Leading Virtual Teams

By: Bronwyn Gorgone

It was May 1st of 2020, when I arrived in the morning for work at the executive offices at my place of employment, only to realize no one else was there. As a nurse leader working in quality improvement for a 50-site outpatient practice healthcare system, I learned suddenly communication was changing forever. After working in a large corporate administrative building, with meetings, luncheons, and cubicles, I discovered the company closed the building for good, did not resign the lease, and that all departments were entirely remote, effective immediately.

Fast forward 3 years, I have more experience leading remote teams than I would have foreseen. After my trial by fire approach, I hope to share insight about interprofessional collaboration in the virtual world. I want to share six practical tools that leaders can implement immediately, that will promote productive communication.

I want to preface these strategies with background on my experience virtually building, maintaining, and growing teams. One of my roles as a nurse practitioner for a healthcare organization is being the Director of Transitions of Care for the quality improvement department. In doing this, I lead committees, manage several teams, employees, and oversee all site locations organization-wide, including external hospital system processes. With that said, the information I share will cover interdisciplinary communication within individuals, teams, both internal and external stakeholders

1) Virtual Huddle Helps

Depending on how often your team needs to communicate, scheduling a designated time to check-in is essential. A huddle, when initiated effectively, can reduce confusion, and promote cohesion. To have a successful huddle, the team needs to be on the same page as how it is utilized. To achieve this, the team needs to virtually huddle on a chat-based platform, on designated dates and times, with a plan to address workplans. Communication should be focused, structured, and use guidelines.

A huddle template can be incorporated to verify attendance, individual/team roles, deadlines, time sensitive information, updates, work-plan changes, and answer any questions. It must be understood that a huddle is not the same as a group chat. It is not intended to overburden staff with too much information, but rather, share just enough information to be helpful. 

2) Collective Calendar Coordinates:

Lack of communication and clarity is the biggest pitfall of any remote team. For this reason, using a designated shared team calendar can save the day! Using the calendar as a daily “whiteboard” will create daily, weekly, monthly and yearly direction. The possibilities are endless when it comes to sharing work!

The calendar can be optimized to portray the virtual work schedule. For example, if the team needs to complete a group task that will take one week to do, you can send a calendar invitation to the virtual task. In another example, my department does many Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles. I set up goals and timelines and share these on calendars so the entire team can stay on track with ease. Individuals and teams can be invited to their work priorities, so there is utmost clarity in the designation of accountability. Some benefits to this method are to spare redundancies at work. It can also be optimized to address staff coverage for time off. All in all, it offers transparency, and allows all involved to have a sense of involvement as an individual and as a group.

3) Synchronous vs. Asynchronous, Synchrony:

One question the remote leader needs to answer is, what do we work on together, versus what do we work on separately? How often do we meet as a team, while not taking away time working towards goals? Healthcare has limited resources with time and staff being on the top of that list. Furthermore, a leader usually manages both teams and individuals. How is a culture of togetherness and unity built within isolation?

Checking the pulse of the team becomes paramount when understanding how your unique group is motivated. Sometimes, short 15-minute one-to-one check-ins become more helpful and boost morale, compared to a long hourly team meeting or lengthy email chains. Virtual teams need guidance as to what methods are acceptable for communication and during what times. Too much communication becomes disruptive, while too little becomes another challenge. Expectations and setting communication standards will mitigate problematic communication patterns and open the space for productive time management.

4) Flexibility – Friend or Foe?

The leader needs to carefully decide how to use flexibility as a tool in the virtual world. Being flexible can motivate some people, while others may need structure to stay on track. Providing a culture of flexibility can be helpful to get work done but needs to be considered in risk vs reward style. As a manager, I noticed that when given the opportunity to work outside of business hours, compared to taking PTO or sick time, people often elect to work now and use their time off later. This fosters productivity and motivation for staff in the current state, knowing time off will be rewarded in the future.

Other ways to take advantage of flexibility is to support team members using their own preferences to achieve goals. Individuals often have different styles to meet the same expectations. For example, some folks prefer to meet frequently while others work best autonomously. Some team members work best by phone call, while others work best on video meetings. Being flexible from a multifocal standpoint can give individuals the chance to exceed expectations and contribute exponentially. Autonomy and respect are highly valued, and using these principles within the team will lead to a culture of development. Having a flexible culture is not to be taken for granted, and the expectations of these plans should be clear.

5) Gatekeeper, Gone for Good! 

Working remote does not equate to working in a silo. Therefore, incorporating collaborative practice is essential for the dissemination of work being done by virtual teams. Working with teams to achieve excellent things can fall short without the right buy in, expertise, and dynamic insight. You and your team are not the gatekeepers of knowledge, and therefore networking is integral to performance.

Not only does the leader need to engage external stakeholders with the team, but the leader needs to teach others to practice this as well. Working in the virtual world is exceptionally unique when it comes to onboarding new members. It is significantly harder to shadow, observe, and learn the roles of other colleagues. Making sure new members get interdisciplinary introductions is key, and providing teams with a contact list is also ideal. Furthermore, inviting your team to continue learning, meeting with leaders in the field, and providing them with resources to grow will stimulate them to perfect this practice.

6) Make an Operations Manual

Many virtual teams are still new players to the game. I was personally faced with several challenges developing a fully remote quality improvement department for value-based care. Much of my needs were to recruit, hire staff, develop job descriptions, policies, procedures, and build the infrastructure from scratch. With that said, I want to emphasize the value of creating a “virtual operations manual”. Like an employee handbook, the virtual manual can be a shared ever-growing document with contributions from all members. The team can be creative and include a table of contents, best practices, housekeeping, etiquette, or anything that makes sense for your unique goals and needs. Additionally, our team created a quality improvement form allowing individuals to submit proposals to update the handbook and policies as necessary.

Creating a sense of togetherness while not being together is the direction of the future. I encourage leaders to ask for feedback, suggestions, and keep an open mind. I look forward to seeing the potential of up-and-coming virtual teams and am eager to learn how they shape our practice. Working in a remote environment may present different challenges than traditional times, but it is up to us to cultivate!

About the Author: Bronwyn Gorgone DNP, has been a distinguished registered nurse for over 6 years. well versed in community health, clinical, and administrative roles, she is a Doctoral student who passionate about education and lifelong learning. She currently holds the role of transitions of care nurse at Sun River Health.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. For more details on our site disclaimers, please see our ‘About’ page

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