The coronavirus pandemic has challenged nonprofit leaders on nearly every front, but perhaps most significantly on how to manage teams, for the basic reason that the norms guiding virtual teams need to be far more explicit, compared to teams working in close proximity.
Since remote team members have so few opportunities for real-time conversations, where they can detect misalignment, validate assumptions, and resolve differences, it’s up to nonprofit leaders to facilitate agreement among team members on how to work together.
Creating norms to which everyone adheres—the values that build trust between team members—is a group effort. Nonprofit leaders may want to consider the following actions aimed at ensuring organizational success while operating virtually.
Give everyone equal access to vital information. Give everyone, regardless of location, equal access to information that will benefit the team at the same time. Avoid sharing big news with people who work closest to you or those you know best. Schedule an “all-hands” meeting at a time when most, if not all, can attend, so that everyone has a fair chance of hearing the news first.
Maintain a balance of power. Structure the team in such a way that power never lies with just one or two people. Give everyone a chance to lead something once in a while. Grant decision-making authority to those who are in the best position to make well-informed decisions. Likewise, provide everyone a reasonable opportunity to have a visible presence with community leaders, major donors, board members or others.
Allow team members opportunities to contribute equally. Apportion your time evenly among team members. Make an extra effort to develop relationships with those new to you, or new to the team. Carve up your time evenly between those you typically work with closely (even if from afar) and those who are farther afield. During this time of social isolation for so many, it’s especially important to find ways to compensate for the lack of serendipitous conversations you once enjoyed when most people worked out of one or two main offices.
Give everyone a chance to take on the most prized work. Consider all qualified team members equally for important assignments and interesting tasks, rather than doling out plum projects to those you know best, and leaving the tedious tasks to only some. You’ll need to spend more time guiding more junior or newer team members, but people will become self-sufficient more quickly, which means less handholding on your part.
Identify the signposts of trust.
Ask what behaviors or actions from you or fellow team members would help cultivate trust. Reach agreement about which behaviors are most important to uphold, and how best to ensure that all team members abide by the same norms, including the team leader.
Hold each other accountable. To build trust, all team members need to hold each other accountable to the same standards of behavior, including delivering on promised commitments. When leaders permit some members to violate agreed-upon norms, they risk their credibility with team members who expect them to enforce the rules consistently. Encourage everyone to take responsibility for enforcing team norms.
Create opportunities for deep conversations. Consider which team members most need to develop trusting relationships with others. Delegate projects and tasks in such a way that these people will need to have at least a few small-group conversations to complete their tasks. It’s through conversations with just a few people that relationships are created and trust can be built fastest.
Establish a safe space to make ourselves vulnerable. To foster a culture of trust, leaders need to ensure people feel safe about revealing vulnerabilities and their reservations or concerns. As leader, you can start by acknowledging issues or problems you are facing, and then invite others to do the same. Express appreciation when team members voice a difficult concern or surface a sensitive issue so that others know they can follow suit.
Cut people slack under pressure. When people feel pressured to perform, especially when deadlines are overly ambitious, unattractive behaviors can emerge. This is especially true when so many people work in isolation, with few opportunities to observe others or to be observed. Without face-to-face conversations to smooth ruffled feathers, such behavior can quickly derail even a strong team. Openly discuss likely stress points in advance, and determine how team members can best help each other, and themselves, to avoid any dysfunctional behavior that might result.
Enable reasonable autonomy. Clarify the extent to which team members have decision-making authority right up front (which may be different for each one), and encourage them to contact you only when in doubt. If they overstep (or under-step!) their bounds, take the opportunity to explain why for next time.
Keep an eye out for the small problems. With virtual teams, little annoyances can lead to big problems. Team leaders need to be vigilant about addressing small rifts and immediately bring team members back to the sense of purpose. In some cases, this requires an open conversation with the whole team, and in others, a private conversation may be more appropriate.
Nancy Settle-Murphy, president of Guided Insights, helps nonprofits design and run more productive meetings, whether face-to-face, virtual, or both. Call her at 978-263-2545 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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