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Professor of the Practice Kerry Plemmons

Professor of the Practice Kerry Plemmons shares five tips for working together while sheltering in place

The workplace has changed, and leaders need to get ahead of these changes.

Research on virtual team environments has been pushed to the forefront as businesses continue to encourage employees to work from home, whenever possible, to help stem the spread of coronavirus. Curated from sources like McKinsey & Company, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and Bloomberg Businessweek, the following list includes five best practices for effective virtual teamwork:

(1) Start with empathy. Zoom calls, Microsoft Teams chats, phone calls, emails, Slack messages—is it any wonder we are exhausted and cranky these days? These virtual methods of communication are a necessary evil (but they are evil) for building trust in high-performing teams. The most recent research shows that staring at a screen all day is bad for our well-being, our sense of purpose and our sense of belonging. We need proactive ways to ameliorate the negative emotions driven by communications in the virtual world.

So, let’s start with empathy, for ourselves and the recipients of our messages. Give yourself a break from staring at your screen and go outside, play with your children, talk a walk to find something green rather than blue.

(2) Ask lots of questions. When you get on that call, start with questions about the individuals on the call rather than getting right to business. I create agendas that start with a fun question or two that everyone on the call must answer before we get to work. This is the equivalent to saying hello in the office before the meeting starts. Some examples include:

  • What is the first place you will travel when this is over?
  • If you could go to any event or concert with no restrictions, what would it be?
  • If you could be a character in a movie for 24 hours, what would be the movie, the character and why?

We also need to practice empathetic questions about how team members are feeling. Ask everyone to spend a couple of minutes talking about their struggles, their families and their plans. And we need to practice empathetic listening rather than narcissistic listening. For instance, a friend says her dog just died. I can respond with a story about my dog and how much I miss him (narcissism), or I can say I am so sorry and ask her to tell us more about her dog (empathy).

(3) Overcommunicate. The next step is to communicate (and communicate and communicate some more). In uncertain and ambiguous times, a great way to demotivate people is to hide information, create a lack of transparency and fail to communicate. People need information to do their jobs.

In the 21st century, employees are living in a feedback desert with little understanding of where they stand and what the future might hold. They do not need false promises, but they do need to hear rhythmic and regular information on how your organization is doing, how they are doing and how they are contributing to the success and sustainability of the organization.

What sets great leaders above the rest? Their ability to create positive feedback with detailed information about the organization, their work and their colleagues. As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explain in “The Progress Principle,” “seemingly mundane workday events can make or break employees’ inner work lives. But it’s forward momentum in meaningful work—progress—that creates the best inner work lives.” Talk to your team regularly about their progress and their contribution toward the organization’s mission, and you will find them working harder to achieve that progress.

(4) Proactively bump into colleagues. In a non-virtual workplace, we bump into people at the coffee machine, the elevator, the parking lot or in the meeting room. That bump drives innovation, trust and camaraderie. In the virtual space, bumping into colleagues doesn’t happen by accident, it must be planned. Every Sunday night, I build a list of people I need or want to bump into that week and create a proactive plan to call them, by phone or by Zoom. This works because I keep my circle of friends and colleagues talking on a regular and rhythmic basis. People are feeling more and more isolated and lonely—don’t let that feeling creep into your circle.

(5) Practice bounded optimism. And finally, we must build a basis for bounded optimism—the idea that we will prevail, and it is not going to be easy. As a team leader, you can act as the healthy limbic system for your team culture or as the toxic limbic system. In “The Happiness Advantage,” author Shawn Achor suggests that we need to find three things that bring us happiness, satisfaction, joy or gratitude for every negative emotion we see or feel (it’s called the Losada ration). For me, I keep a very small journal where I write a couple of sentences about what made me happy that day. It seems to pay big dividends with my team when I share a bit of that gratitude.

To hear more about these virtual teamwork best practices from Professor of the Practice Kerry Plemmons, check out the recording and Q&A from his lecture on the topic during Daniels’ Accelerate Webinar Series.