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Building high performing virtual teams through COVID-19 and beyond

It has long been understood how valuable high performing teams are to an organisation, yet COVID-19 now causes us to review how we continue to build such teams.


In 1965, Professor Bruce Tuckerman published the four stages of development required to produce high performing teams (Tuckerman, 1965). These four stages, known as ‘forming, storming, norming, and performing’, are the dynamics required to create high functioning, responsive and effective teams. Although originally created as a linear model, this model can be adapted to respond to a more uncertain environment, such as the one we are currently operating within.


COVID-19 has altered team dynamics through the generation of business ‘unusual’ conditions. With a large part of our workforce working from home, each of these stages has been impacted causing us to pay attention to how we now create high performing teams. As we see COVID-19 restrictions beginning to ease it is apparent that many within our workforce will continue to work from home in our new working model of the future. With these changes in mind, what should we draw our attention to in creating our high performing virtual teams?


Forming


The forming of the team is the critical time in which we started to build our quality connections, trust, and understanding of the task and each other. ‘Forming’ in pre-COVID-19 business as usual conditions relied on team members meeting in person, being introduced, sharing prior relevant experience and skills and credentialing themselves for the benefit of the team. It was the first step in getting to know each other and initiating the working relationship.


In our new business as usual within and post-COVID-19 environment our physical location alters how we form teams. Where we once had physical proximity to our colleagues, we now have physical distance. Being located remotely can introduce feelings of isolation and disconnection which impact on how we create our working alliance.


“More dispersed teams typically face a greater challenge in the development of trust because forming interpersonal bonds is more difficult.” (Huang et al., 2010)


So, what can we do to form high performing virtual teams?

  • Team leaders should invest in bringing their virtual teams together early in their formation to facilitate introductions, an understanding of roles and responsibilities, a discussion of prior relevant experience, and an agreement as to the preferred methods of communication. Such facilitation should allow for all team members to connect and participate in sharing information about themselves. This opens their feelings of relatedness and belonging and accelerates the building of trust which is fundamental to high performing teams. Such a conversation necessitates some planning and orchestration yet will return dividends in how the team functions.

  • Building rapport virtually can be aided by using video technology. Trust is impacted by the way in which we communicate. Video technology allows us to see each other and read emotions, facial expressions, and body language. Seeing each other in person and noting the way we engage with each other is all a part of how we start to connect and deepen our relationship. Rapport can be built more rapidly where we demonstrate how we are listening to each other. Seeing how we remain present and attentive to each other reflects this. (More on listening can be found in my prior article https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/even-professional-listeners-dont-always-listen-karen-stein)

  • Team leaders should articulate the team’s common purpose so that there is a shared meaning and understanding to work towards. Sharing this early in the team’s formation creates a commonality which can draw the team together as they work towards common goals. Understanding the team’s ‘why’ provides context for being, and having all team members on the same page provides a common direction to navigate towards mutual goals.


Storming


Once the team is formed, it may be challenged by our new way of working where we are contributing independently from our own locations. Our increased autonomy creates a different cadence to in-person collaboration. Virtual technology can create a barrier to fluid ongoing conversations and the development of interdependency on team communications. Adjacent conversations which tend to occur when meeting in person are now eliminated, reducing the natural rhythms which flow from concurrent group conversations.


Virtual teams are particularly vulnerable to mistrust, communication breakdowns, conflicts, and power struggles.” (Ebrahim et al., 2009)


This can challenge how the team maintains rapport and trust and may introduce ‘storming’ or conflict within the team relationship.

A team leader has a critical role to play during the ‘storming’ phase of its virtual team.


  • A leader as a coach could draw to the team’s attention that the team is greater than the sum of the parts and more than the collection of the characteristics of the individual team members selected (Cavanagh, 2012). “A champion team is more than a team of champions!” (Cavanagh, 2012, p.78). Investing in talking to the strengths and diversity of the team members and noticing the emerging dynamics of the interplay of the team members, will support the formation of the high performing team. Facilitating a dialogue regarding the expectations of roles, responsibilities and communications styles may provide greater psychological safety for all team members, and a lesser degree of frustration and suspicion (Malhotra & Majchrzak, 2004).


