Fostering Team Effectiveness In Todays Virtual Workplace with Dr. Esther Sackett
April 28, 2021
How do you manage teams and create cohesion? How do you navigate productivity and emotions and all the nuances, especially in today’s virtual work landscape? Dr. Esther Sackett has some answers.

Professor Sackett is Assistant Professor of Management at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. Prior to that, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. Her research focuses on the interpersonal dynamics of teamwork and motivation for startups and multinational corporations alike. Here she shares best practices for managing teamwork, why you might need to "relaunch" your company and more.

“A lot of people generally struggle with, especially now, how to navigate teamwork in a virtual space. Over a year ago, many of us quickly shifted to remote work. While a lot of the existing research on flexible work and working from home had shown that people were often more productive at home, it was quickly clear to many people that this was not necessarily going to be the case in the current context. A key distinction to make when we're talking about virtual team work during a pandemic is that there's a difference between virtual teams who were designed to be virtual and teams who are working virtually.

I would argue that we need to get back to the basics of teamwork to understand the interplay of what's going on and what continues to pose challenges for us a year later. About six years ago, Google set out to identify what makes the most effective teams. What they found after surveying hundreds of employees and dozens of teams with different attributes was it really wasn't about who the people were, instead there were five key dynamics that created effective teamwork. This is echoed in existing literature on teamwork, but the fact that Google was finding this out on their own, and that it converged with research, resonated with a lot of people.

The Five Key Dynamics Of Effective Teams:

  1. Psychological safety. Is it safe to take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed? If you can admit a mistake and learn from it, that's going to be more beneficial than if people are hiding their mistakes.
  2. Dependability. Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time with structure and clarity?
  3. Clear goals. Are the goals, roles and execution plans of the team clear?
  4. Work with meaning. Is each person working on something that's personally important that they're going to be intrinsically motivated towards?
  5. Work that has impact. Do we believe that something's going to happen at the end of this? Are we just doing work that's going to sit on a shelf somewhere or is it actually going to impact someone in a meaningful way?

When we consider our current situation, the meaning of work or the impact of work are maybe slightly less important for the moment. If you think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, safety needs have to be met first before self actualization needs. Most of us are less focused on whether we're feeling self actualized by our work right now. Our priorities are more around: Can I actually get it done? Is my job secure? Can we rely on one another? So focusing on the basics of getting that essential work done, and feeling comfortable expressing when we're facing challenges or unable to deliver, is key.

These ideas about team launch are true for virtual teams too. You want to get the team together and clarify the tasks and processes, not just the goals and the roles.

What are those basic building blocks? Essentially it’s the Who, What, When and How of teamwork. You want to have a clear purpose; know what type of tasks you're doing; who's on the team; what their backgrounds are; who is doing what and for how long? Is this team going to be working together? What are the resources we're working with? Are we constrained? Who is being rewarded? Do we have different incentives from one another?

When teams begin working together, it's really useful to have what's called a Formal Launch, to ensure that everybody is on the same page about these elements. It may sound too basic. 'This is common sense. Why do we need to even be hearing about this?' But the truth is that if these processes that seem like common sense were as easy as they sound, I would be out of a job, people wouldn't be getting MBAs or going to business school, and we wouldn't need consultants. Teams often under-invest in launch.

Have a team launch where you talk through the building blocks. Perhaps even create some type of a team charter or document to spell it out....

Key Elements of a Team Launch:

  1. What are our goals?
  2. What are our roles?
  3. What are we doing together?
  4. What are each of our strengths?
  5. What are the constraints we're each facing right now?
  6. How do we want to manage conflict?

Have a blueprint for how you're going to handle issues that come up, and do this when you're not in the heat of the moment and emotional and having trouble agreeing. These ideas about team launch are true for virtual teams too. You want to get the team together and clarify the tasks and processes, not just the goals and the roles.

Team Launch Processes:

  1. Agree on how you're going to communicate using technologies such as Slack, or other shared repositories where you can communicate easily beyond email. Also agree on the times of day for handoffs, since people might be in different time zones.
  2. Agree on a shared language for what it is that you're doing. If there are people from different disciplines, do they use different jargon? Or do they have certain terms that mean the same thing, but they may not realize refer to the same thing?
  3. Have opportunities for virtual water coolers, where people can have more casual impromptu conversations as you would bumping into someone in the hallway.
  4. Have a way to keep track of what people have agreed to do.
  5. Decide what type of leadership structure you're going to have. Is there one clear leader on the team who's directing things? Or is there shared leadership of some form? Who's responsible for which decisions?

A lot of teams working virtually in a pandemic may not have covered the basics before going virtual, so there are multiple issues that compound. Add to that, issues with physical health—either themselves or a family member, or mental health concerns —increasing anxiety, isolation. These can exacerbate existing issues such as job and/or financial insecurity, they may have been experiencing prior. All of those dynamics come into play here. Depending on the makeup of your employees, and whether you have different socio-economic statuses, or people who live with many people versus alone, there may be things that make it difficult for people to either access the technologies they need, or be able to be present on video or meet synchronously in different ways.

Best practices for managing teamwork in the pandemic:

  1. Focus on supporting performance rather than monitoring presence. Try to minimize the need for synchronous communication and collaboration, to enable people to work during the times when they can, but ensure you have a way to bring those pieces together.
  2. Help employees get the resources that they need. If somebody doesn't have access to a laptop at home or a quiet place to work, what can you do to help them do their job better?
  3. Foster psychological safety so that people feel comfortable asking for what they need. Being flexible is especially important right now. Something last May that might have been a reasonable two month temporary solution may not be realistic anymore. There may be multiple iterations of relaunch that are necessary to update things as the conditions change.

Being really explicit about these things will help to keep everyone on the same page. I can't underscore enough on trying to understand each person's circumstances and checking in on their wellbeing as the leader of a team. Not everyone will be comfortable sharing specifics with an entire group, but you can at least have a sense of what the different constraints are so you can keep that in mind when assigning roles or deadlines.

Additionally, the longer this pandemic continues, the higher the likelihood that employees have only ever been onboard virtually and may not have any context for how things had been done before nor met anyone in person. It's really important to integrate them into the team very explicitly and thoughtfully.

All of these things can fall apart quickly if they're not made explicit because people will come up with their own stories, narratives and assumptions. You want to control that narrative as a leader, and ensure that people are set up for success and feel supported.

Follow Dr. Esther Sackett on LinkedIn.



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