Leading a virtual team has unique challenges over leading a team coming into work in the same place every day, such as a school. In the summer of 2018, I left my work in a school to begin a new role as Executive Director of the Global Education Benchmark Group, a leading research and resource nonprofit that supports member schools in global education. After serving in various school leadership positions for more than 10 years, two of the biggest adjustments I had to make during this transition were working from home and virtually leading our senior team. Many friends and colleagues leading within schools now find themselves forced into a similar situation by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
In the past year and a half, I have often reflected on how to effectively lead a virtual team, and this fall, I had the opportunity to think about it more formally for my coursework in the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational and Organizational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania. Given the new professional world all educational leaders are facing, many of us are sharing experiences and insights to help others as we all navigate new ways of leading in today’s context.
In the 2012 Harvard Business Review article “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” Director of MIT’s Human Performance Dynamics Laboratory Alex “Sandy” Pentland demonstrates that patterns of communications are perhaps the most important factor for teams to be effective. It’s essential for virtual teams to establish patterns of communications as well. We have found what works best for ours is a substantial weekly meeting, known within the organization as the “Monday Meeting.” Here we discuss weekly metrics and updates from the previous week, collaborative projects, and priorities for the week ahead. All team members update the weekly metrics template and add items to the agenda before the meeting. This structure may not appear to be that different from what might happen within a school; however, the structure of the agenda and the ritual are more important in a virtual meeting to establish a reliable pattern — especially key in this time of uncertainty.
According to Pentland, communication patterns were determined to be the main building block for creating and sustaining high levels of energy, engagement, and exploration — the keys to any team’s success. But what do energy, engagement, and exploration look like, and how do I know if the team I am leading is cultivating these?
One way to establish “energy” in a virtual team is to create patterns of communication that allow every person to feel that their presence and contributions are important, especially with so many other potential pulls on peoples’ time, such as family members who need attention. In our virtual team, one way we have worked to value people’s presence and to build team trust is by dedicating 15 minutes at the beginning of every virtual weekly meeting over video conference to catching up with each other. This has been especially vital over the past few weeks.
Without this structured time, it would be much harder to stay connected to each other when working asynchronously, and would be more challenging to maintain team trust and group identity. Trust and group identity within the team impact a virtual team’s ability to be both productive and efficient since team members have to trust and support each other to get the work done without close proximity or supervision.
Considering “engagement” in a new way can help us ensure our team members have the support they need to continue to be productive when so many things have changed. They may be thinking: Without all my regular meetings, how will I have all the information I need to get my work done? Without all the school events or classrooms to visit, how will I know what is going on in my school?
All virtual teams face the challenges of workflow and how to adeptly and informally communicate. When things feel overwhelming, one thing a leader can do is help virtual workers establish priorities so they can feel they are maintaining structure and contributing to shared goals. This is essential in a virtual team engaged in collective projects. I realized this after doing a survey with my team. In the survey, members expressed a strong sense of common purpose but not always a sense of what priority they should tackle at a given moment to help move the collective work forward. Leaders can demonstrate that they encourage and expect collaboration to continue informally, just as it would in an on-campus environment. I often hear myself saying things such as, “Well, you two can continue this conversation later when you work on this together.” There are many small ways a leader can make it clear that collaborative engagement should and must continue outside of formal meeting times.
This new reality we face can also be a time for “exploration.” There are so many new and evolving opportunities and shifting price-points for resources. Encouraging team members to explore model practices and share their research and discoveries within school networks will likely be highly valuable to your collective work. Encouraging exploration and sharing insights can also be established as a pattern of communication within team meetings, especially as schools learn to deliver their mission in a new way for all stakeholders.
We all know from experience that when things are stressful and uncertain, structure can help us find a sense of routine and control that can be both empowering and comforting. As I work to establish structure for my youngest child whose preschool is now closed indefinitely, I am grateful for the lessons I have learned from leading a virtual team — that communication patterns and rituals can foster energy, engagement, and exploration for everyone’s benefit.