When we reflect on today’s work environment and envision its future, two major corporate trends are here to stay and will most likely impact the future workplace: the flexible working trend and virtual collaboration.
The "Flex" working trend, with more people working from home
Many employees enjoy the ability to work from home or from anywhere at least several days a week. The giant working from home experiment done across the globe during the pandemic has shown that this mode of working is possible and does not automatically lead to lower productivity as feared by many. Some have expressed concerns about the negative impact of remote work on innovation. An interesting counter example is that of Moderna, where the company scaled from a few hundred to several thousand employees in a matter of months to get the innovative mRNA vaccine to market. Most employees never had the chance to meet their colleagues in person during that time but tasks and roles were clearly defined and the "we" statements and can-do attitude that were already ingrained in the company culture truly made the difference.For employers, more remote work can be an opportunity to lower overheads such as office costs, travel and expense budgets. There is also a positive impact on the talent acquisition side, opening the pool of talent to broader geographies and making companies more appealing and likely to win the ongoing and future talent war. Multiple firms have showed their commitment to remote or hybrid work. This includes tech companies such as Twitter, Spotify, and Microsoft but also corporations like Allstate, stating that the majority of their employees can do their work remotely. In addition, flex work helps reduce the carbon footprint of commuting to work, a benefit to employers and employees alike. See related article on hybrid work model.
The need for virtual collaboration across functions and geographies
Operating models have changed. Business systems have become more sophisticated and intertwined. Many companies call for cross-functional collaboration and seek to build an enterprise-wide understanding and perspective from their managers and leaders. Complex partnerships across the supply chain and the advent of virtual value chains are becoming more prevalent. The speed of change requires more decentralized and agile teams to stay relevant and competitive.
In this context, the ability of organizations and their talent to build virtual, high-performance teams is an essential part of becoming future-proof and growth oriented. But what does it take to achieve this? We have identified five ways that can make a difference. They are anchored in the same principles that build high-performance teams in a face-to-face setting but are adapted to a virtual environment.
1 - Start slow if you want to go fast
This may seem counter intuitive at first but there has been extensive research and documentation on this. This was part of the findings from Google’s Aristotle project that focused on identifying factors influencing team performance. In a physical work environment, this can be achieved at the water cooler or during coffee breaks where people get to know each other. It can also take the form of an off-site get-together where teams meet and socialize for a couple of days. How does this translate into the virtual world? Most often, web-based meetings are all business from start to finish. You have to be intentional and carve a good amount of time at the front end of the meeting for people to get acquainted. The idea is to have attendees share not only what they do at the firm and what they can contribute but also what they are most passionate about, and their personal aspirations for instance. Reflections on team milestones and best project experience can also be a good topic for discussion.
2 – Create diverse and inclusive teams
It is by now well established that diverse and inclusive teams are a better reflection of the diverse world we live in and lead to more creative and productive meetings. Yet, we are all too familiar with in-person meetings that are just for one department or function and where a couple of people do most of the talking. In a virtual setting, freed from a physical meeting venue, it is often easier to invite people from other geographies or even business units to be part of a project team. They often provide a complementary or broader perspective and can help develop better solutions faster. In a virtual meeting, you also tend to spot people who spend too much time talking more easily as they monopolize screen time. It can be less intimidating for others to jump in and share their thoughts using interaction tools like raising hand and answering polls anonymously.
At a broader level, having the option of working remotely, either 100% or part of a hybrid set up, is a major step towards creating and providing a more inclusive workplace; open to people with primary family care responsibilities, physical or mental health disability and people facing economic housing limitations. Additional reading on diversity in a hybrid environment.
3 – Build psychological safety
This factor was also identified by Google's Aristotle project research team. The idea is to create a safe environment where everyone feels encouraged to speak and contribute, without having to be a subject matter expert or fear ridicule. It is linked to the idea of being inclusive and having empathy for how other people feel. Whether meeting virtually or in-person has an impact on psychological safety is open to debate and we welcome your experience on this. What is certain is that this is influenced a lot by the team leaders and the values and rules teams decide to operate within. On this point, it is best to make team rules as explicit as possible, which leads us to our next recommendation.
4 – Develop a team charter and adopt agile working principles
A team charter is a short document (a one-pager) that describes things such as team targets, team composition, ground rules, vision for success, scope, deliverables, and timeframe. This is the document the team can refer to on a regular basis when one feels off-track, have difficult decisions to make or conversations to have. Productive ground rules spell out behaviors that foster inclusion and emphasize agile working principles. Pioneered in software development, agile working principles include self-organization, cross-functional teams, openness to change and frequent iteration based on customer feedback. Read more on the agile manifesto.
In the age of virtual collaboration, teams can create and easily share a team charter via tools such as a Miro board, Slack workspace or MS Teams. Regular, catch-up meetings can also be planned. To make it more inclusive, alternate the timings of these meetings to welcome different time zones, as opposed to always use the time zone of the HQ or main office for instance.
5 – Build virtual, experiential learning programs for teams to practice core behaviors
While the principles above make sense, they are just a checklist. You might not do much about it unless you get to experience for yourself its power over team performance. This is where organizations can make a difference by designing virtual, experiential learning programs where teams, made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds or cross-functional roles, can practice core behaviors. An effective way to do so is to include the use of an immersive, collaborative and future-driven business simulation. In the simulation, teams manage a simulated business over multiple rounds. The program is deployed virtually over two to three weeks; teams meet 6 or 7 times throughout the learning journey. At the beginning, teams are asked to create a team charter. The fictitious nature and risk-free aspect of the simulation enables the creation of a safe space for team members, which is conducive to psychological safety. Teams learn to be agile: the market environment and customer needs evolve rapidly, and teams meet regularly to assess the situation and adapt their approach to win. Eventually, teams can experience and see the link between the quality of their teamwork and their business results in the simulation. Participants typically come away boosted by the power of collaboration and more confident in their ability to make things happen with their own team, back on the job. Additional readings on experiential learning and business simulations.
If you’d like to take virtual collaboration to the next level and boost your team performance, check out our client stories or reach out to one of experts for a consultation today.