4 principles for effective remote team collaboration in times of the corona pandemic 

For many organizations, home-office is currently the means of choice to maintain operational despite the spread of the corona virus. The virus could lead to an increase in acceptance for home-offices across the industries and sectors. Many companies respond to the corona virus by offering their employees to work in the home-office in order to curb the spread. Especially in companies in which employees have been proven to be infected, colleagues can maintain work processes from the home office and contribute to increasing the resilience of companies to pandemics. 

Implementing the home-office approach in a public health crisis situation like Corona can be challenging. Managing the change of staff and management behavior can be done effectively – minimizing the negative impact of the pandemic on your organizations’ operations – or poorly – adding to confusion and slowing down response time while creating lots of activity. 

In our group, we facilitate change every day at large and small scale. So, here are four basic principles for the introduction of the home-office approach, which you might find helpful:

1. PEOPLE – Communication charter + rhythm. 

Informal communication on remote teams is often less frequent, and less rich than a face-to-face interaction, which provides more contextual information about emotional states — such as engagement or lack thereof. One way to avoid pitfalls in online communication is to be extremely clear and disciplined about how the team will communicate. Create a charter that establishes agreement on behavior expectations when participating in virtual meetings, such as minimizing distractions (e.g. doing emails while in a call), limiting background noise, talking clearly and at a reasonable pace, listening attentively, avoid dominating the conversation, etc. The charter might  also include guidelines on which communication channel to use in which circumstances, for example when to reply via email versus picking up the phone versus taking the time to create and share a document. It is helpful to regularly include just a few minutes in meetings and calls to reflect what went well and how to improve effectiveness and efficiency of the communication. 

In our group we found it helpful to building a team with rhythm and rituals. When some or all the members of your team are working remotely, it’s all-too-easy to get disconnected from the normal rhythms of work life in the office. One best way to avoid this is to be disciplined in designing and establishing rhythms in your virtual team work, like e.g., having regular meetings each week (ideally same day and time). It also means sharing the meeting agenda in advance, having clear agreements on communication documentation and distribution of notes. If you have team members working in different time zones, I recommend to not schedule meetings in such way that all the time-zone burden are shouldered by the same few team members, but rather establish a regular rotation of meeting times to spread the burden among the team members in a fair manner.

2. PROCESS – Clarify tasks and processes, not just goals and roles and visualize progress. 

Working in a remote environment, it is even more important that leaders align their team on goals, roles and responsibilities. That is plausible. With virtual teams, however, coordination is inherently more of a challenge because people are not co-located. So it’s important to focus more attention on the details of task designs and  processes that will be used to complete them. Simplify the work to the greatest extent possible, ideally in co-creation of the team and in a way that tasks are assigned to sub-groups of two or three team members. Make sure that there is clarity about the work flow. Be specific about who is doing what and by when. 

Then regularly do reviews to check how things are progressing and to identify adjustment needs. When teams work remotely, it’s more difficult to do this, because there is no easy way to observe engagement and productivity. This can be partly addressed by carefully designing tasks and having regular status meetings. Beyond that, it helps to go for short iterations (Sprints) as a way to get team members to commit to defined interim results and track their progress. One useful tool: an “agile SPACE Board” that is visible to all team members on whatever collaborative app they are using. As useful as such a monitoring tool is, be careful to not end up practicing virtual micro-management. There is a fine line between appropriate tracking of progress and presumptuous oversight.


3. CULTURE – Create a “virtual coffee machine” and keep 1:1s. 

The image of staff gathering around a coffee machine is a metaphor for informal interactions that share information and reinforce social bonds. Absent explicit efforts to create a “virtual coffee machine,” team meetings tend to become very task-focused; this means important information may not be shared and team cohesion may weaken. One simple way to avoid this: start each meeting with a check-in, having each member take a couple of minutes to discuss what they are doing, what’s going well and what’s challenging. Regular virtual team-building exercises are another way to inject a bit more fun into the proceedings. Also enterprise collaboration platforms increasingly are combining shared workspaces with social networking features that can help team members to feel more connected.

It is easy in a virtual team environment to forget one-to-one’s (1:1). Leaders’ performance management and coaching interactions with their team members are a fundamental part of making any team work. Make these interactions a regular part of the virtual team rhythm, using them not only to check status and provide feedback, but to keep members connected to the vision and to highlight their part of “the story” of what you are doing together.

4. SYSTEMS – Use the best communication and collaboration technologies. 

The speed  of developments in collaborative technologies is amazing. From shared workspaces to web based video conferencing, the progress on IT solutions is remarkable. These tools unquestionably are making virtual team work easier. However, selecting the best IT support does not necessarily mean to have the latest state to the art features for the sake of having them. With a growing offer of solutions it becomes even more important that you are very clear about your requirements. What do you need? What are minimum requirements and what are „nice-to-haves“? The best most fancy feature doesn’t help, if you can’t ensure that everyone has access and can use these tools. Don’t create a two-class-system within your team where only the inner circle can use certain tools. 

The exciting question from an organizational development perspective is whether the forced experience with home-office will subsequently lead to greater acceptance or whether it will remain an emergency measure. Up until now, it has been relatively rare to work in a home-office on a larger scale in Germany. However, the trend is positive, as a recent study from Statista demonstrates: In 2014, only 22% of 900 companies in Germany stated that they allow their staff members to work from home. In 2018, that number has already increased to 39%. The next few months will show if the home-office approach can be established as a long term solution for standard operations. 

I hope you find these lessons learnt helpful. What you can see here again is the importance of ensuring that PEOPLE, PROCESS, CULTURE and SYSTEMS are in sync. Successful change needs comprehensive thinking and action.