Improving team culture in a virtually working world

Over the last two years, the pandemic has undoubtedly changed the world of work. Our traditional notions of work and the workplace were fundamentally challenged. We were faced with an overwhelming array of new issues and tensions at work. On reflection, it seems we weren’t well prepared for some of these – though the acceleration of flexible work has certainly been welcomed across most workforce segments.

In this context, I have had many conversations with my clients around how to adapt and navigate the new working environment.  In particular, leaders are concerned about preserving and sustaining their team cultures and what makes them unique. Pre-pandemic it was in-person, shared experiences which played an integral role in shaping culture. We all have memorable experiences like this in our careers – either good or bad! – which centre around team retreats, workshops, project meetings and the like. Traditionally, these have informed how we have learned about the culture in an organization and our personal narrative regarding what the culture expects, rewards and reinforces.

However, for many the pandemic has deprived us of these opportunities.  It isn’t as easy to observe a colleague’s demeanor and have a quiet corridor chat over Zoom. It feels cursory recognising great work through chat channels with a glib meme.  Yet, meaningful personal connections like this have never been more important in our increasingly virtual careers.  In short, a remote work location shouldn’t mean a remote employee experience.  After coming across this quote recently, I have shared it with many of my clients to focus their thinking and actions in this area.

While this certainly presents a leadership challenge, the good news is there are simple things leaders can do which make a big difference to their team culture and how that is experienced.  You will see the common thread among these strategies is making meaningful personal connection in a virtual working world.

With this as a guiding principle, we encourage our clients to focus on the following:

1. Investing to Build Trust – we know trust is the foundation of all high performing teams. Where team members genuinely believe their colleagues’ intentions are good, where it is safe to share challenges or setbacks and ask for help – where this trust exists, many of the issues and tensions that arise within virtual teams are overcome more easily or fall away altogether. Accordingly, we advise our clients to invest in building team trust – both through adaptive leadership and more structured interventions where appropriate. The current labour market dynamics mean many of our clients have key teams with brand new leaders and/or a greater proportion of new hires. These teams have a golden opportunity to do this work in the formative stages and reap the benefits in future.

2. Intentional Connection – as we know all too well, working virtually affords us fewer opportunities to observe our colleagues and tune into the subtle, non-verbal cues which indicate how someone is feeling. Therefore, if we aren’t intentional in the way we connect virtually and how frequently we do that – we are going to miss those cues and the opportunity to act on them. The antidote to this is being intentional in the way we connect – dedicating our time to connect personally, knowing our colleagues as people (rather than simply what they do) and importantly doing this individually one-to-one. In the current environment, there really isn’t a risk of over communicating – provided this is intentional and relationship focused.

3. Cultivate Belonging – as humans, when we feel we belong somewhere, we also feel safe to be ourselves, speak our minds and share new ideas. Conversely, we don’t have to expend energy editing ourselves or holding back to fit in. The data illustrates just how powerful belonging can be – where people feel a sense of belonging at work they are 3.5 times more likely to contribute at their best (EY, 2019). In view of this, how can leaders create that sense of belonging within their teams? The answer is surprisingly simple. There are two very impactful steps leaders can take. The first relates to ensuring all voices are heard in decision making – and not just the most senior or the loudest (think squeaky wheel). We advise leaders to be deliberate in seeking junior or frontline voices and to visibly ask for dissenting views. The second step relates to simply checking in on people. This doesn’t refer to checking in on work, but rather checking in on the person to demonstrate you care about how they are really doing. Again, the research shows people feel the greatest sense of belonging when leaders and colleagues check in on them this way (EY, 2019).  My clients are always grateful for the conversations that flow from simply asking “how are you doing with everything just now?” and “how can I best support you?

4. Permission to be Unavailable – though somewhat counter to the previous two points – it is nonetheless vital our clients give themselves and their teams permission to be unavailable at times. The cognitive load of living through a pandemic, the mental health impacts and the incidence of burnout are all evident, but we still see so many leaders attempting to remain always-on as they were pre-pandemic. Of course, this isn’t sustainable. We encourage our clients to be vulnerable with their teams, to acknowledge these challenges and to role model being unavailable to care for themselves. When leaders go first they signal permission for their teams to do the same. From a retention perspective this is crucial too – research shows that globally over half of all employees will consider leaving their roles if they are not afforded greater flexibility post-pandemic (EY, 2020).

5. Personalised Work – we have all had to work differently over the last couple of years – both in terms of work location, but also having regard to how we perform our roles while also meeting competing demands outside work (homeschool much?). As the pandemic has now proven what is possible here, we are no longer constrained to the traditional models of work. Instead, we are now seeing work personalized to suit the individual. While this certainly applies to working arrangements, we are also seeing this trend extend to work design. Naturally, we all gravitate toward work which plays to our inherent strengths. We tend to be better at this work and enjoy it more. Therefore, the challenge for leaders is to understand the combination of strengths within a team and enable role design to optimize how these are applied. In much the same way retailers have embraced mass customisation (who hasn’t bought something Amazon suggested??), we encourage our clients to consider how they can enable personalized work in their businesses.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, but rather intended as a starting point. Subject to the needs of our clients and their teams, there is a great deal more which can be done in each area and to enhance virtual team effectiveness overall.

If you like to talk about strategies for your team, please feel free to reach out.

Claire Jenkins
Senior Consultant
+61 408 388 434
[email protected]

Updates to your inbox

Stay up to date with topical insights, news and more.