
In ‘Six Solution-Focused Mindsets for Complex Challenges‘, we explained how – armed with six mindsets – the most successful leaders can master any complex challenge. In the coming period, we will show how to apply these six mindsets to various complex challenges. And what better challenge to start with than remote collaboration? Because although the end of the corona crisis seems to be in sight, the working population in the Netherlands indicates as one that working from home will remain a part of the job. How do you work together optimally in this new reality?
1. Form a shared vision
To find an answer to this, we turn the model upside down for a moment – we start with the sixth mindset and end with the first. Because if you want to solve a complex challenge, it is best to start with the end in mind. In other words, everything starts with a vision of the future.
In the case of remote collaboration, this means forming a clear and powerful vision together of what kind of team you want to be. It helps here to create an online vision board on which all team members can indicate in words and pictures where they want to go. This way, you use the individual visions of the future to create one shared vision for a team that works together optimally at a distance.
2. Focus on your people
As challenging as working from home is, to many people’s surprise, one thing turns out to be right: productivity is perhaps even higher than before the crisis. But that does have a downside: everything is focused on results. Where colleagues used to meet all day, they now only see each other in Teams or Zoom meetings, where it soon becomes just about the content. The bottom line may be good – the company is making a profit – but at what cost?
In these times, it is more important than ever to look beyond getting results. Managers need to have an eye for the connection within their team and the well-being of each team member. Deliberately create the space to talk about things other than work – from everyday banter to serious issues facing team members.
For managers, it’s important to encourage and facilitate this connection within the team, but it doesn’t stop there. As a leader, it is up to you to keep an eye on the (mental) well-being of each individual team member. From a distance, this requires extra attention and sensitivity. Make it clear that you are always available to talk about anything. Make sure you also maintain regular one-to-one contact with everyone. And remember that many have to cross a threshold to share their personal problems. Help them by setting a good example and being vulnerable yourself.
None of this is new. It fits the transformation from a controlling to a coaching leadership style that leadership experts have been advocating for years. In these times, however, being a coaching leader has become even more important, but at the same time more challenging: leader no longer see what their team members are doing and become nervous. This confronts them with a crucial choice: do I fully embrace control or do I let go and try to coach my employees? Do I lead based on distrust or trust? This is the moment to decide what kind of leader you want to be.
3. Enjoy the game
Looking beyond the results does not mean that those results do not count anymore. And if they are good, there is every reason to enjoy those results and the way they are achieved. Working towards a common goal as a team is a wonderful undertaking, and when that goal is reached, it is good to reflect on that shared success – especially now that getting together physically is not an option.
So think of ways to celebrate successes. Build a virtual party, toast the victory together, have cake delivered to the home of the entire team or even give everyone a weekend away. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but at least do something. And don’t just give a gift, let the team members know in person how much they are appreciated and why.
Another way to enjoy the game is to realise that it is a game. Of course the work must be taken seriously, but approach it as a game or a challenge, in which there is also room for fun. Even if there is no concrete result to celebrate, there can be drinks together, and even during a business meeting there should be room for laughter.
4. Use the rules to your advantage
People tend to have a negative connotation of rules. We want to be free and see rules as limiting that freedom. However, every game exists by the grace of rules, including the game your team plays together. Even in the most self-managing organisation there are countless rules. Some of them are fixed, but a lot more are not. They are the so-called ‘unwritten rules’. You let each other finish when speaking, when a deadline approaches everyone puts their shoulders to the wheel, when the door of the meeting room is closed there is in principle no interference, and so on.
Now that teams work together remotely, suddenly such a completely new situation has arisen that unwritten rules often fall short. There is simply not enough time for new forms of interaction to develop naturally. This makes explicit rules all the more important.
Therefore, create clear preconditions under which your team will work. Think together about how you deal with situations that previously resolved themselves automatically. What do you do, for example, if someone is missing at the start of a virtual meeting? How do you make sure the meeting goes smoothly for everyone? And how do you prevent people from spending too much time behind their laptops every day? A lack of rules on such topics can actually create pressure. And vice versa, rules can contribute to freedom.
5. Use all strengths
When you are together in one room, it is relatively easy to bring out the best in each other. Everyone comes to the office in the morning – the place where you work together as a team towards that common goal. If you just walk from your bedroom to your living room, office or guest room every morning – where you can sit at your computer screen all by yourself again – it can be a little harder to find the strength to go for it every day.
Help your team members to tap into that power. Of course, they have to do it themselves, but as a leader you can make a big difference. The other five mindsets also play an important role in keeping your team motivated: by celebrating successes together you can boost someone’s motivation, and a powerful shared vision ensures that team members do not remain stuck in the past, but look ahead full of energy to what is possible in the new world.
6. Build on the past
Not dwelling on the past does not mean forgetting it. On the contrary – especially if you have shared an office together for a long time, the bond you built up there is worth its weight in gold. That shared past forms a strong foundation for a team spirit that will not be shattered even during prolonged physical distance. In fact, by experiencing this challenging time together, the bond can become even stronger.
Therefore, cherish the shared past and the valuable role it plays in the present and the future you are heading towards together. Give each other and yourself the space to grieve for what is no longer there, and look together at which aspects of the past you want to bring back into the new form of working that will arise when working remotely can once again be combined with being together physically.
The benefit of this crisis is that we are finally breaking free from ingrained habits that we took for granted, but in doing so, the value of what we now miss is revealed more clearly than ever. The past is not coming back, but by harnessing it, we can create a future where the best elements of what was and what is are combined to form something new – a better way of working together.