In the last month, how many meetings did you attend in which someone participated via phone or video? How many team members, clients, vendors don’t reside within the four walls of your work location? More than likely one of those scenarios is a reality for you.

When the World Economic Forum surveyed global HR decision-makers, some 44 percent pointed to new technology enabling remote working, co-working space and teleconferencing as the principal drivers of change. However, the identification and adaptation of the skills needed to be successful in a virtual workplace has been slow to be incorporated into ways of working. Instead there is a tendency to make in-person behaviors fit into a remote environment. This type of conduct risks alienating remote workers, impacting engagement and productivity.

Learning and development can be a powerful enabler to combat this “one size fits all” mentality. Following the principles of instructional design, there is an opportunity to understand the needs of various populations, identify the competencies needed to be successful, and embed training to support the required skill development.

A needs analysis for both the user and environment identifies the size of the remote population, the types of work and interactions conducted virtually and the technology available. It is important to include the co-located employees in the analysis as well since everyone becomes “virtual” the minute they attend a video or phone conference.

TECHNOLOGY

Technology has created a fundamental shift in how organizations operate. The widespread use of tools like email, social media and video conferencing enable work to be done without geographic constraints. Therefore, a technology assessment factors significantly into a needs analysis. Items to consider are the types of conferencing tools available, the user’s familiarity with the tools and the meeting norms associated with the utilization of the technology.

Utilization and optimization become important factors when changing behaviors from in-person to virtual work. Too often webinar tools are simply leveraged as a conference call mechanism, overlooking the capabilities to share documents and images, use video, and interact and collaborate in shared spaces. Building a technology training strategy into onboarding plans will empower users to leverage technology in their daily work. Creating job aids for the most common applications also supports end user adoption, especially those who are infrequent users of the technology.

A best practice to incorporate as a first step in an educational webinar is to create an introductory segment focused on “learning how to learn online.” This enables the learners to understand and utilize the webinar tools (e.g., chat rooms, polls, collaboration spaces, etc.) prior to jumping into the classroom portion. This type of primer is also useful in kicking off any type of virtual team.

Users are more likely to use the tools if there is a level of familiarity. The review of tools also emphasizes the expectation of participation on the part of the remote participant. A couple of the hazards of a virtual presence are (1) the co-located participants “forget” to include the remote team member in the discussion/interaction, or (2) the virtual team member disengages by multitasking or can’t interject easily. The expectation of using the tools like video or chat features creates a presence for the remote participant.

INTERPERSONAL SKILLS

While the interpersonal skills needed to be successful (communication, teamwork, leadership) are universal, the application in a virtual environment does require adaptation. For example, if you are a leader who engages with your team through informal, face-to-face interactions, you will need to be mindful of creating a similar type of interaction for the team members not physically located in your office. The design of any leadership or supervisory training should include how to engage, communicate, monitor and support the achievement of goals for remote team members.

The following are competencies that should be developed as part of a leadership development program and identify ways in which a virtual team may require different strategies.

Building high-performing teams

This is a requirement for any leader. A shared vision, alignment of goals, strong communication and a recognition/reward system that emphasizes team achievement are necessary components for this competency. A leader needs to foster collaboration without daily, in-person interactions. One way to achieve this is to establish a cadence of team meetings in which team and individual goals/tasks are shared. Depending on the size of the team, enabling everyone to be heard on some frequency helps to establish the sense of community. The leader should also role model the use of technology by incorporating tools like video to help create a presence for all participants.

Effective meeting facilitation

The need to keep everyone engaged, on task and drive for outcomes is even more critical in a virtual environment. As mentioned before, it is easy for the co-located participants to dominate a meeting, making it difficult for the remote participant to interject. Likewise, the urge to multitask or become distracted is more likely if you aren’t physically present and don’t have an expectation to contribute. The learning function can support this skill development by offering meeting facilitation skill development. Trainers can help the teams create and implement meeting norms, leverage technology and provide coaching on meeting facilitation.

Relationship management

Effective meetings are one way to ensure engagement, but relationship management will also need to occur outside those events. Some remote workers report feelings of isolation or a disconnect from the organization’s happenings. For those located in an office environment, they might not connect with their remote peers as frequently, thereby missing opportunities to leverage one another’s support and best practices. To counteract these possibilities, teambuilding activities should emphasize the importance of building interactions like instant messaging, social learning platforms and picking up the phone to connect with each other. The emphasis should include both the how (use of technology) and the why (e.g., building trust, fostering collaboration, knowledge sharing, etc.). Teambuilding activities can also emphasize problem-solving scenarios in which a virtual team needs to collaborate to achieve a common goal. Having a shared sense of purpose accelerates team development.

Delivering feedback

Leading remote team training should focus on how to deliver coaching and performance feedback without an in-person presence. Providing frequent, specific feedback builds trust and engagement with employees. The use of video can provide the facial cues and overall demeanor that help to convey meaning. Relying too heavily on email communication should be avoided. The training function should create experiential learning opportunities that enable the manager to practice giving feedback without the benefit of an in-person presence.

IMPLEMENTATION

After conducting the needs analysis and creating learning strategies to build the skills needed to perform in a virtual environment, it is important to have a strong delivery and implementation strategy. Building awareness and desire to adopt these new skills and behaviors is vital. Everyone needs to understand that a successful remote workforce has to adapt to new ways of interacting. As part of the implementation strategy, include these components. 

Describe the business need for a remote workforce

Communicate the business decisions behind a remote workforce. Building stakeholder awareness of the need will help diminish resistance and increase support for the transition. Some potential benefits are an expanded talent pool not tied to a certain geography, flexible scheduling to meet client needs, employment value proposition, and decreased costs associated with real estate/buildings, etc. 

Identify strengths and challenges of a remote workforce

The communication and training plans should include an acknowledgement of both the pros and cons of a virtual workforce with strategies for dealing with matters that arise. Being transparent about potential risks enables the leaders and employees to address concerns in an up-front manner. 

Associated metrics

In correlation with the remote workforce business strategy, key metrics should be used to monitor effectiveness. Measure not only business outcomes but identify employee engagement metrics that can gauge the health of the culture/environment. 

A team transition plan

A team transitioning to a virtual or mixed workforce needs to create a transition plan. Key items to cover are remote worker policy, technology needs, skill assessment and team operating norms. Make sure everyone has the resources, knowledge and skills to be successful in this new way of working.

The learning function should plan to offer consulting and coaching until the skills and behaviors are embedded in the organization’s culture. The virtual workforce is quickly becoming an organizational norm. Having a learning and development function ready to implement and support these skills is vital to the organization’s success.

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