I work at a university where in March almost all employees were instructed to work from home and avoid coming to campus. Some of us were used to working from home at least part of the time, so this directive had limited impact. For others, especially support staff who work a 9 to 5 job in the office, working from home was a new and at times uncomfortable experience. They found themselves suddenly thrown into the world of virtual teaming during COVID-19 with no time to prepare.
Much of the work we do in the modern workplace involves coordinated efforts with other employees. Working with others cooperatively to meet joint goals is considered teaming. This means working in a team with others to accomplish specific tasks. When we do it remotely, we are engaged in virtual teaming. We coordinate our efforts via the use of electronic media such as email and text, and we have virtual meetings using web-based apps like MS Teams or Zoom. These technologies allow us to communicate with people across distance, but the nature of communication changes when we are no longer face-to-face. Written communication loses much of the human touch that comes from gestures, facial expression, and tone of voice. It is easier to be misunderstood using virtual communication, and easier to offend someone unintentionally. Research shows that virtual teaming is not as effective as face-to-face, but during COVID-19 it became necessary.
Virtual Teaming During COVID-19
Generally, when people engage in virtual teaming, they have time to prepare. Often virtual activities take place in the office where IT departments can setup the technology that is needed, and when it is done remotely, there is time to get things arranged properly. During COVID-19, virtual teaming was suddenly imposed on people away from the office with little time to prepare. We did a survey of staff at my university and learned that many felt uncertain about what was expected and were struggling with having to communicate with supervisors electronically rather than face-to-face in the office. Further, many did not have a home office and were working on a kitchen table, sitting on an uncomfortable chair. They did not have adequate computer equipment to facilitate virtual teaming. These factors added extra stress on employees during a difficult time.
What Do People Need for Virtual Teaming?
To do virtual teaming well, people need the appropriate skills and tools. Google has realized this and announced that each employee will get a stipend to cover the costs of working from home.
- Comfortable Space. In the office, we have dedicated space that is designed for working. Some of us have home offices with ergonomically designed desks and chairs, but many do not. If you are working on a laptop at a dining room table, you should at least have a good office chair that is adjustable and comfortable for working.
- Adequate Equipment. Virtual teaming means having online meetings that involve both voice and video. You need to be able to hear others speak clearly, and for others to hear you speak clearly. You need to be able to see others clearly, and for others to see you clearly. This means having a computer that has enough power, and having adequate speakers, headphones, and webcam. I use a Jabra speakerphone (cheaper options are available) because of the quality of sound, and the microphone does not produce feedback from the speaker.
- Communication Skills. Virtual communication can be different from face-to-face. When communicating via text you need to be clear in your explanations of things. Many people are more comfortable speaking than writing, so having to communicate in written form can be a challenge. People should take the time to thoroughly explain their points, but do so in an efficient manner. Clear brevity is the goal. Further, unless you know someone well, it is best to avoid banter and sarcasm, as things said in jest that add levity when spoken can come across as harsh when written.
- Self-Management Skills. Working remotely requires the ability to work without close supervision. This means being able to manage your workload by prioritizing tasks and figuring out the best way to meet deadlines. For some employees working in an office, there is continual contact with supervisors who provide structure that employees will need to provide for themselves when working remotely.
- Virtual Supervision Skills. Supervising employees remotely can be challenging for two reasons. First, employees need to work more autonomously, so they need to be empowered to do so. This means clarifying expectations and the limits of authority each employee has. Second, communication channels need to be established that specify not only how to communicate (e.g, e-mail) but the time frame for responses. There should be no uncertainty about when responses are expected and when things need to be completed.
There is nothing special about virtual teaming during COVID-19 other than it was thrust upon many people without warning. Virtual teaming skills and tools are the same whether the activities occur suddenly during a crisis or have a long and deliberate roll out. In either case organizations need to pay attention to the resources and skills that employees have to enable them to perform their jobs well in the virtual world.
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