How to successfully manage online teamwork

How to successfully manage online teamwork

Before I start working with teams in the anologue world, I always ask them to put laptops away and mute phones. The reason for that is simple: Phone calls, messages, mails and notifications distract us almost every other minute. But these days, working remotely is all we get to do and so, screen time and team work usually overlap in an unproductive way. 

Hence, the challenge I often faced the last couple of lockdown-weeks is to use teamwork as a fruitful and efficient way of working. Here I’d like to share some of my experiences with you, hoping that they will help you to plan the next meeting, online Hackathon or Design Sprint.

Before the meeting

Set a clear timeline and let people know in advance, so they can organize themselves. This is especially true for longer virtual get-togethers (more than 2h) or sessions that even last several days. It’s much easier to hang on when you know that you’ll get your next coffee or the long-awaited toilet break at 10:15h. 

Plan your inputs beforehand and limit yourself to the essence of what you want to say. In real life, it is already hard to listen to someone who just talks for the sake of talking. Online, it is the perfect moment to check your phone, answer a mail or simply disconnect. Note to ourselves: Disconnection has happened, when your colleague takes long “to find the unmute button of the microphone” to answer your question.

Carefully choose the tools you will use based on your needs (i.e. not all the digital whiteboards have the same functions) and inform people on your selection. Your team might need time to acquaint themselves with slack, jitsi, miro, mural or whatever it is. It can also help to send links to tutorials.

During the meeting

Ask your team members to switch their cameras on. It is much easier to relate to others when you see their face. Although it is not the same as sitting around a table, a videoconference at least allows for interpreting small gestures or mimics and hence is less prone to misunderstandings.

Even more so in uncertain times like these, always begin your meeting with a quick check-in. All of us are reacting in a different way to the threads of the pandemic and these reactions might also differ from already known behavior. So, give the team time to arrive and share how they feel. 

Letting your colleagues know how you feel takes trust. Some teams had the chance to establish a basis before the crisis, others meet for the first time online and have never worked together before. In the case of the latter, it is important to create a space for the teams to get to know each other (i.e. through warm-ups). Dedicate more time to such informal and playful blocks (and, if necessary, take the time from “result-oriented-sessions”). You will get better results with a functioning team than with a dysfunctional team.  

Structure and timeline

Start a bit later and end a bit earlier and take longer breaks than usual in between if your session lasts for a day or longer. This sounds like not taking it seriously, but actually it helps people to stay focused all the way through. The reason for this is that people will need the time to answer mails or calls and you can make sure they have enough time off-screen.

Teamwork in front of screens needs much more structure and guidance, as ad-hoc questions to the schedule or planning are more complicated to answer or even interrupt you while you give an input to another team. Also, your lost team member can’t just do what the colleague does without interrupting someone else, because he or she simply can’t see what that is. Hence, for orientation it works well to have repeating structures (i.e. input, individual task for 10 minutes, share with a partner, be back on the general video-channel 20 minutes later for sharing with everybody and the next input). Also, quickly summarize the tasks and schedule for the next block after an input and share it via chat with the team. 

Mix online and offline activities. Our eyes get tired of the blue light and some of us think with the help of their hands (i.e. while writing or scribbling on a paper) or when they move and not while sitting and staring on a video-conference. With exercises allowing for time off-screen you will be able to use the collective brainpower. 

Make sure you’re not only concise with your inputs, but use words that are clear to your audience. In my experience, people don’t like to expose themselves in general, but even less so online. If you want commitment and results, watch your language.

After a meeting

To end a long day of work, unfortunately we can’t sit together with a beer. And from my experience, all the digital alternatives – from digital DJ-sets to joint online boardgames – simply can’t replace a relaxed analogue get-together. What does work well though, is to digitally clink glasses and debrief the day, and then let people run off doing their thing – away from screens. 

As paradoxical as it may sound, to me the essence for good online teamwork is to regularly put devices away and limit screen time. This works wonderfully well in analogue workshops and so it does online.