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How to make the best of virtual office work

The technology may be pioneering, but the challenges of maintaining team efficiency in the midst of a pandemic are great. Jo Faragher finds out how businesses are coping.

Mental health awareness

It was a sign of the times in September 2020 when social media platform Facebook announced it was hiring a remote work director – acknowledging that what had been a temporary trend set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic was going to become something much more permanent. Job site Adzuna recently found that there are more than 15,000 available jobs advertised as remote posts, while senior management roles to oversee the shift to virtual and hybrid working are on the rise.

With companies reconsidering their real estate costs and many employees reporting higher engagement and productivity working from home, business leaders must now carve out new policies and approaches for communication and collaboration.

Melissa Sergeant, managing director of Bishopsgate Financial, a change management consultancy to the banking sector, has been making these shifts with her own company in recent weeks. ‘We’ve made the permanent move to remote. We had a lease ending and were not happy with the premises, so we decided to continue working from home,’ she explains. ‘The key thing was we already had all the infrastructure in place, so it was easy. But what is more important is the support structure from managers, things like the way we set up meetings, make sure everyone’s OK and keep motivation levels up.’ The company has found a happy medium where most work takes place at home and there are occasional face-to-face meetings at rented office space, avoiding peak time travel but bringing everyone together.

Ongoing communication, whether everyone is operating remotely or not, is crucial. Be mindful too that arrangements that may work well at present may not in six months’ time, so keep the dialogue open and conduct regular reviews. James Brent, a director at Hays Accountancy & Finance, says: ‘If you haven’t already, plan a session with your team to reset expectations and agree how best to work together. On an ongoing basis, review how this hybrid arrangement is working. Share your thoughts with your team and invite feedback regarding what has been successful and what needs improving.’ Most organisations will have become more used to using multiple channels of communication, and this should be maintained. ‘Make yourself contactable and approachable so your team feel like they can get in touch whenever they need to, be it about work or their personal circumstances,’ he adds. ‘A high level of emotional intelligence is more important than ever in order for managers to ensure that they pick up on any potential issues. A general ‘how are you’ isn’t enough – ask specific questions around what challenges they may be facing or what successes they have achieved recently.’ 

Managing who does what in a team when everyone is not in the office can be more challenging, however. The easy default is to send a quick email or message to an employee with a task, instructions and deadline, but when it comes to engaging staff working remotely on a more permanent basis, this may not be enough. ‘I’d encourage picking up the phone or having a video call,’ says Claire Williams, head of people at software company CIPHR. ‘Performance management can be more difficult if you can’t observe people day-in, day-out, but one of the positives of us all working from home is that managers realise they can trust their staff.’ One approach could be to share targets with the team at the start of each day ‘so people understand there is visibility and accountability’ but also creating a sense of working together and team morale.

No more water-cooler chat

The informal networking that takes place in an office – water-cooler conversations and chats before meetings that build bonds between colleagues – have certainly fallen by the wayside. Dr John Blakey, a global CEO coach and author of The Trusted Executive, argues that we are ‘consciously incompetent’ in our networking skills at present as we acclimatise to the new workplace norms. ‘In the office environment we became ‘unconsciously competent’ at rituals we built up over years and years such as shaking hands,’ he explains. ‘In the virtual setting all of a sudden we’re novices, meetings feel awkward but we’re climbing the mountain together. We’ll get used to it but it will take time.’

Remote working has also led to a shift in power in some respects, adds Dr Blakey. ‘All of the rituals of office life help managers to be managers – in a virtual setting they need to rely more on trust-building skills as the trappings of management are stripped away.’ Successful leaders were already beginning to take a more trust-led rather than command and control approach – the pandemic has simply accelerated this, he says.

Chartered psychologist Portia Hickey agrees that – in order to be able to share knowledge and collaborate better remotely – trust is the most important trait a leader can develop. ‘Effective knowledge-sharing requires the ability to share knowledge and information openly, equitably, easily and in real-time,’ she says. ‘The threat triggered by the economic impact of the pandemic can make employees feel that knowledge is power and inadvertently motivate them to hoard information. A leader’s ability to pull people together to focus on the common goal and incentivise the sharing of knowledge and information is done by concentrating on collaboration.’ Building employees’ trust in the leaders who run their workplaces is even more poignant when trust in political and public leaders is at a low, she adds.

From a practical perspective, many if not most meetings will be taking place over video, via tools such as Teams or Zoom. However, the rituals we may be used to in physical meetings are harder to replicate. Matt Crook, managing director of Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting, says: ‘By now most businesses will have a range of virtual tools and environments set up for remote working, but it’s important to realise that just because we can’t see one another face to face, this does not mean that we should be having longer and more frequent meetings.’ He advises making meetings shorter with more space between them. He adds: ‘Recently we’ve encouraged scheduling for 25 or 50 minutes instead – or indeed any duration that feels right. If this means having breathing space between meetings, this really simple change could go a long way to fostering a better work/life balance, leaving more time for innovation.’

Indeed, avoiding ‘Zoom fatigue’ should be a high priority, says Cate Murden, founder of PUSH, a performance and wellbeing consultancy. ‘When we started working from home, we were all blown away. But recent research conducted by our team has actually identified that while Zoom saves us time which would have otherwise been spent commuting back and forth from the office, or meeting, it is killing our energy.’

Managers can tackle this by encouraging staff to take regular breaks during the day or even arranging face-to-face meet-ups (adhering to social distancing rules) if colleagues live near each other. ‘Give your team one or two hours per week for their wellbeing and enforce that they take this time,’ she advises. ‘If you can schedule this around committed sessions supporting their mental health or personal development that everyone consumes together, all the better.’

The sound beats the video

How managers and leaders communicate with employees – for example if making an important announcement – can also make a difference to how a message is received, adds Scott McArthur, a keynote speaker who has pivoted his work to become virtual. ‘Lots of people try to get it perfect but the best advice is “don’t get it right, get it down”,’ he says. ‘Don’t worry about the technology, just get started on your phone.’ For leaders that want to raise their game, he offers a few tips: the sound is more important than the video (as many online services downgrade video over sound); make sure a webcam is at eye-level and look at the camera while speaking and choose a simple background.

Arguably one of the greatest challenges over the coming months will be coming to terms with longer-term home working and more potential disruption. Managers will need to find ways to keep engagement up, says Kirsty Lilley, mental health specialist at wellbeing charity, CABA. ‘Giving team members a sense of control can be useful. A virtual event of some kind can often be a powerful way of bringing people together and collectively strengthening their wellbeing. Ask the team what would be helpful to them, instead of just organising an event that they don’t feel engaged in. Give your team a voice. Encourage them to collaborate.’ It’s important, too, to remind everyone of things that are going well. Lilley concludes: ‘Focus on what the team has achieved during this time. It’s not about dismissing the challenges that we’re dealing with; it’s about managing them effectively and spending time focusing on any positives, to help keep people feeling balanced and motivated.’

Top tips for remote collaboration and connection

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, co-founder of 10Eighty, a leadership development consultancy, sees the move to a more virtual workplace as an opportunity to let go of traditional, ‘command and control’ management approaches and to work in a more distributed way. She offers 10 tips on how organisations can do this.

  • Recognise that you need to support each other in times of uncertainty.
  • Create a sense of belonging.
  • Find out employees’ preferred method of communication and be mindful that people absorb information in different ways.
  • Keep communication regular without being invasive.
  • Trust your team – they should not feel they need to prove they are working all the time.
  • Provide clear accountability and deadlines, with regular updates along the way.
  • Role model the behaviour you want to see.
  • Use the first part of a meeting to catch up on employees’ lives as this can help boost their networks.
  • Celebrate success and acknowledge people’s contributions.
  • Look after yourself – maintain your own energy and try not to absorb anxiety.

What makes an effective virtual leader?

The shift to sudden remote working has been a challenge for many employees, but one of the most influential factors in ensuring that a business can still run smoothly and staff remain engaged is its leader.

Ryne Sherman, chief science officer at Hogan Assessments, believes that effective virtual leaders have five personality traits.

  • Adjustment: an effective leader should recognise that the shift to remote or even part-time home working could leave employees feeling displaced. Leaders that adapt well, remaining calm and level-headed motivate teams to keep working and reduce panic.
  • Interpersonal sensitivity: Some employees may feel isolated and less comfortable seeking out help, so virtual leaders should make themselves accessible and approachable if workers need guidance, even if this is not related to their job.
  • Ambition: With workdays becoming less defined and no commute to break them up, leaders need to dedicate energy to re-defining activities and goals. If a leader is ambitious, their confident and proactive approach could inspire workers to remain productive.
  • Inquisitive: Curiosity and a willingness to try new tools and approaches is key during this period. If leaders are early adopters of new tools this resonates with the rest of the workforce.
  • Altruistic: Empathy for employees’ individual circumstances and how these may differ to their own is crucial. Altruistic leaders make their team’s wellbeing a priority and act as a unifying force during adverse times.

Donatella De Paoli, associate professor for the department of leadership and organisational behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School, argues that ‘traditional and centralised views of leadership’ need to be replaced. As teams increasingly work remotely, she believes good leaders will be differentiated by their ability to focus on relationships, discover the right levels of control, and how they communicate. She believes good leadership can be co-created: ‘Effective leadership includes making it clear that every person is responsible for ensuring that tasks are completed,’ she says. ‘When we are physically isolated from each other, team members must engage in greater self-management.’

Managing virtual conflict

An important issue to be mindful of as circumstances change is that the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has made people increasingly anxious and sensitive. ‘This is translating into more conflict at work, and handling this remotely is harder,’ says Alexandra Efthymiades, director of mediation and conflict resolution company Consensio.

The key is prevention, she adds. ‘Think about how you prevent conflict from getting out of hand. The warning signs are much easier to spot when you’re in the office, for example you can see if someone is looking down or they’re not engaging. We miss these physical cues remotely.’

Although employees may be reluctant to turn on the camera when having Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings, it can be helpful to encourage them to do so. ‘You have a different type of conversation if you can see someone,’ says Efthymiades, who advocates regular non-work-related check ins as well as opportunities for social interaction such as a weekly team ‘lunch’ or happy hour.

‘Research shows that when we’re overly busy at work we tend to be overly task-oriented, so we focus on tasks rather than relationships,’ she adds. ‘We may feel as though we don’t have time to spare for these things but if a conflict does arise, the amount of time you’ll spend trying to unravel it versus a simple team lunch will be a lot more.’

In addition, people may be feeling insecure – which in itself can breed conflict. Headlines about unemployment or uncertainty about their future may mean employees are more likely to act in ways that are not collaborative. In this case, managers should ensure written and verbal communication is clear but friendly. ‘Watch your tone and put context into your messages, thinking about how they might be interpreted can make a big difference.’

About the author

Jo Faragher is an award-winning business journalist and editor who writes for Personnel Today, People Management and national newspaper business supplements. 

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