CMU-Q professor shares how to keep remote teams connected, happy, and productive
It has been a sudden transition to work remotely for many people, and teams around Qatar, and indeed around the world, are still adjusting. Cecile le Roux teaches students at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), a Qatar Foundation partner university, about cultivating strong work teams. An assistant teaching professor of organization and behavior, she shares how people can work together remotely and thrive.
Cultivating respect and tolerance
Le Roux notes that interpersonal communication is different when it is computer-mediated. Much of human communication is non-verbal, which can be difficult, or at times impossible, to pick up on in a virtual environment.
Individual and cross-cultural differences can contribute to misperceptions, which can lead to feelings of frustration. Le Roux sees noticeable differences with video calling across teams. The composition of a team—differing levels of seniority, familiarity with each other, or homogeneity (sameness in demographics), for instance—typically dictates if videos are shared. For some team members, cultural values and beliefs or group conformity influences this decision. For others, it can be as pragmatic as connectivity issues, convenience, or reducing visual ‘noise’ to guard against disruptions.
“We need to protect values such as privacy and modesty, but also avoid making assumptions or leaning into stereotypes,” says le Roux. “The important point is not to judge when people are doing something that differs from our expectations. Check in with your team and have an open conversation about the role and perceptions of using video and audio.”
Le Roux sees the team leader playing a pivotal role in building trust, cohesion, team culture, and alignment with goals and expectations.
“I believe the human element becomes much more important when it’s removed. We need to work harder at, and be more explicit about, communicating emotions and understanding.”
Setting the framework for productive virtual meetings
For virtual meetings, clarity of purpose is even more critical than when meetings are held in-person. When team leaders set up a virtual meeting, they should be very clear about what they want to communicate and what they want to hear from the team.
“As a team leader, you should do pre-meeting work to set the stage, get the right people in the room, and define the desired purpose. During the meeting, follow a process to make sure everyone is heard and listened for, and be open to new needs that may arise. Post-meeting, always share the outcomes and actions assigned to each person in writing, such as a quick email.”
Keeping a virtual open-door policy
In the virtual space, there isn’t a physical open door to signal to employees that the team leader is available. Instead, supervisors should be clear and open about how they can be reached and the channels that work for them. They should also repeat this invitation.
“Communicate how you can be reached through a public message, so everyone knows how to connect with you,” says le Roux. “Establish the timings for when you are available online, much like regular office hours. Use the waiting room function on your video conferencing platform. If you prefer appointments, set up a shared document where people can sign up for meeting slots. Also encourage your team members to set-up these avenues between themselves so they clearly know how, where, and when to find each other.”
Again, the personal element is important. When team members reach out, make sure it’s not simply an automated response. “We can create strong relationships virtually through the language we use and the words we choose,” says le Roux. “Use personal names and make time for quick, informal chats during meetings, talking or typing in small groups or going around the virtual meeting room so everyone feels acknowledged.”
Checking in with one another
“The coronavirus situation is changing so rapidly that we have to check in with our people all the time, every time,” says le Roux. “At the start of virtual meetings, do a quick poll to assess the mood of the group. At the end of every meeting, do another quick check to identify anyone or any topic that may need additional clarity or support.”
She notes that it is important for teams to share moments of fun at appropriate times or start their own rituals, like a quick warmup dance to unwind and spark creativity. “This may seem paradoxical, but as we self-isolate, people have a stronger desire to connect. We are still social beings and we need each other.”
“Right now, we are in a ‘live experiment’ where our teams are being pushed to develop to an extreme capacity. This unpredictable time is bringing various experiments to the surface and we are all learning. What is clear is that the way we establish bridges for our remote teams to connect can be done more efficiently, and empathetically, to accomplish more together.”