How PCS can help you to get the most from virtual teams

In this article, PCS Director, Chris Milliner, explains how the Performance Climate System can help you to get the most from virtual teams. 

Performance Climate System (PCS) can support organisations to maximise the opportunities of operating virtual teams.  The PCS assessment and report utilises robust academic theory, with over 15-years of practical experience, to help leaders of virtual teams establish, sustain and improve performance when team members are never physically co-located.

In 2013, Sebastian Bailey summarised some key issues facing virtual teams in becoming sustainably productive as well as happy environments in which to work.  Even in the age of video conference calls, instant messaging and shared working environments, many organisations see remote working as a “Friday” activity to keep staff engaged, rather than a new way of operating with clear effectiveness and efficient benefits.  Below I set out the 5-issues Sebastian summarised so well, together with an appreciation of how PCS can support team leaders as well as HR professionals to maximise the opportunity that virtual team working provides.

Challenge 1: Lack of everyday non-verbal, face to face communication

We humans have, to varying degrees, the innate need to interact with other humans be it formal professional communications or social conversations in a queue for coffee.  A lack of communications rapidly leads to a sense of isolation which can have a dramatic effect on productivity, contentment and loyalty.

The key to addressing this challenge is a mix of quantity and quality of communications.  This can be achieved by simple changes including: regular team briefs, routine 1:1s between the team leader and staff, the creation of micro projects linking different team members, setting up chat rooms for general or topic based conversations.

PCS measures a team’s perception of how well it communicates internally and with external stakeholders.  This process of measuring and feeding back results will boost communications in itself.  The data PCS provides – both quantitative and qualitative – gives the leader a rich picture of what isn’t working and what could be done to improve communications within the team and to other teams.  Multiple uses of PCS will also demonstrate improvement and provide ongoing engagement opportunities 

Challenge 2: Lack of social interaction

As well as missing out on verbal communications, remote working can also deprive workers non-verbal input and cues.  This can lead to poorly received emails or texts resulting in degraded team cohesion.

Using video conferencing rather than phone conferencing is a simple way to address this issue.  Creating time within and around work meetings for team members – as a whole group or in spontaneous 1:1s – to share non-work-related information can also make up for a lack of social interaction.

The PCS measure of connection is focused on measuring challenges in this area for the team as a whole and specifically the leader.  As with all PCS segment and focus areas, measuring the issue is a powerful way of understanding its scope and scale.  A team leader – with or without external support – can use the information to investigate deeper and / or to design means to address issues and ideally as risks before they start affecting the climate of the team.

Challenge 3: Cultural Clashes

Virtual team working doesn’t create cultural challenges in itself but can magnify minor issues into major problems rapidly.  This will be amplified if dispersed teams are using a common 2nd language where nuances in communications can either be missed or misinterpreted.

The effects of this challenge can be mitigated by employing some simple steps around rule / norm setting;  i.e. how the team should communicate different types of message, what language to use, common core terminology, processes for managing communications.  The team leader should strive to create a unique team culture ideally harnessing ideas originating from within the team. 

As a climate measurement tool, PCS can support identification of lead indicators of cultural issues i.e. potentially minor factors that if left unchecked will result in cultural problem.  PCS can also be used as part of the ground rule setting exercise by proactively addressing each of the 6-segments covering transactional and transformational influencers of climate.

Challenge 4: Loss of Team Spirit

A virtual team is always going to struggle to create, nurture, sustain and improve a sense of team spirit.  This key facet of a team is the glue which will enable members to work optimally together and support each other subconsciously.

This is absolutely an area where a proactive team leader can add value.  He or she can do a mix of soft things (e.g. by creating a positive and innovative work culture) and hard things (e.g. by scheduling regular team interactions).  Additionally, research has shown that virtual teams become more cohesive, with a greater sense of team spirit, with ‘shared leadership’ where each team member takes some responsibility for the team’s success. This requires a leader to delegate leadership wherever possible.

At PCS we see team spirit as a fundamental determinant of climate i.e. the mood of the team.  A PCS score provides a rich picture of the components of climate allowing for risks or issues to be identified and shared with the entire team with improvements to be planned and tracked over time.  The planning and execution of climate improvement activities can provide an opportunity for team members to communicate and cooperate over distance.

