6 Tactics To Create High Performing Virtual Teams During Shutdown

Patterns of work and home life that once took decades to evolve were altered drastically overnight. We had to reboot — fast — and it it took all of our focus and attention.


Curt Steinhorst

3 years ago | 9 min read

Leaders: Build a resilient team now to endure uncertain times ahead. getty

The COVID-19 crisis has produced a natural "focusing effect." Reflexively, our collective attention has been focused on news and fallout, and the cumulative effect on our lives.

We haven't been able to look away for months.

Patterns of work and home life that once took decades to evolve were altered drastically overnight. We had to reboot — fast — and it it took all of our focus and attention.

But as weeks turn to months, we move into a new era: one in which the long-term risks and costs of dispersed teams on culture and productivity will become more pronounced.

There are actions leaders can take right now that will help them build strong, thriving, energetic remote teams who are prepared to face the literal and figurative Covid winter ahead.

In my work with a variety of businesses, whether entrepreneurial start-ups or Fortune 50 companies, I have seen the most skilled and competent leaders use these six key principles to keep remote teams happy, productive, high performing during uncertain times:

1. Leverage Technology.

Good Information Communication Technology (ICT) platforms exist — such as Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, email, digital messaging, Facebook Marketplace, as well as project management programs such as, Asana, among many others — to provide incredible functionality and visibility on project status, and create efficient collaboration among teams. But when we are stressed, does "efficient" usually describe typical human behavior?

In uncertain times, when people feel strained to the breaking point working at home and disconnected from peers, we usually gravitate to communication and tech channels that feel easiest for us. Some revert fully to texting.

Others just pick up the phone and call someone. These forms of communication aren't bad on their own, but the goal of getting everyone on the same page quickly breaks down.

The end result is everyone being responsible for all things across all channels without confidence that anything is where it should be. No one knows what anyone else is doing.

On one client team I coached recently, every person on the team clearly stated how they prefer to work and the tools they like to use. There was a glimmer of hope to find the common pathways and processes that could lead to efficiency and flow.

But at the critical moment, the leader did not step up and make a decision as to how they would collaborate moving forward. The team was left in a state of disorganization and further stress.

It is the leader's job to clearly outline the tech tools, ICT platforms and project management programs to be used by the team and zealously reinforce adoption.

Leaders must commit to these tools, reinforce proper use, and lead by example. When someone sends a message in the wrong channel, gently guide them back to the right channel. Create opportunities for tutorials and learning that encourage adoption.

Yes, there is time to let people work and communicate in their preferred modes, but they must still commit to using the common tools that keep everyone informed and aligned.

This will save everyone time in the long term, and create order out of the chaos and distance of dislocated teams.

2. Share Asynchronously.

Protect your team’s time by providing visibility without captivity.

We used to communicate only in "captured" live time. When I called you to talk, you'd have to listen in that moment.

One reason for the rise in texting and email was because it shifted the "captured" nature of communication — we went from being able only to communicate "live" to a method that allowed people to send a message when they were thinking about it, and force the recipient to respond when he or she had time.

Some efficiency was gained, but some other tangibles and intangibles lost: it takes longer to create written digital communication, for one thing, and you lose the human element of verbal communication — the tone of voice and facial expressions that often allow for an understanding of intent.

So how should a leader foster team communication and connection in this virtual season? Schedule more team meetings, right? It's natural to have that reaction.

It's natural to wonder who is working. It is natural to want to help the team bond remotely.

Studying how their teams are working six months past the first work-from-home orders, Microsoft found that people are in significantly more meetings (up 55% since March), taking more ad hoc calls and managing more incoming chats than they did before the pandemic.

We are trying earnestly to connect, but ironically, more meetings are leading to more people getting less done, and a feeling of falling further behind.

The solution for leaders is to share your voice, your face, your human emotion and intent — asynchronously.

Push as many check ins and update-oriented conversations from captured meetings to audio and video chat platforms where people can commit to receiving the update and listening to it by a certain period of time without having everyone caught in meetings.

Our company is using Loom, one of the many video messaging platforms that allow you to "talk" to your team or your clients, even at great scale, in a way that is more expressive and efficient than email or text alone.

And it eliminates the need for more internal group team virtual meetings — which, as one executive told me recently, are becoming perfect times to zone out. When everyone is added to group meetings, no one is paying attention.

Asynchronous communication preserves the human connection and is the perfect shift in communication strategy for work-from-home teams.

People can commit to respond to the message by a certain time, but can listen to it at a time that doesn't tank current work flow and concentration.

3. Define Availability.

As everyone acknowledges: our boundaries have been blown. The boundaries between work and home — or between home and that local coffee shop where you did your best work — have dissolved. It's either constant noise or the never-ending solitude of silence.

