Tandem Solutions has operated as a virtual company for almost 20 years.  Our team members are scattered  across many states and have all had to adapt to working virtually.  In an effort to support clients moving to virtual work environments, this series of articles will share a number of important insights we have learned over the past two decades of building a virtual workforce.

Take Deliberate Steps to Create New Behaviors in the Virtual Work Environment

In the past month or so, a number of my coaching clients have said that the constant onslaught of video calls (Zoom, BlueJeans, Google, Teams, etc) have them working as hard as they can resulting in long hours. It seems like everyone is spending all day, every day glued to their chair and their screen and struggling to keep up.

Of course, this is all related to the recent health crisis that has forced our teams to work from home instead of in an office. Short interactions with employees to answer a quick question are becoming scheduled video sessions. So rather than spending 5 minutes at someone’s desk, leaders find themselves back to back in 30 minute video calls. In the short-term, this makes a lot of sense: we’re in crisis mode, and team members need support, direction, and clarity. However, as virtual work teams become the “new normal,” this behavior pattern is not sustainable.

An important question for leaders is how (and when) can we change behaviors in a way that becomes more sustainable over the longer term. Several years ago, I coached an executive who was overwhelmed by the number of emails she got from her team every day. When I looked at her emails with her, I noticed many of her responses were simple one or two word answers. It prompted me to ask her what would happen if she just stopped responding. After some thought she suggested that the team members would probably just figure things out on their own. When I asked if that would be OK, she was a little uncomfortable at first, but after further reflection she decided that it was exactly what she wanted the team to do: learn how to solve issues and move forward. When we explored why the team was pulling her into everything, she realized it was because she let it happen: what started as a series of “hey, you got a minute?” requests had grown into a daily onslaught of emails and an ongoing behavior pattern was now firmly entrenched and overwhelming her with work. The solution: change her approach from providing direction to coaching her team members.

As leaders, we have countless opportunities to establish positive behaviors that help our teams excel, but we have to avoid the trap of letting those “simple requests” create patterns that overwhelm us. The current environment may be shining a light on some of these patterns and could be an opportunity to make some changes for the better. The question to consider is why so many team members are making all of those “simple requests?” Some of them are probably legitimate: opportunities to seek clarity and confirm direction. However, I often ask my coaching clients whether something they are doing is creating the need for these requests. More directly: is it possible you are creating a culture of dependency on your team? When we were in the office it was easy for us to respond to “quick questions” by just giving our employees the answer and moving on. Now, in the virtual world, that’s more difficult and time consuming. Rather than giving the answer, what if you asked a question? Rather than saying “do this” what if you asked “what do you think you should do?”

Coaching encourages employees to develop their own insights about a problem and builds their confidence and ability to develop solutions on their own. The culture it encourages is less dependent and more independent. However, it does require many leaders to consciously change their style. As coaches, we focus on asking questions that help our clients develop better insights and set direction. We know that these self insights lead to increased confidence, proactive behavior, and higher performance.

The opportunity for leaders is to develop a coaching style that encourages a new, positive behavior pattern that may ultimately help reduce the onslaught of video meetings. How can we avoid letting the short term crisis management style develop into a toxic behavior pattern in the new normal of virtual work teams? Instead of getting on a call and focusing on giving our employees direction, perhaps we have an opportunity to create a new behavior pattern by coaching our employees to become more independent, more productive, and higher performers. Leader coaches will need to develop a number of important skills, including:

  • Asking thoughtful questions that encourage employees to develop solutions themselves
  • Listening deeply to understand what the employees really mean
  • Supporting different approaches for solving problems (our way is not always the best way)
  • Allowing employees the opportunity to learn from their mistakes
  • Holding employees accountable for their plans and encouraging deeper insight when things don’t go according to plan

Shifting to a coaching style typically requires a pretty big up front investment: leaders have to learn to perfect their technique, and employees have to develop the confidence to engage with their leader in a different way. However, over time, the impact on your team’s culture can be tremendous. Rather than creating dependency, you are encouraging independence, challenging your employees to improve, and opening up possibilities for you and them. Ultimately, you’ll be building a team that can perform at a higher level and achieve better outcomes.

My former client worked hard to shift her approach and after about three months, the number of emails she was getting dropped precipitously. More importantly, her team was performing at a higher level and she was freed up to take on work that was more strategic and increase her impact on the organization. It took time, and a lot of work, but the result was a pretty solid ROI.