Team leaders need to know the different ways people now work and how best to support them ©Getty Images
Team leaders need to know the different ways people now work and how best to support them ©Getty Images

How to support your team in the online workplace

Rebecca Ellinor Tyler is former editor of Supply Management
28 January 2021

For many people forced to work from home over the last 12 months, adapting to the new environment has been only half the battle, as team bonding and work-life balance become tougher. We look at the skills managers need in order to forge team spirit and continued development in the virtual office

Working from home used to be the preserve of the self-employed or senior staff who were trusted to get on with their work away from the beady eye of the boss. Prior to Covid-19, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates 7.9% of the world’s workforce – around 260m people – were working from home on a permanent basis. It projects that the worldwide potential for doing so permanently is more than double that (18%). Whatever happens in the future, a mass return to the office still seems some way off. And managing employees working at home requires a specific set of skills.

Take time to listen

Managers would benefit from employing a facilitative style, says Dr Penny Pullan, author of Virtual leadership: practical strategies for getting the best out of virtual work and virtual teams. “The directive, command and control leader does not work virtually, unless you’re dealing with a crisis. Your staff will trust you more if you listen to them. That will make them more productive and more likely to be high-performing.”

As a starting point, Pullan suggests spending one-to-one time with staff both to build rapport with new members and maintain it with more long-standing colleagues. And find common ground. Simply asking, ‘what’s outside your window right now?’ could create a connection and get a conversation started.

David Loseby, director of procurement at Rolls-Royce, has set up a series of ‘coffee no work’ sessions for his team, which take the form of 20-minute slots for the team to catch up and talk about something other than work. In an article for consultancy firm Enabling Procurement he said: “They’re about getting to know each other, how people are, what interests and motivates them.”

Loseby, author of Soft skills for hard business, who has a PhD in behavioural sciences, says this helps to create the right environment and it can be the difference between a ‘good-performing team’ and a ‘great-performing team’. “If you’re 100% formal you will only achieve a formal relationship,” he says.

In an environment where there are fewer informal encounters and meetings are driven by outcomes, it’s a good idea to make time for staff on a personal level, and part of that is finding shared interests. Gary Cookson, director at EPIC HR, says “It could be a favourite sports team, common places people have lived or visited, TV shows or pastimes. Connections are built far easier on social levels. People build relationships online all the time and often they’re as strong as or stronger than bonds created in person.”

He says virtual team-building activities such as virtual escape rooms, meeting bingo, ‘through the keyhole’ and ‘show and tell’ can work well, as can work-related challenges that involve collaboration and a “healthy dose of gamification”.

“It could be the ‘least time spent in virtual meetings’ or ‘least emails sent’ – anything that links their work with others to produce shared output”, because tasks that require joint efforts, as opposed to glorifying the individual, help develop team spirit. And Pullan agrees, saying it’s important to help your team understand the role each member plays within it, as “it brings mutual respect and understanding”.

Rethink team dynamics

“Don’t throw away the norms of the past. Think about how to do them differently via remote means,” says Juliette Murray, partner in EY’s People Advisory Services team and a former procurement professional. Murray suggests if you can’t meet someone in person, for example, you should still try to have a one-to-one coffee and a chat together remotely.

“You still need to have some fun and laugh together. Organise a quiz or team activity and spend some time on that instead of work.” And while some are reluctant or embarrassed to eat during meetings, Pullan says this can actually help strengthen bonds during downtime because incorporating other senses makes memories stronger. She suggests eating a meal together remotely and talking about something other than work.

However, for staff to be willing to spend yet more time on their screens to socialise, they must first be allowed time away from their computers. “Having team video calls running 8am-8pm is a terrible use of time,” says Pullan.

“To be productive, deep focus knowledge work needs to be uninterrupted, otherwise it can take people 20 minutes to get back to the same level of concentration. Perhaps schedule a call at the start of the day, then again after lunch or later.” She adds that while using video calls enables people to relate more and has been found to boost levels of trust, it is important to know when not to use them.

Be selective with screen time

“Use virtual meetings for the right things,” she says. “If you can pre-record a presentation for people to watch when it suits them and get together for questions later, do that.” Other times, says Pullan, it may be better to give staff access to collaborative tools so they can share documents and work on the same thing, but not necessarily at the same time.

“Think which meetings can be done while people are walking,” suggests Murray, “set mini team challenges around the number of steps they take a week, schedule 25- or 55-minute meetings to allow for a quick break and don’t expect immediate out-of-hours responses.”

Similarly, Loseby uses his one-to-ones to discover how his team members like to work, and what helps them. He encourages staff to have thinking time away from their desks. “I might find out they’re not a morning person and I can schedule meetings at a more productive time,” he says.

Murray suggests managers establish a “clear and regular rhythm of communications”. She says the absence of by-chance conversations in person means unless things are planned, they will get missed. “You need a communication strategy for the team and to establish what form of communication to use for which activity.”

All agree it is essential to look after staff by paying heed to excessive hours worked or changes in behaviour, and being prepared to act on these indicators. But with new working arrangements being a widespread and long-term situation, we should extend the level of trust and confidence in workers that we have always held for senior staff. “Focus on outputs and outcomes not inputs,” says Cookson, “and trust the employee to balance things in a way that works for the employer and for them.” 

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