  • Utilising different means of technology can resolve issues amongst a virtual team. Some forms of digital communication are one-directional, lack tone, inflection, body language, and timeliness, causing some anxiety and tension between team members. Selecting alternative communications methods can alleviate concerns. Telephone calls and video conferences can personalise communication and overcome many of these challenges. Using collaborative electronic team sites can also be conducive to ideation, sharing thoughts and responses. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams can facilitate ‘channels’ where team members can engage in written dialogue in real time, elicit feedback, demonstrate their skills and perspectives, and maintain a record of the progress of the conversations to support their collaboration. The transparency, inclusivity and diversity of the communication can diffuse suspicions and tensions, particularly where the team leader has created an inclusive environment which encourages respectful non-judgemental communication. Team members can be tagged to bring correspondence to their attention, yet other team members can view the conversation and contribute as appropriate. Emojis and icons such as ‘thumbs up’ signs can also be used to recognise contributions, demonstrating support in a visual manner.

Quality conversations which are exploratory in nature, rather than time consuming combative debate can result. This may neutralise much of the ‘storming’ within a virtual team.


Norming


The third stage of the development of the high performing virtual team is its ‘norming’, where roles are adopted, collaboration and cohesion is attained, and communication is fluid, constructive and frequent. This is generated from the furtherance of trust which is influenced by the qualities of the leader.


A transformational leader operates suitably in this context. Such a leader

§ role models behaviours,

§ is innovative,

§ motivating and

§ inspirational.


The leader will need to utilise technology to demonstrate how best to perform and collaborate in a virtual team, how to communicate, ideate and innovate and how to energise and inspire the team. The leader will need to demonstrate active listening and use of inquiry and empathy in their communications. Team members who use the art of questioning, clarification, deliberation and agreement will form new and improved understandings and contribute to team cohesion, which will generate a trusted and productive working environment. Transformational team leaders will be responsive to the flows of communication, and periodically create flows of information to maintain the currency of information required for team effectiveness.


Performing


During this stage the team should be energised and performing the required tasks towards achieving the common goal. An interdependence between team members should be functioning so that the team’s vision is attained.


Feedback loops should be maintained to ensure that the team members collectively recognise what is working well, and what needs to be improved. Opening a dialogue which encourages team members to contribute into the feedback loops will optimise the team’s performance. This will arise where trust remains throughout the team, and virtual team members continue to feel comfortable reflecting on task execution and contributions towards common goals (Peñarroja, 2015).


A team leader should be sure to recognise the contributions of team members as an effective strategy to further team member’s motivation. Technology can be utilised to share stories, team examples and recognition of team members, ensuring that their competencies are being valued. This can increase their self-determination and confidence, and further inspire and motivate the virtually based team members to continue their quality performance towards the collective goals.

In closing, it is evident that a common thread runs through each of the stages of building high performing virtual teams; the need for trust. Focussing on building and reinforcing this construct throughout the team’s journey will support its performance and success.


References

Cavanagh, M., & Lane, D. (2012). Coaching psychology coming of age: The challenges we face in the messy world of complexity. International Coaching Psychology Review, 7(1), 75-90

Ebrahim, N., Ahmed, S., Taha, Z. (2009) Virtual Teams: a Literature Review. Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, 3 (3), 2653-2669


Huang, R., Kahai, S., & Jestice R. (2010). The contingent effects of leadership on team collaboration in virtual teams, Computers in Human Behavior 26, 1098–1110


Malhotra, A., & A. Majchrzak. (2004). Enabling knowledge creation in far-flung teams: best practices for IT support and knowledge sharing. Journal of Knowledge Management, 8, 75-88

Peñarroja, V., Orengo, V., Zornoza, A., Sánchez, & Ripoll, P. (2015), How team feedback and team trust influence information processing and learning in virtual teams: A moderated mediation model, Human Behavior 48, 9–16.


Tuckman, B.W. (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups, Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.


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