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Six practical tips for working on a virtual team

By PA2 Hunter Medley


Are you feeling a little disconnected from your colleagues? Now is an excellent time to explore some best practices for working virtually. 

“Finding ways to stay connected during a time when we are forced apart is essential,” said Leslie Cardona, the First District employee assistance program coordinator. Cardona has been hosting frequent virtual meetings to help commands and chaplains find ways to support members during the pandemic.

Her COVID-19 team members aren’t located in the same geographical area. A few of them have worked together before COVID-19, but some hadn’t even known one another prior to joining her team. To inspire synergy and encourage trust, Cardona introduces each member at the beginning of every meeting, providing a little background about each person. Team members greet each other with smiles, excited to get to know one another and work toward a common goal. 

Telework might not be a good fit for everyone. But creating a more cohesive team will help everyone feel supported - while helping your team succeed - in this virtual environment. 

  1. Have the Right Tools for the Job
    “How will we communicate?” That’s your team’s most important question, writes business professor Michael Watkins in a recent article, Making Virtual Teams Work: Ten Basic Principles. The Coast Guard has enabled Microsoft Teams to help answer this question. Microsoft Teams is a collaboration platform that combines workplace chat, video meetings, file storage, and application integration. You can access Teams on your standard Coast Guard workstation or on your personal devices such as a computer, tablet, or smart phone.  Take the time to learn how to use the collaboration features of apps like Teams as well as CG Portal, Skype, and the MS Office suite. 
  1. Make Yourself Available
    When working virtually, sometimes answering a simple question becomes a challenge. One solution? Virtual office hours. Open a Teams video meeting while you go about your regular working day. You can “encourage your team to pop in if they have a question or even want to chat about non-work-related topics,” suggests Patrick Lencioni from the leadership podcast, At the Table. In a recent episode, Lencioni encourages team leads to use virtual office hours to demonstrate that they are there for their team.  “Interacting one-on-one with team members is a vital piece of the puzzle in making any team function effectively,” says Lencioni. In these one-on-one meetings, practice positive reinforcement. A little recognition can go a long way in a virtual environment.
  1. Uphold Respect and Trust
    Just because you can’t see your subordinates or coworkers working diligently, doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Recognize that you may need to give your team members the benefit of the doubt regarding assignment completion. “Manage but don’t micromanage, and maintain the balance between clear expectations and believing that your team will make them happen,” says Lencioni. Give your team members flexibility, since typical tasks can become more complicated in a virtual environment. After all, “trust” is an essential element in the Coast Guard core value of respect.
  1. Be Fully Present
    Remember, it is often what you don’t say that counts. In-person meetings let you meet others’ eye gaze and see their body language, which helps you stay engaged. Take away those non-verbal cues and suddenly it’s a lot harder to stay focused on the meeting.

    During a recent a brainstorming call, Cardona noticed one person was quiet. To help that team member stay present with the group, Cardona invited them individually to share feedback.

    Calling on specific individuals helps can help everybody feel connected, while giving them a gentle reminder to stay focused on the conversation. You can also encourage your team to use their cameras and microphones so everyone is both seen and heard.
  1. Be Able to Agree to Disagree
    Healthy disagreement is a sign of a successful team, says Lencioni. “The fear of conflict on your team could mean there is some dysfunction or conflict within the team, and there might not be enough trust to disagree about ideas and professional interpretation.” Even those who are typically comfortable talking through disagreement might choose to stay quiet rather than extending an already-too-long video conference.

    Genuinely ask your team what they think about ideas, and carefully consider their different points of view. 
  1. Be Candid
    It’s not just you - many of us may feel like we aren’t performing at our peak right now. So be gentle on yourself if you’re suddenly going into the garage to find a quiet place to take a call, or feeding a baby while talking to your boss. Be realistic about what you’re able to do. If you’re taming chaos at home, make sure you communicate that with your colleagues.

    Clear communication is one of the best tools you have. “Explain your commitment, but also make sure you voice what obstacles you will have to manage in the background,” advises Kourtney Whitehead, a career columnist for Forbes. Being candid will help you and your team build trust and empathy, as well as get ahead of any potential issues before they turn into problems. 


Authorized Telework Capabilities & Web/Videoconferencing Guidance

Ready to learn more about best practices for virtual teams? Check out these references for more ideas.

Reading List for Leading Virtual Teams: