Just a few years ago, most executives’ relationships with their team members took place in the same location—face-to-face meetings and working on problems side-by-side. But commerce has changed—larger multi-jurisdictional (and international) organizations with service locations and team members in many states (and time zones), more home-based and virtual services, more travel, and more virtual employee communication.
This evolving environment has affected work in health and human services in almost every way. Clinical professionals’ relationships with consumers, customer relationship management, supervision practices, and management roles are increasingly virtual. Virtual work environments also have important implications for leadership. How do leaders communicate a new vision and affect culture change in a virtual organization? That was the question posed to John Stupak, President & Chief Executive Officer, Sequel Youth and Family Services and Peggy S. Terhune, Ph.D., President & Chief Executive Officer, Monarch, by OPEN MINDS Senior Associate, Sharon Hicks in the session When Technology Becomes Integral To Strategy: Leading In A Virtual Environment at The 2018 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat.
The overall takeaway of the day, was summed up by Mr. Stupak when he noted that both discipline and communication are vital in remote management situations. Team members who lack either of these skills are team members who won’t do well in a virtual environment. And, he had an observation that I found very interesting—the “risk” of virtual teams is much higher with your leadership team than your staff delivering consumer services. He said, “I don’t really worry about service providers, because there is service documentation, encounter and outcome data, and consumer satisfaction that reveals if one hasn’t done their job. It’s the leadership and managers where it may not be as apparent for a couple weeks or months down the road whether they have done their job or not. Not all managers and executives have the personal characteristics to be successful when not in an office environment. They can feel isolated and have trouble remaining focused. Solutions to those human issues must be part of your plan.”
During the discussion between leaders and participants, there were four best practices for virtual team leadership that emerged—in hiring, communication, employee operating process, and performance management.
Hire intentionally—Not all people can work in a virtual environment, either in your facility or remotely. Personality, work style, discipline, communication skills, and reliability are just as important as the specific skill sets you are looking for. Make sure that assessing these characteristics is part of your hiring processes.
Communicate clearly, deliberately, and quickly—When two team members work in the same location, the opportunities for communicating are much greater. This is particularly true for informal communication that uncovers problems and builds rapport. When team members are separated by distance and use virtual platforms for communication, this informal communication channel is lost. Leaders must both strengthen formal communication and find substitutes for informal communication. On the formal communication side, it is much more important to publish formal policies and procedures; to have regularly scheduled, structured team meetings, and one-on-one reviews.
But compensating for the informal communication is much harder and takes much more work on the part of managers. Managers need multiple communication channels (telephone, email, text, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) and need to be available and respond quickly to their team members. It is a big commitment from managers.
Understand Your Team Members’ Work Experiences—The introduction of the virtual work environment changes so much. Do team members who are physically distant from their managers have the same likelihood of promotion? Do managers understand the location-specific challenges of consumer service in a distant location? Do supervisors pay enough attention to virtual communication platforms? It is incumbent on executives to make sure these issues are addressed in virtual environments.
Additionally, people work best when they feel that they are part of team, and they feel most like a team when they can interact with one another in person. It’s hard to bond with a group of people that staff only knows through email and chat messages. To overcome this, leadership needs to plan and budget for events that bring the team together on a semi-regular basis.
Manage By Performance Metrics—When you can’t see what a team member is doing, it puts more pressure on supervisors and managers to manage their team using performance metrics. There are a few guidelines. Choose your performance measures wisely. Set clear performance and productivity benchmarks, and communicate them frequently. Maximize the use of shared data to promote collaborative work approaches.
As I think about these best practices, I see the need for reorientation of managers who assume responsibility for virtual team members—and more thought to deliberate virtual team building. For more on digital challenges, check out these resources from the OPEN MINDS Circle Library: Digital Transformations Demand Digital Dexterity, The Emerging Digital Treatment Era, Digital Tech Cutting Edge – Moving From Smartphone App To Wearable, ‘Going Digital’ For A Better Consumer Experience, and The Digital Revolution In Mental Health Hasn’t Happened Yet.
For more on leadership, check out these resources from the OPEN MINDS Circle Library: What Do Today’s Leaders Think About Managing Change?, Creating and Leading A Team in Times of Change, Don’t Just Sit There: Change!, Managing Change as a Leader’s Challenge, and Managing at the Speed of Change: What Does It Take to Be Nimble?.
And, to build your organization’s culture, including staff and executive team competencies, mark your calendar for September 9 to 13, 2019, the dates of The 2019 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat. We’ll be announcing our new program and faculty in the next few weeks. For an idea of what is in store, check out the agenda from The 2018 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat.