Research & Thought Leadership

What makes virtual working, work?

Jesper Knutell

During the last few weeks, China has faced an unprecedented test of its economy’s resilience. Speaking to colleagues and friends, it’s clear that the whole country – and the world – is eager to get back to work, but we’ve all been facing barriers such as office closures and quarantines leading to virtual working. All necessary actions to combat the NCV, but still frustrating for everyone involved.

My very rough estimate is that half of China has been working from home these last weeks, and for us here at Hult EF this is certainly the case. Since the virus outbreak, we have asked our staff to continue working as normal but from the safety of their homes, and the same goes for many companies we work within China, both MNCs and SOEs.

Challenges of virtual working

A challenge companies are facing now is that virtual or remote working is not part of the culture and many leaders are uncertain as to how to act in these situations. And it is true, you can’t lead in the same way virtually as you can when you are physically present. Team collaboration becomes more complicated and communication becomes less fluent when you can’t see each other.

Having managed teams virtually all over the world for the last 15 years I think I’ve made every mistake there is to make. As a Swede, I find it difficult sometimes to tell people what to do; you want to lead by consensus and making decisions together, and I’m always trying to coach the team towards the right decision—rather than dictate. However, this is often not an effective strategy when working remotely and especially not when there is a lot of uncertainty. In these situations, people look for clear instructions and advice, and my approach has often resulted in me being frustrated with the lack of action taken and the teams being frustrated with the lack of direction.

I’ve also often underestimated the communication flow in the organization. When you discuss things with the management team, you hope that they will be able to pass on the right information to the team members. However, the reality is that there is a big black box between you and the team members. You hope that they have received the right communication via their leaders, but more often than not, I have seen that this is not the case. Often this happens because their leaders a) didn’t understand fully the message, b) didn’t agree with the message), c) interpreted the message differently than you intended, d) had different priorities at that moment, e) just didn’t listen, f) you were not clear enough, … and the list of reasons goes on and on.

When we were kids we used to play a game called Chinese Whispers. It’s a children’s game that starts off with player 1 whispering a message in the ear of player 2, who continues to whisper it to player 3, and it goes on until the last player who will announce the message they’ve heard to the entire group. It doesn’t require a lot of players for the message to completely change the meaning.

In a similar way, this happens a lot in remote working. Without body language and eye contact, it’s difficult to assess whether or not a message has been correctly received. It’s difficult enough in person, but without meeting physically, even harder. In addition, to drive change, you need to repeat the same message over and over, but that could just make it worse if the original message wasn’t understood correctly.

In China over the last 1.5 years, I have encountered that some leaders follow a message word for word when I intended it only as a guideline. I’ve also seen the opposite; some interpret is a very loose guideline when it is a hard rule or policy. While this has varied from office to office, it has left me bewildered as to whether something has been well implemented or not. And as you can see, I’m still on a journey to figure out what approach works best and how to best communicate with teams virtually. It’s a lifelong learning journey.

Trust is key

Many business leaders I’ve been speaking to lately have brought up that they worry about the productivity of their team members when they work from home. They don’t trust that their team members will do the right thing if no one is monitoring them. This reminds of a quote I read somewhere: If you don’t trust your people to work from home, why did you hire them in the first place?

As a manager, I’ve always trusted my team members from the first day we start working together until they prove to me otherwise. This has had both positive and negative results on my teams’ performance. The way I like to manage is that I provide a vision and direction, and I trust my team to figure out the right actions to help us achieve this vision. I see myself as a guide and mentor and my experience is that many enjoy this freedom and perform better when given this trust. However, many people also become paralyzed with indecisiveness when given this freedom, and as a leader, you need to identify this early and help them, often by providing step by step instructions. Until you do, they will not perform at the level you expect.

Working virtually, this is even more difficult to do. How do you identify who needs more support? It’s difficult to get people to speak up in normal meetings. In virtual meetings it is the same, but with the additional challenge that you can’t even see if people are paying attention or even listening. I think we have all been part of virtual meetings when our minds have started drifting, or we’ve received a message on our phone and we’ve diverted our attention to responding to that message, and stopped listening. Let’s be honest, very few virtual meetings over 30 minutes are effective.

And I think we have to be realistic. Yes, when people work at home, they will have distractions (especially now when everyone’s kids are home from school), but in comparison, they also don’t have to commute 2 hours per day, and they don’t have colleagues that interrupt them every 5 minutes and other office distractions.

The world is changing

There are many countries and companies around the world that have embraced virtual working over the last decade. In the US, it’s common that staff are home-based, and it’s becoming more and more common in Europe as well. The new generation that is joining the workforce are digital native. For them, communicating virtually is all they’ve ever known. So virtual working is not a temporary thing we’ve just been faced with due to the Coronavirus, it’s the inevitable future.

As employers and leaders, we are facing an employment situation where freedom to choose where and when you work are important choices when choosing employers. Many employees are looking for work-life balance, respect, a caring culture, not just money. As companies, we need to allow for a certain degree of this if we want to keep attracting talent and keeping them motivated.

Overcoming challenges of virtual working

Personally, I think it comes down to a few simple principles when managing virtually.

  • Have a clear vision where you want to go

  • Make sure everyone understands their role in this vision – use written communication to follow up on verbal communication

  • Trust people to complete the objectives you set but ensure you help people that are ‘lost’ and explain clearly what needs to be done

  • Don’t check in on people too often, it’s the one thing that kills motivation, I’ve found, but set regular virtual meetings to share updates. Make sure to keep them short

  • Embrace new ideas; different working situation brings out different solutions

Embracing the inevitable

Over the last few weeks working remotely with our China team, I have seen people’s creativity blossom. Many of the initiatives that we have launched in the last weeks are down to individual team members’ ingenuity and drive. It never ceases to amaze me how a challenge often brings out the best in people, and if we trust our teams to overcome the challenge, the chances are that they will.

So, while working virtually is not the answer to everything, if you embrace it when you are faced with it and lead with trust, you might unlock new skills to help take your business to new levels. I’m sure we have.

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