Six Best Practice for Building Virtual Teams

With more than a third of employees likely to continue working remotely when the pandemic ends, companies face an array of challenges in making such arrangements work. Trust is the answer to most such problems, says a new report from Spencer Stuart. The firm offers a series of tips for improving trust, from providing opportunities to create it to admitting that you simply don’t know all the answers.

August 13, 2021 – Just 10 percent of employees worked remotely before the COVID-19 pandemic, but more than one-third (34 percent) will likely continue to work virtually once the pandemic is over, according to a recent survey of chief human resources officers and talent leaders by Spencer Stuart. Some organizations will lean even more heavily into remote working, with as much as 65 percent of the workforce being virtual.

With remote and hybrid work arrangements likely here to stay, more teams are encountering the pitfalls — the tendency toward silos, spotty information-sharing, poor communication, unresolved conflicts and more, according to new report from Spencer Stuart’s Jim Citrin and Darleen DeRosa. Casual conversations are less frequent, and context is often lost through email and other digital channels, they say. “Decision-making can be less transparent within a virtual team,” said the report. “All this can take a toll on morale and slow decision-making, bogging things down and affecting team performance.”

The antidote to these challenges is trust. Spencer Stuart research shows that top-performing virtual teams report higher levels of trust than less successful teams. Trust is the foundation and precondition for team success.

How can leaders enhance trust on their teams? Spencer Stuart offers six tips:

1. Provide opportunities to build relationships. Trust among team members is developed over time. “Creating opportunities for the team to meet face to face, when possible, helps members build relationships and better understand the scope of their work, team composition, timelines, communications processes and decision-making structure,” said Spencer Stuart. “New virtual teams should meet face to face at least once within the first few months.”

Jim Citrin leads Spencer Stuart’s North American CEO practice and is a core member of the firm’s board practice. During his 25 years with the firm, he has worked with clients on more than 750 CEO, board director and other top management searches and succession assignments. In addition, he has served as a member of the board of directors for 20 years.

2. Offer networking opportunities for team members to share their capabilities. Providing opportunities, such as monthly “lunch and learn” sessions, for team members to present on a topic where they have expertise can improve individuals’ credibility and make others more likely to consult them when they need help. Spencer Stuart says these sessions don’t have to be focused on business topics. The firm points to one colleague of a team that hosted a monthly Zoom session where members were invited to share their “unknown talent” saw his stature skyrocket after he gave a detailed presentation on gemology.

3. Speak the truth. Leaders can model trust and accountability by responding to questions in an honest and complete manner to deliver clarity and transparency. Spencer Stuart says to be balanced by communicating the positive aspects as well as the downsides when making a proposal. Avoid withholding information that may weaken your position but that others would find useful when deciding.

Related: Managing C-Level Succession Virtually

4. Highlight successes. A proven track record of success is one of the best indicators of credibility to other team members, according to the report. Leaders can encourage team members to share their wins through email, during meetings or social media pages when appropriate. For example, Spencer Stuart says one team created a punchy, well-designed weekly roundup of the extended team’s wins. Rather than just list the success stories, they put them in the context of external market developments, connecting them to the business with engaging lines like, “What you need to know” and “Why it matters.”

Darleen DeRosa, Ph.D., is a consultant in Spencer Stuart’s Stamford office and a member of the life sciences and leadership advisory services practices. She has more than 15 years of consulting experience, with expertise in talent management, executive assessment, virtual teams and leadership development. She works with companies to facilitate selection, succession management and leadership development initiatives. 

5. Encourage and role-model transparency. Spencer Stuart notes that a sure sign of a lack of trust is the blame game: team members pointing the finger at others for problems or failures and no one taking accountability. “Leaders can emphasize the importance of being open and honest by inviting team members to regularly share their challenges as well as their successes, whether during meetings or by posting them in an internal forum and opening them up for discussion,” the firm said. “Leading by example gives permission to others to do the same. In addition, make project timelines, agreements and processes fully transparent, when possible. Recognize that employees increasingly view transparency as something to which they’re entitled.”

6. Admit when you don’t know something. Few things shut down communication and trust more than a know-it-all. Rather than pretending to know everything, or even if you do, Spencer Stuart said that “virtual leaders should set an example by being vulnerable, genuinely soliciting the input of others, and always admitting, even advertising, what they don’t know. Leaders should consult other colleagues and experts for information and encourage team members to do the same.”

Physical distance makes it harder for team members to find shared experiences that human beings use to help forge personal relationships that help build trust. “Leaders can promote trust in their virtual teams, but it takes time and focus,” said the Spencer Stuart report. “By committing to open, frequent and transparent communication, providing opportunities to build intimacy and personal knowledge, and displaying a willingness to talk about wins and mistakes, leaders can help create a trusting environment and a successful team.”

Related: Skills Gap Points to Why We Need to Invest in People

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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