Challenge 5: Lack of Trust

When you can’t see what people are doing every moment they are at work there is a tendency for trust to be eroded or not even created in the first place.  This can be problem in mobile workforces but is a real challenge when workers might never meet their colleagues and a leader might only have occasional phone or video conference calls.

Trust in virtual teams can be built using principles employed consciously or subconsciously in classic office-based teams.  Setting realistic goals or targets followed by transparent monitoring and acknowledgement of completion is an obvious and relatively easy way of developing trust.  Simply recognising people’s contribution to a task will also engender a sense of mutual trust.

Trust is key factor in how PCS measures ‘connection’; the rating in this area will show the team and leader if there is a problem with trust which might spawn improvement action.  Repeated measurement will show the impact of any trust related improvements.  The mere act of completing the PCS questionnaire and sharing results is a sign of trust in the team by the leader.

PCS provides a snapshot of Team Climate, which enables leaders to focus on preserving what’s working within their teams; and critically address what’s not working.  It identifies gaps in perception between leader and team members; highlighting potential areas of conflict, disconnect, misalignment and miscommunication.  And it provides insights into where the leader needs to focus effort – in the most effective order – to achieve and maintain high performance.  Find out more about PCS.

Zac's Challenges:

Zac’s tech business is growing rapidly. He’s gone from being a developer with a good idea to now overseeing an ever-expanding team. Zac knows that in order for the business to grow successfully, it needs to stay true to its founding values and his staff need to feel valued and engaged. Zac wants to understand if he and his team are on the same page and he needs to do it quickly and cost effectively.

Zac's PCS Solution

Zac decides to use PCS Lite to get a quick temperature check of how his team are performing and what they think about the business. The PCS Lite report quickly surfaces the fact that his team have lost sight of the organisation’s purpose and goals. Zac realises that he needs to improve his on-boarding processes and help orientate the new team members better in the company culture and vision. 6 months later, Zac uses PCS Lite to check his new onboarding process is working; concludes that the growing team are much better aligned to his vision and are generally operating in a more positive working environment.

Annabel's Challenges:

It’s Annabel’s job to help the Partners in the firm manage their clients and ensure they’re consistently adding value. Recently, Annabel has been asked by one of the Partners to find a tool or framework that the consultants can use to benchmark new clients looking for team and leadership improvement programmes. It needs to be cost-effective, established and reputable and able to be branded with the firm’s own logo.

Annabel's PCS Solution

Annabel recommends PCS Pro to the Senior Partners as it provides an objective measurement of team and leadership climate against which the consultants can build performance improvement programmes. PCS has a good track record, academic validation, excellent training and customer service, so she’s confident that it’s the right tool for the firm’s consultants to use.

Sarah's Challenges:

Sarah has to keep across the multiple training and development needs in the organisation and do it within a tight budget. Recently, Sarah’s been asked to design a L&D programme that improves the staff retention rate and helps staff feel more engaged with the changes happening in the organisation, not least the shift to more flexible working.

Sarah's PCS Solution

Sarah uses PCS to measure how different teams across the organisation are performing and look at any patterns which suggest the need for organisation-wide, leader or team training. Sarah notices that all teams and leaders have a low climate score in the Processes segment. Sarah knows that allocating budget in this area will improve performance. She works with the Senior Management Team to review the organisation’s processes as they transition to more flexible working and designs a training programme to support staff in the transition. She’s helped staff to feel supported, acknowledged and engaged which ultimately drives performance. 

Jim's Challenges:

Jim’s client has a team that’s not performing as well other teams in the organisation. The team has a high staff turnover, sickness and the lack of cohesion is impacting the team’s wellbeing and performance. Jim needs to get to the bottom of why this is happening and design effective coaching interventions which can generate tangible results for his client.

Jim's PCS Solution

Jim uses PCS Pro to measure / benchmark how the team and leader are performing across the 6 segments critical to team performance – Goals, Roles, Processes, Adaptability, Connection and Resilience. He can immediately see the disparity in Goals, Processes and Connection between the leader’s perception and those of her team. He uses this information to build a coaching programme designed align team and leader. After 6 months, the team seems to be more settled and productive. Jim remeasures using PCS Pro – the results show the client the effectiveness of his coaching intervention.