The spread of coronavirus has prompted an unprecedented and rapid shift toward remote work and many companies are experiencing dispersed teams for the first time.
After the World Health Organization declared the health crisis an official pandemic on March 11, it’s likely that employees will continue working from home for the foreseeable future since this form of social distancing has proven an effective mitigator of the virus in China, Japan, Italy, and other countries. However, it’s unclear how such an abrupt deviation from standard business practices will affect companies and employees going forward.
As we follow best practices for confronting and minimizing the virus, we can also follow best practices for working remotely, ultimately minimizing stress and communication issues while still promoting successful collaboration. As an associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business — incidentally the number one online MBA program in the world — I’ve studied how companies can harness collective intelligence and collaborate effectively in remote conditions.
Communicate even when it seems unnecessary.
It’s very common to overestimate what others located at another site know, or to assume that they understand certain things or see things exactly as you do. Trying to do things remotely without communicating enough is bound to leave a lot of gaps in understanding, so when in doubt, hammer that communication.
Removing the parameters of a physical, collective workspace can be disorienting for some employees, and there are fewer opportunities to recognize and rectify problems in remote settings. This is why it’s crucial for team leaders to clearly communicate goals and priorities and to ensure that everyone understands and supports these goals.
If members are operating with a different understanding of goals and priorities, or if they have conflicting goals because the team leader wants them to do one thing while their boss wants them to do another, then that can create immediate problems in a virtual setting.
In some studies I have done with collaborators, we have found that the most productive teams are characterized by “burstiness,” or a period during which they work independently, punctuated by periods of shared work. Such teams often exhibit a higher level of responsiveness to each other; when someone sends a message, others respond right away.
By contrast, the less productive teams might exchange the same number of messages but with bigger delays in between. So coordinating team attention so they know exactly what they are working on together, what they are dividing up and doing separately, and to be responsive to each other so that they can address unexpected issues that might arise will significantly improve productivity.