Leadership Considerations for a Successful Flex Work Model
By Madison Hanscom, Ph.D.
Researchers who study telework argue that successful virtual teams are determined more by successful or unsuccessful leadership rather than other factors such as technology (1). Poor leadership is poor leadership. If you take a substandard leader and move them into a flex work environment - they won’t do any better. There are foundational leadership competencies that help all teams succeed - whether the team is in an office or working remotely. These include leading with a big picture goal and supporting the company’s vision, building interpersonal connections and collaboration, walking the talk, demonstrating ethics and integrity, managing change, creating a safe space for people to speak up and innovate, and more.
In addition to these fundamentals, leaders working with a virtual team must be adaptable and consider how management practices and leadership styles should be adjusted for a flexible work environment. Leading a virtual team requires more of a concerted effort - it can take more time and effort when it comes to building relationships and coordinating the processes (2). Leaders who are strong advocates of flexible work will lead the way in building a successful program, and there are certain areas where leaders should place emphasis with managing flex workers to sustain a successful program and keep them engaged:
Establish team norms
• Research shows that creating and reinforcing team norms are related to virtual team success (3). Consider the different behaviors and attitudes you want to be normal in your team to facilitate the best work possible. For example: How quickly are people expected to respond to instant messages versus emails? What are the preferred modes of communication for different types of content? Are time zones taken into consideration when booking meetings? When are video meetings booked vs phone meetings? What clothes do people wear to video meetings? What behaviors are discouraged?
• Setting team norms can be a group activity to create buy-in and ensure nothing is being overlooked about the way work is actually done. Facilitate a discussion with team members to determine these norms. This might include a reflection on successful and unsuccessful past experiences, actions to sustain or rectify these situations, and so on. Ensure these norms are documented and encouraged for long term sustainment.
Rethink the tight grip
• Leaders must consider ways of monitoring performance that might not align with their conventional understanding of management practices. This includes measuring performance with ways that are based on employee output and not necessarily observable actions throughout the entire process. These are substantial indicators of performance, like work completed, quality of deliverables, sales volume, orders taken, calls successfully completed, and so on.
• This is not to say close contact is not important. It keeps people connected and engaged. However, this contact should be about communication and information sharing, not about monitoring and micromanaging.
Communicate strategically and often
• Pulling off great communication with a virtual team will take more planning and forethought than in a face-to-face setting. We recommend devising a communication plan that includes all of the nuances like frequency, method/format, time zones/timing, and the purpose behind different types of communication. Be sure to have micro meetings (one-on-ones) and larger meetings (all hands meetings). These large huddles or “all hands” check-ins help people to feel connected to the company in a remote setting. They don’t have to take a long time, but there are benefits to bringing people together. Consider getting creative with some of these meetings. Perhaps you host a lunch and learn, or quick birthday celebration for a team member by delivering a cake to their house during a video call. Getting imaginative in a remote environment can boost communication and keep people engaged.
• This one should be on here twice because it is so important and often overlooked in more disperse or virtual environments. Keeping workers engaged who are working remotely or partially remote will be more effective when there is a solid plan for recognizing good performance. This should be a top priority. Recognition is motivating, and it also reinforces what the company values. It illustrates both to the individual receiving the recognition and to others what the company values and what behavior should be continued. There are important questions to ask yourself:
• Is there a system for formal or informal recognition? Are there clear examples of what managers should recognize? Are there clear examples of what should not be recognized? Will there be rewards or awards, too? How is recognition delivered - email, in person, a ‘shout out’ on a weekly team video check-in call?
Focus on individual development
• Even though employees are out of sight, they shouldn’t be out of mind. It is important to think about creating individual development plans with employees and work on goal setting. This creates engaging conversations about where they want to be long term, what it takes to get there, and how to work on it. Growth is a very important motivational tool, and employees will feel connected and inspired when one-on-one conversations about their development are scheduled.
Show them purpose
• When employees feel connected to the work they are doing and committed to the company, they are more likely to perform well in a flexible work setting (4). Help employees feel connected to their work and the values of the company by illustrating for them specifically how their contribution is related to the larger goals of the company. This helps give them meaning behind what they do on a daily basis and lets them know they are valuable in a concrete way. This is particularly important for high performers — because you want them to stay with the company as long as possible.
Make performance expectations clear
• Research shows that virtual teams thrive when performance exceptions are clear and team structures are specified (5). Ensure that all tasks are clearly defined, what performance should look like, what deliverables should be, how to use time, who is involved, and so on. If someone isn’t clear on an expectation, it is likely others will have the same question. Document this information in a place that is easy for employees to access on a daily basis if needed.
• Another conventional notion that must be challenged when operating as a leader of virtual teams is that employees need to be seen to be considered productive. An employee can no longer symbolize their commitment by staying in the office late — they now have to show up in other ways, and leaders need to trust that employees are getting the job done. A great deal of trust is involved in virtual teams. Managers have to trust their employees, but employees also have to trust management and one another within the team. In fact, research has shown that interpersonal trust is significantly related to virtual work success (6). Work to build trust among employees to strengthen interpersonal trust and work to build trust between management and employees.
• Try building interpersonal trust by creating a remote team agreement as a group. Involve employees in discussing expectations and developing a contract together that has guidelines and norms surrounding these expectations for one another. Also try getting the team to share things that are important to them outside of work, such as news about a child’s graduation, to build rapport and familiarity. Some companies have found success using a “virtual water cooler” or a message board where life photos or jokes can be shared.
At Propulo Consulting, we partner with you to improve the world of work. Our team has the expertise to help your business plan and implement a sensible Flex Work strategy without pain. We work with you to ensure your company culture and processes develop accordingly during or after a Flex Work transition so you can continue to deliver results for your organization and customers. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into flexible work.
(1) Offstein, E. H., Morwick, J. M., & Koskinen, L. (2010). Making telework work: Leading people and leveraging technology for competitive advantage. Strategic HR Review, 9(2), 32-7.
(2 )Liao, C. (2017). Leadership in virtual teams: A multilevel perspective. Human Resource Management Review, 27(4), 648-659.
(3) Suchan, J., & Hayzak, G. (2001). The communication characteristics of virtual teams: A case study. IEEE transactions on Professional Communication, 44(3), 174-186.
(4) Raghuram, S., Garud, R., Wiesenfeld, B., & Gupta, V. (2001). Factors contributing to virtual work adjustment. Journal of Management, 27(3), 383-405.
(5) Kaiser, P. R., Tullar, W. L., & McKowen, D. (2000). Student team projects by internet. Business Communication Quarterly, 63(4), 75-82.
(6) Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1151.