Published: March 31, 2020 By

As large swaths of the American public transition to working from home, people are quickly discovering the challenges and pitfalls resulting from a lack of in-person meetings, water cooler chatter and hallway side conversations.

To help you make the transition, we got some tips from Christina Lacerenza, an assistant professor at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business who specializes in 21st century workplace teams. That includes remote working arrangements that keep employees happy and productive.

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for workers?

Do not lose your voice. Continue to speak up and be more intentional with your communication patterns. Typical work teams are likely to fall victim to two communication problems: The first being the uneven communication problem, where less than half of team members do 70% of the talking, and the second being the “common information effect,” which is when we fail to share our uniquely held ideas or pieces of information. 

These problems arise when we feel anxious about being evaluated or critiqued by team members, don’t feel comfortable speaking up, or defer to those on the team with high status, or who are more inclined to voice opinions (e.g., extroverts). Because we experience physical, operational and social distance while teaming virtually, these communication problems can be exacerbated. 

We also lose the ability for spontaneous interactions (think: the typical water cooler scenario), which lead to high-quality connections, trust and psychological safety—all of which are important factors for effective teaming. To amplify your voice, as well as the voices of others on your team, create new communication norms and patterns for expression within the virtual context. 

Practically, this might look like asking for a regular one-on-one meeting with your manager, voicing the need for a video chat if you’d like to discuss a serious matter, checking in with team members whom you haven’t heard from in a while, or creating an outlet for your team to chat about matters that are less task-based in nature, such as using a specific Slack channel or scheduling an “open door” hour on Zoom. Remember, we’re operating in unchartered territory right now so we need all hands on deck to create resiliency and maintain innovation and high performance on our teams. 

One of the big challenges new remote workers are complaining about is communication. How can teams adapt to written communication without pitfalls, such as email overload or misinterpreted messages?

Work-from-home campus resources

CU Boulder has several resources for faculty, staff at students who are now working from home.

Teaching, Learning & Working Remotely

Supervisor Resources

Communicate about your communication and be intentional with your discussion methods. What this means is that you have to be transparent about your preferred method of communication with your team members and set guidelines about how to best communicate with each other. 

Often times virtual team members will overcommunicate with each other because they’re afraid of losing touch due to the inability to see one another in the office. A mass amount of communication, however, can lead to a disruption of work flow and information overload. Once team members are inundated with messaging, it becomes hard for them to work on their daily assignments or focus on necessary work tasks. Thus, quality communication is key. 

It is also important to align the content and nature of your message with the method by which you communicate it. Asynchronous methods like email are best for critical pieces of information. That way, they are not missed and can be flagged as important. Synchronous communication methods, such as instant messaging or Slack channels, work better for quick questions, little bits of information, and less calculated discussions. It is also important to use hybrid methods, such as video chats if you’re communicating something that is sensitive in nature or might be misinterpreted. That way you can also leverage body language to express your sentiments with your team members. 

How can teams support workers who may not be as familiar or comfortable with technologies such as Zoom, Slack and Microsoft Teams?

Technology is part of our new best friend group during this time, but its use is only effective when all team members are on board with the new tools. It can be challenging to learn how to use Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, (insert your teams’ preferred piece of technology). So, be patient with team members who aren’t as technologically savvy. 

Have dry runs with your team members where you practice using the technology, and walk them through features that would be helpful to your meetings. For instance, Zoom has a great virtual background option and even a “touch up appearance” option for video chats. 

Making a blanket statement to your team members to create best practices is also very helpful. 

For example, create a plan for technology failures—they’re inevitable! If the video chat cuts out due to poor Internet quality, have all team members call into a specified audio line. Or, create a norm where team members do not have to apologize if a dog barks in the background, or a child makes a guest appearance on a video chat.  

What is your No. 1 piece of advice leaders should keep in mind?

Lead with compassion. During this time, it is even more important for leaders to delicately balance leading with empathy and expecting high-quality results, with compassion being at the forefront. Your team won’t be able to perform if they are overloaded with anxiety or fear—and they certainly won’t be able to thrive or experience heightened creativity. So, as a leader, it is crucial to act with empathy during this time to instill a sense of tranquility and stability on your team. We have to remember that the current work shift was triggered by a global crisis, it happened suddenly unleashing uncertainty, chaos and fear. Focus on supporting your team as human beings first, then communicate clear performance and productivity expectations, continuously providing guidance along the way. 

Another piece of leading compassionately is understanding that your team members might experience a slump in engagement or lack buy-in as they’ve been forced to work in a way that is uncomfortable and are juggling work and home demands. To instill a sense of passion and enhance engagement, lead by example. Demonstrate your passion for the team’s work, restate your vision for the team to create collective buy-in, and be sure the team feels empowered to perform the work that is being asked of them. A few strategies for increasing team empowerment include: 

  • Provide the resources necessary to complete work.
  • Articulate how consequential the team’s work is for company, organizational or institutional success.
  • Allow a sense of agency or control over how your team achieves the goals (specify the ends, not the means).

What other advice do you have for companies and people to be successful in the new remote workforce?

Because the change to a remote workforce was unplanned for most, it is important to reflect on the team’s process and continuously evolve as necessary. 

The transition to virtual teaming will likely be an iterative process, where your team will make small changes daily to improve their virtual working styles. Allow these changes to occur. Plan for and welcome them. Teams that engage in debriefs, or short bursts of reflection where performance is analyzed and openly discussed to identify areas for improvement, are, on average, 25% more effective than teams that don’t engage in this intervention.

When it comes to virtual teaming, conduct debriefs not just around the team’s regular work but also discuss how the team is working virtually, or the process by which your team is conducting its remote work. Proactively plan for your virtual teaming. That way, you can be ahead of the curve when it comes to your team’s effectiveness.