Written by Barry Waldman
When the staff at Duke University’s human resources department determined the need to develop a course for university staff and faculty on managing teams virtually, they discovered a delicious irony.
The planning of the course required the very skills being taught. That is, a department of professionals collaborated remotely to fill a need from scratch by contributing their individual talents to a team without ever meeting in person.
The creators of the programs were effectively piloting the programs themselves.
Virtual Learning is More and Less
COVID changed so much about our lives, some of it ephemeral and some of it permanent. Perhaps more than anything, COVID taught us that the true value of being in a room together is both greater and less than we believed.
During COVID, students suffered from disconnect – from their classes, professors, classmates, and professional opportunities. At the same time, they learned to navigate full-time virtuality. In fact, we all did.
Most professional enterprises have discovered that they can operate remotely all or most of the time and most professionals have realized that they can perform most of their job tasks from home. That has freed many to live farther from the office and avoid the draining rat race of rush hour travel.
Programs for Students, Faculty and Staff
At Duke, both inward- and outward-facing staff took note. Those dealing with student success recognized the unfilled need for internships and mentoring opportunities and created a program to fill them virtually. The result was “Keep Exploring,” described as “a multi-faceted enrichment program giving students real work experience and online professional development programs.”
Keep Exploring involved a network of Duke alumni and parents who could provide hands-on experiences to students in their areas of interest. The program served 425 students with 266 internships and 234 mentorship opportunities during the Covid lockdown.
The school’s human resources department recognized the impact virtual work was having on staff. It created the online course mentioned above entitled, “Going Virtual: A Deeper Dive into Managing a High Performing Team at a Distance.”
Jackie Kohlhepp is a Charleston-area business owner in the talent organization field who builds tools to help companies solve recruitment and retention problems. She and a partner at The Rez Rev, LLC have invented an app that connects job seekers with job opportunities and talent seekers using video. She says three keys to successful remote working arrangements are focusing on results rather than hours spent working, making space for social interactions, and establishing clear communication norms.
Joy Birmingham, a member of Duke’s Learning and Organization Development team that organized the course for staff, found six qualities that high-performing virtual teams must employ.
- Establish Clear Purposes and Roles – working remotely might require more flexibility in roles, says Kohlhepp, but everyone should know why they are involved and what is expected of them.
- Maintain Constant Communication – I don’t think you can ever communicate enough,” said Kohlhepp. This includes establishing clear communication norms, such as discussing what the team considers to be acceptable working hours or aligning on what communication channels members of the team like to use.
- Establish Healthy Collaboration – Birmingham says everyone in her group was encouraged to speak their mind, but listening was a much higher value. Kohlhepp notes that maintaining engagement among participants may require segmentation of presentations. “Depending on the topic, the team or project leader needs to be mindful when developing the agenda that there may be something not everyone needs to listen to. One solution to this is to have people work together in breakout sessions, based on topic or project to make really good use of everyone’s time,” she said.
- Create Strong Interpersonal Relationships – Openness, honesty and trust are important in any collaboration, whether in person or online. Kohlhepp calls that psychological safety. “To be engaged, people need to feel like they are in a space where they can give and receive productive feedback to help them improve their performance and grow as opposed to feeling like they are going to get into trouble if they make a mistake,” she said. “People are less likely to be engaged, propose new ideas or point out mistakes if they feel there might be professional or even social repercussions in doing so.”
- Identify a Shared Mission – Both of Duke’s work teams found that the important mission of developing Covid-resistant experiences for students and staff bound them together into a singular purpose. Kohlhepp says a shared mission gives participants a sense of purpose and promotes shared accountability for the results.
- Recognition of Many Forms of Leadership – High-performing teams, particularly those with shared mission and high levels of engagement, tend to diversify leadership, rather than look to one person to provide it.
As remote work becomes a permanent fixture of the post-Covid world, Kohlhepp believes the soft skills that drive these principles will become increasingly important in the workplace. She also points out that these principles are often not very different from working collaboratively in person.
“Individuals want to get along with their team members, receive recognition when they do something well, and recognize learning and growth in themselves as professionals. As a team leader, if you can facilitate opportunities for individuals and teams to do those things, whether, in person or remote, you’re more likely to have a high-functioning team,” she said.