Virtual Management Provides Tangible Results
Published: Oct 11, 2021
BY PAMELA GARBER
An effective manager needs to acknowledge the challenges and methodology unique to managing virtual teamwork.
It takes a skillful manager to mention the elephant (laptop) in the room and yet prevent the at-home virtual format from overshadowing the actual work. There’s no need to make the problem any bigger than it already is, and in many cases there is no need to see virtual management from home as a problem. The first step is embracing impromptu situations on the home front, including pets and people who accidentally make their way in front of the camera and onto the team’s computer screens. These domestic snafus don’t have to run interference with the work agenda and can actually be assets.
Managers and team members have choices in structuring this new arena and the mindset displayed to others. This structure and mindset become apparent after you click on the meeting link, greet your fellow team members, and figuratively roll up your sleeves. Concentration and team engagement can remain steady as more employees choose to work from home, even if we take occasional note of a team member’s kitchen cabinets.
REMOTE MANAGING STARTS WITH COGNITIVE CHOICES
Just as with in vivo managing, virtual management begins with the cognitive choices that both the team leader and the team members bring to the table. The foundational cognitive choice is how the challenges of at-home distractions can equal in difficulty the challenges of in-person work distractions.
Managers can view the need to keep everyone’s focus on the work at hand either as a never-ending derailer of productivity or a new challenge in style that requires the same concentration and effort as the standard interferences that have long been part of our in-office working culture. Instead of glass conference rooms or private offices, we find our team perched at laptops with living room décor and sometimes loved ones and pets in the background.
The foundational cognitive choice is that remote managing achieves the same results as in vivo. Managing a team of remote workers is like using a different set of driving directions to get to a familiar destination. Just as a toll road can lead a driver to the same point as a more familiar highway route, remote management can yield strong results that match the required targets. After all, the destination is still the same.
Management’s end point is to keep the team engaged, keep tasks clearly identified, and make expectations understood. In any setting, effective managers must establish the precise parameters for each team member’s scope of responsibility. With the level of ownership over each role established, it becomes less likely that team members will overstep authority or exclude each other. If such overlap occurs, untangling the conflict is made clearer because of the demarcation of the original roles.
REMOTE MANAGING RELIES ON STRATEGIC IMPLEMENTATION
Individual meetings with team members provide an opportunity for a manager to gain insight into the thoughts and feelings of each member. Information typically gleaned includes what this person needs from the team, what the present obstacles are, and what the person would like to see changed. Once the dialogue is established, questions and answers can be encouraged on an as-needed basis via email, Slack, or other correspondence tools.
In my work as a therapeutic mediator, I apply the same tenets team managers have long relied on in the traditional settings of corporations and small businesses. My first goal is understanding the overall status quo through my client’s completed intake paperwork and getting the unique perspective of each client team member. Written questionnaires are typically my first step, followed by the face-to-face individual and group meeting. Individual caucus occurs throughout the virtual mediation, just as it would in person.
As with in-office mediation, during this remote virtual format I observe physical cues and nonverbal communication. Watching posture and listening to tone provide even more information, as these are featured literally front and center on the screen. Sneakers and workout clothes sometimes replace dry-cleaned in-person wardrobes, and this new normal provides a new opportunity to gain insight into another’s persona and lifestyle.
ADVANTAGES OF AT-HOME VIRTUAL TEAM BUILDING
It was a tense minute and a half of therapeutic silence that felt like an hour. Christine and Lisa, two longtime best friends and business partners, sat in front of their screens. All of us were in our respective homes. Christine’s cat started throwing up on the table in front of Christine’s notebook. Lisa softened. The focus shifted away from whether to sell the office suite to a motivated buyer and onto the welfare of Jelly, Christine’s cat.
Because of the style and purpose of mediation, the time that relationship mediators have with their clients is typically shorter than what managers have with their team members. However, the steps of building rapport, uncovering the psychology behind each person’s behavior, and finding a target point for group cohesiveness are more similar in a virtual format than different.
Our brave new virtual work world can help the process of building rapport. Familiarity with things that are common ground can lead to closer relationships. People bond when they feel mutually relatable. What better way to fast-track this process than by seeing each other’s homes, pets, and way of life? Business casual get-togethers outside of the office are typically confusing and more tense than the fun spirit intended, but virtual happy hours or before-work coffee talks can foster the desired bonding without the awkwardness.
PROFESSIONAL CONCENTRATION IS MODELED BY THE TEAM
We see teamwork unmistakably when a film scene has two people. After one actor does something in the scene, we, the audience, need to see the other actor’s reaction. The first person, no matter how talented, needs the second person to reinforce what just happened.
Meetings are like that. Picture a pre-COVID office. A team is sitting around a conference room table when the test fire alarms go off. The team can pause, smile, keep the focus, and continue the discussion with ease. Or the team can choose to allow the disturbance to ruin the momentum.
WORKING IN SPURTS: AN UPSIDE
In mediation, it is often necessary to take breaks. Being a facilitator of therapeutic mediation means I am immersed in the mud and muck of a seemingly impermeable conflict between two opposing sides. The therapeutic mediation agenda begins with expanding on the summed-up status quo. This expansion consists of each side giving their detailed account of what they experienced and their exact points of grievance. Once one side has fully made the case to their satisfaction, leaving nothing relevant unsaid, I ask the other side to articulate the same argument that was just made. Although I clarify that echoing the argument of the opposing side does not mean agreeing with them, this task is often very emotional. Because of the level of emotion, breaks can be vital. I encourage timeouts as needed and even have a designated “pace place” to cool off briefly, away from the mediation.
Facilitating therapeutic mediation online works on the same level and accomplishes the identified goals. A person can take a timeout by turning his or her computer screen off, walking away, regaining composure, and rejoining the process. A baby crying or an Amazon delivery during mediation can provide levity and a moment of shared harmonious humanizing of the other side.
Anthony dropped his glasses in mid-scene. It was a full house in the audience and only the third night of the play. Actors huddled behind the curtains, hands cupping mouths, knowing that Katherine’s monologue was about to start, and the blocking was for her to remove Anthony’s glasses after her second line. Anthony had no choice but to alter the blocking on the spot. However, he did have a choice in the way he did it. He retrieved his glasses from the floor, but as he put them back on, he took the time to firmly hold the glasses in place while looking at Katherine, as if in defiance of her. When Katherine followed her blocking and removed Anthony’s glasses, the moment was enhanced by the earlier mistake and correction.
Work requires commitment to the scene, no matter where the venue is. The mistake and correction in the example above serve as the best metaphor for what effective managers must know about succeeding with a virtual team. Bottom line, people and companies can be as adaptable as their cognitive choices permit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Pamela Garber is a therapist and the owner of Grand Central Counseling Group in New York. As a developer of HR wellness and compliance material, she provides Skype, telephone, and in-person meetings to a broad scope of clients and organizations including Fortune 100, medium, and small organizations, as well as academic institutions in the private and public sector.