How to Prepare Your Virtual Teams for the Long Haul

How to Prepare Your Virtual Teams for the Long Haul

Mark Mortensen and Constance Noonan Hadley | Harvard Business Review

How to Prepare Your Virtual Teams for the Long Haul

Mark Mortensen and Constance Noonan Hadley | Harvard Business Review

Before the pandemic, there were no playbooks for how to convert a co-located team to 100% virtual in a matter of days and we’re finding in our research that the conversion process — and the results — has differed substantially from team to team, even within the same organization. This variability puts tremendous strain on individual employees who are now navigating not just one whole new way of working, but often several.

The pressures on teams will continue for the foreseeable future as companies shift their focus to how and when to return employees to the office setting. Now is the time to take stock of the design and status of your organization’s teams, considering both their tasks and people. Doing so will allow you to triage problems, create stability, and invest in sustainable solutions.

Teamwork Has Gotten Harder

In December, before the coronavirus was widespread, we conducted a survey of over 200 executives working in a wide variety of multinational companies. These professionals sat on an average of three teams each and even then, they found working across these various teams challenging. For example, 76% reported having difficulty feeling connected to their teammates, with cited reasons ranging from perceived differences in personality to the strain of working across time zones.

Now, during the pandemic, those executives have been traversing multiple teams with the added complications of being forced to work remotely and under the stress of the crisis. Plus, due to the rapidly evolving context, many are being more frequently shifted in and out of teams. Roles and missions are changing too, as companies adapt.

Years of research and study have taught us that these ingredients — unclear missions, inconsistent social norms, low common identity, unclear roles, and unstable membership — are the recipe for team disasters. They result in inefficient, often unproductive, teams full of disconnected, sometimes disgruntled, members.

With the pandemic, we are seeing warning signs of these disasters. Last month, for example, we solicited data from more than 275 managers across the world  about how they are coping with Covid-19. They reported a lack of clarity about their team’s role in the leadership agenda, fading interpersonal connections due to remote work, low motivation, and overwhelming workloads.

To prevent these types of problems from becoming permanent conditions — or worse yet, destroying teams — companies need to take careful stock of what is happening. Take the recent experience of a major medical device manufacturer we’ve studied. The firm’s bottom line has been massively impacted by the cancellation of elective surgeries and, as a consequence, they have been forced to aggressively rethink their business. A few weeks ago, they asked all division leaders to create a list of team projects to keep, accelerate, disband, or start to meet the new priorities of the company. With that direction in hand, team leaders are now re-evaluating their rosters carefully, including whether they have excess, just-right, or gaps in the people needed to deliver on those mission-critical projects.

Based on our combined years of research and our recent interviews with company leaders and team members, we’ve developed a model to help companies take stock of their teams and how they function in light of the crisis. It has three stages: triage, stabilization, and long-term care.

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How to Prepare Your Virtual Teams for the Long Haul, Mark Mortensen and Constance Noonan Hadley, Harvard Business Review, 2020