The Microsoft research identified lack of separation between work and life, along with unmanageable work hours, as top workplace stressors today. It showed that one third of remote workers said the lack of separation between work and life is negatively impacting their wellbeing.

And it exposed part of our boundary issue: among Microsoft Teams users, after-hours chats, or chats between 5 p.m. and midnight, have increased, and the share of Teams users sending those chats after hours has more than doubled.

"Put another way," said the researchers, "there is a whole group of people who never touched a keyboard after 5 p.m. before the pandemic—now, they do."

This isn't bad on its own; with kids at home, some of us need to work at night. But for leaders, what is critical is this: however you configure your work hours, have clear boundaries about when you can and cannot be reached.

Agree upon timeframes when you (and your team) are not available with clear indicators, so there is no expectation of response, but a reassuring understanding of the work that is being done.

Clearly mark off your Vault Time: precious productivity time when you can't be reached. Pair that with with Open Office Hours (an old concept with new exigency): at least two hours a week where the whole team knows that if they have any problems, they can dial-in and reach you.

4. Spotlight Growth.

Moments of extreme change bring uncertainty and risk. And yet, we know that change is inevitable, and will only accelerate. Leaders must be intentional in creating cultures that expect rapid change and accept it as positive.

The World Economic Forum highlighted findings from authors John Brown and Peter Denning in their book, A New Culture of Learning, that state that the half-life for any skill right now is about five years — which means that much of what you learned 10 years ago is obsolete and half of what you learned 5 years ago is irrelevant.

In theory, no employee you currently have is well-equipped for the job you need them to do in five years.

So, rather than painting change as something to be avoided, how do you collect stories and institute shared learning rituals that reinforce and honor growth and life-long learning - and build team unity?

We are wired to explore: Encourage your team's pursuit of new hobbies and innovative ideas. 
We are wired to explore: Encourage your team's pursuit of new hobbies and innovative ideas.

Leaders can ask simple questions like: What are you listening to or reading currently? What skills are you working to master?

Leaders can also help people spotlight growth by holding rotating, curated "lunch and learns" on interesting topics through virtual environments.

These are far more valuable than simple check-ins to create renewed energy, interest and team cohesion. Learning something new "wires" teams together and taps into our innate human desire for exploration and growth.

5. Connect Individually.

Individual meetings are more effective in creating deep, authentic relationships among team members than group meetings — and is maintaining these bonds is essential for leaders right now.

For every employee who directly reports to you, create a tracking system to know when you last connected individually by phone.

We naturally connect with certain roles and personalities, and not with others. But the leader must override these natural biases to ensure everyone is feeling engaged. Track your 1:1 conversations and make them routine.

These conversations will allow you to extend human compassion, and also to gain valuable information that affects the whole team. You'll hear how they feel. If they're struggling, what challenges they face.

You can solve problems on the spot, maybe because the conversation is more private and intimate, but also because you are bringing fresh insights from outside their day-to-day colleague interaction.

Even virtually, humans love connecting 1:1
Even virtually, humans love connecting 1:1

To this end, leaders can create rotating "zoom coffee pairs," where two people on a team connect 1:1, who might not normally connect in that combination.

They can share work challenges, or what they are interested in outside of work. To really energize your workforce, facilitate and encourage these conversations between teams — for people who truly never speak to one another, and probably wouldn't have in the large cubical farm at work.

You'd be surprised how people look forward to these conversations on an intentional, weekly basis to incentivize continued cross-team, whole culture collaboration.

6. Be Compelling.

The screen flattens you, unless you have great cheekbones and jaw structure. As a result, your intent and emotions are flat, too. You are not easily understood. Your concern or empathy may not be registering.

We understand something matters when other people care about it. Our attention is collective and communal, and tied to what others pay attention to. You just need to see someone pointing to the sky with a gasp to find yourself looking up.

The phenomenon of mirror neurons in the brain is also at play — the cornerstone of what causes us to reflect and experience the emotions of others. Mirror neurons mean, at least as far as the brain is concerned, that we weep when they weep, we smile when they smile.

Because virtual technology drains and deadens all of these very human reactions, you must be intentional in growing your skillset as an authentically expressive and dynamic communicator.

Leaders should always work to improve their ability to connect with others; but it has never been more important if you are communicating over virtual technologies.

I can assure you from years of experience, what feels "natural" for you in terms of enthusiasm may not be effective in conveying your message.

So be expressive. Be bold. Be compelling and let them see your passion. Thousands of years of evolution ensure that it will be contagious for your team.


Created by

Curt Steinhorst

Curt Steinhorst is a focus expert, the author of the bestselling book, Can I Have Your Attention?, a global speaker, a regular Forbes contributor on leadership strategy, and founder of Focuswise, a consultancy that helps organizations develop focused and productive cultures.







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