Experts: Social distancing means work teams go virtual — 5 keys to success

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As more states mandate that nonessential employees stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19, many leaders and teams are navigating the complexities of remote work for the first time.

Leadership experts from the University at Buffalo School of Management say the key to successfully managing this transition is maintaining open communication, setting clear and consistent goals, and giving your team a little grace.

Faculty members Kate Bezrukova and Timothy Maynes offer the tips below for leading remote teams effectively — during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Additional UB faculty experts who can provide insight on COVID-19 and its societal effects: www.buffalo.edu/news/faculty-experts/covid-19.html.

Communicate clearly. Nonverbal communication is critical to team chemistry, according to Bezrukova, PhD, associate professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management, who studies teams in business and sports.

“When teams go remote, messages can get easily misunderstood and empathy is hard to maintain — these are things leaders need to manage,” she says. “Leaders should be as clear as possible when they communicate tasks, goals and deadlines. Funny and warm messages are effective to raise team spirit as well.”

Maintain trust. Without in-person interaction, building trust among team members can be difficult.

“On virtual teams, research shows that performance becomes more important for trust than interpersonal interactions,” says Maynes, PhD, associate professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management.

“Virtual team leaders should reinforce timeliness and consistency of performance, develop mutual expectations for rapid responses, and establish norms for when team members are expected to be ‘online’ to avoid work-related burnout,” Maynes says.

Organize and prioritize. For remote leaders, organization is paramount to ensure team members understand their assignments and expectations, Bezrukova says.

“Prioritize projects and help others align their priorities by having a vision that goes beyond just one day,” Bezrukova says. “Any randomness in your decisions will make people wonder if you are competent in your job. Having a plan will help to overcome this.”

Check in regularly. One solution to track goals and progress, Maynes says, is to host daily video conferences.

“One strength of remote teams is that virtual meetings are up to 55% shorter than face-to-face meetings because they tend to be more task-focused, which facilitates problem-solving,” Maynes says.

Another silver lining of working from home is that remote teams tend to develop more creative and innovative ideas than traditional office teams, according to Maynes.

“To reap that particular benefit,” he says, “virtual teams should brainstorm ideas through a written medium, such as email, to minimize the influence of interpersonal processes that cause people to conform to the expectations of others.”

Show compassion. In this unprecedented and stressful situation, employees are dealing with far more than work-related pressures. Whenever possible, be understanding with your team’s “new normal,” Bezrukova advises.

“People may have kids at home and are managing a lot, so communicate that you understand their challenges,” Bezrukova says. “Bring some light and positivity by sharing funny stories or YouTube clips. Just show your team that you care about them.”

The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit mgt.buffalo.edu.

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