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Virtual working is here to stay. Recent research from the Institute of Directors shows that 74% of the 1,000 company directors surveyed will be keeping increased working from home once Covid-19 has died down.

More than half aim to reduce their use of workplaces and more than one in five plan to significantly reduce the use of workplaces.

This permanent shift to virtual working has big implications for how workers work and, in particular, how teams operate. Creating effective virtual team working environments is now a priority and L&D teams have a big part to play in making them a success.

Virtual team challenges

As anyone who has spent any of their work time working from home will know, virtual working is not without its challenges. Unlike the office set up, workers won’t necessarily have a comfortable desk, in a quiet space away from their living area. That said, working from home has liberated many workers who found office accessibility a challenge. When it comes to supporting virtual team working, L&D teams must understand the environment they are operating in on several levels. They need to know about the effective management of remote teams, including working routine, remote working set up and remote working life.

Much research has been carried out throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to understand the challenges of virtual working. A recent report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that the biggest challenges are:

  • Reduced mental wellbeing 47%
  • Reduced staff interaction and co-operation – 36%
  • Line management of home-based workers – 33%
  • Monitoring of staff performance – 28%
  • Staff motivation and engagement – 21%.

The list shows how much work there is to do to optimize the virtual working experience. Rather than see each of these challenges as opportunities to design and deliver discrete learning interventions, L&D teams have the opportunity to take the lead in educating the organisation on what makes an effective virtual teamwork.

The list highlights key areas for L&D to tackle. They are:
wellbeing, leadership/management, communication, performance and engagement.

How L&D can help support virtual teams

Research from communications platform Slack provides some insights on how L&D can support better virtual teamwork.

– Create a vision for remote team working

The research shows that where organisations have a plan for remote working, 46% of employees prefer working from home. That drops to 17% of employees who felt their company was not highly prepared. This is where a vision and education programme around virtual working can really help engage employees.

– Enable autonomy to drive engagement

The vast majority of workers (86%) who prefer working from home say they are given a lot of autonomy at work. That means giving employees space to make decisions and take the initiative. For L&D teams, this means supporting managers to encourage their teams to work alone and to trust them to do the work.

– Support performance

The Slack research shows that team goals are an important driver of performance, with 31% of workers who feel committed to their team goals preferring working from home to working from the office. This compares to 18% of those who feel disconnected from their team’s objectives. Here, L&D can support managers and teams with task setting and transparency around the delivery of work. Celebrating successes around achieving goals and targets are also important.

– Nurturing managers/leaders

Managers hold the keys to supporting individual and team development. But they will also need support in succeeding as virtual managers. It is critical for L&D teams to work with their manager community to understand their challenges in leading virtual teams. Once they have these insights, the work can start on how best to support managers in order to effectively support their teams. Beware of assumptions around a manager’s (and their team’s) ability to work remotely. Organisations must step into the new world of virtual working together, supporting each other and learning the best ways to operate.

Added to this is the importance of developing a successful team culture. This is the remit of the manager and as such they need to understand their role in nurturing the right team culture. They also need to be able to fulfill this critical part of their role. That means they will need time and support in coaching and nurturing their team. How will your organisation ensure that this is provided to your managers?

– Wellbeing

Our article on how L&D can drive the wellbeing agenda outlined the various practical steps L&D teams can take to support good health and wellbeing amongst teams.

The key is to continually listen to the emerging and changing needs of team members and managers and to use these insights to shape your response. Data collection is an important part of the listening process so ensure you are monitoring what resources people are using and the questions they are asking.

These insights will enable you to respond at pace. Curating playlists of resources is an effective way to quickly gather together information that help employees overcome the challenges they face.

The role of communications in supporting virtual teams

No amount of timely resources or support will help virtual teams if they are not aware of them. Communication is critically important for the success of virtual teams and L&D has a great opportunity here to improve the way teams communicate.

This is not just about letting people know what learning is on offer. It is more fundamental than that. Effective communication creates trust and it creates psychologically safe spaces in which people can speak up.

Trust matters. A meta-analysis of 52 studies that investigated the role of trust in virtual teams is explored in this Science for Work article. According to the article authors, ‘the research shows a strong and positive relationship between trust and virtual team effectiveness’.

L&D teams looking to support better virtual team communications need to focus on three areas in order to help managers improve virtual communications. They are:

– Technology and tools

Understand the tools that the team uses and work with them to optimize how they are used.

– Information

Help managers understand what information their team members need in order for them to do their job effectively.

– Culture and expectations

The communications culture in an organisation is set by leaders and managers. So work with them to understand their expectations and how they can role model what they would like to see from others. The danger for virtual teams is that communication is always on, which can be stressful for individuals, especially when virtual working enables more autonomy to get work done.

Conclusion

In its research report on developing effective virtual teams, the CIPD highlights five areas where L&D teams can have impact. They are:

  1. Respond to the specific challenges of virtual teams
  2. Build cohesion and trust
  3. Ensure effective information-sharing
  4. Teach teams how to work together and co-ordinate
  5. Focus on team leaders

Covid-19 has changed the way many workers work. Virtual team working is at the heart of this change and this is where learning teams must focus in order to help organisations step into the future. This is a great opportunity for L&D teams to educate organisations on the best way to move forward and work more effectively in more distributed and virtual ways.

Use a platform that supports your new ways of working and learning. The 5App Hub can help in supporting your L&D strategy, creating a learning culture and in aligning learning with the business needs and objectives.

Get in touch to find out more.