How Training Can Support Remote Teamwork
Feature Story – By Amy Glass and Michele Pepe
Without meeting in person, how do you stay engaged?
Recently a learning and development leader at a biotech company shared some of the challenges they are having with engagement, teamwork and developing a team culture. Over the past year, both the training department and the field teams they support have gone through so much change. Due to restructuring and new employees, people often have never met their teams (nor their customers) in person.
Without the ability to meet and connect in person, how do you feel part of the company’s mission? How do you maintain engagement and build relationships with those on your team?
Research has found these and other challenges with remote teamwork. In fact, a new University of Washington study coauthored by Xiao-Ping Chen found that workers are far less effective at building relationships when their main communication with colleagues is virtual rather than in person.
Supporting Remote Teamwork
Participants in Chen’s study reported a sharp deterioration in their work relationships after more of their communications were done via videoconferencing during the pandemic. The analysis showed that virtual meetings made employees three times less effective at building relationships.
This deficiency in relationship-building can result in poorer team coordination and
As a training professional, your approach to remote teamwork can have a ripple effect on the entire organization. Overcoming the challenges of remote teamwork within your own department will enable you to continue providing the most value to your organization. At the same time, you can model these best practices for more effective remote teamwork across the organization.
Here is how to create a high-performing remote team.
Intentionally Look and Listen
Communication is less clear virtually than in person. The participants in Chen’s study reported that it was harder to understand their coworkers’ nonverbal cues (such as gestures and facial expressions) and to listen intently to what others were saying during virtual meetings. Without these two crucial elements, Chen explained, the positive effects of relationship-building were tough to establish.
In their research, Chen and her coauthors also found that people are less likely to
see negative changes in the quality of their work relationships if they:
- Focus on colleagues’ nonverbal communication cues.
- Try harder to listen attentively when meeting by videoconference.
“Intentionally looking and listening can make the difference in building and maintaining strong work relationships … [it is also] crucial to capturing cues outside of the message itself, such as tone and pitch of voice,” the study said.
These nonverbal messages will help you better connect with the other person and enhance your understanding of what they are communicating.
Emphasize Goals and Priorities
During times of rapid change, it is more important than ever for people to be clear about their company’s goals and priorities. Focusing on goals helps to reengage team members by emphasizing a sense of purpose.
As part of a training team, how are you supporting the goals and priorities of the larger organization?
When facilitating training, you can connect program content to these goals and priorities. You can also encourage leaders in your programs to regularly communicate about company priorities and how they align to their teams.
Here are some quick tips:
- Leaders should communicate more frequently than you would normally.
- Provide a weekly update to share what we know today – even if there is no new information – and how it affects our priorities.
- Even if you don’t have all the answers, communicate what you know now with the caveat that things could change.
- Specifically focus on what is staying the same vs. what is unclear or unknown.
We all use meetings as a way of sharing information and making collaborative decisions – but they are also a way to bring people together. Teams need to spend time together – formally and informally – to perform well together. The more laughter and fun, the more smoothly a team will function. Connecting on a personal level also helps to create a safe learning environment.
Some more quick tips:
- Chat informally before getting to the task at hand (whether training or a business meeting). Stay in gallery view so you can all connect before starting any screenshare.
- Plan an icebreaker every time. An easy one: share some PIE: “How are you physically, intellectually or emotionally today?”
- Have informal meetings run by team members that focus solely on connection and relationships. Focus on topics like, “What are you looking forward to?” “What are you doing in your spare time?” or team trivia/games.
- Leaders should have monthly one-on-one meetings with team members to check on their wellbeing and workload.
It can be harder to see and feel the impact we are making when all our work is remote. Recognition is a great way to help people see that they are making an impact. Use formal and informal methods to recognize the good work others are doing.
Some helpful tips:
- Encourage team members to share kudos on a team “chat board,” on platforms such as MS Teams or Slack.
- Highlight positive outcomes in team meetings.
- In training, recognize the impact that learners are already having in their roles before moving on to skills or knowledge that still needs to be developed.
Networking must now be an even more concentrated effort – whether with your own team or across functions. Nostalgic for the days when you could “bump” into someone in the hallway? Networking remains critical to achieving individual and organizational goals.
Some quick tips in this area:
- Assess your “sphere of influence.” What departments intersect with you and your team? What relationships do you have within that sphere? What is the status of your relationships (warm, cold, indifferent)? Where do you need to build relationships?
- Have a purpose to open the communication; for example, “I wanted to connect about the idea you shared in last week’s meeting.” Connect with teammates outside of business issues. Building the interpersonal side of the team relationship is critical. For example, set up “coffee chats” in small groups or one-on-one, just to connect.
The Future of Remote Teams
Over the past year, the move to a virtual environment – paired with ongoing change/innovation within the life sciences industry – has led to cultural shifts in almost every organization. Some of these shifts will remain in place long-term. A recent Gallup survey indicates that two-thirds of American workers say they’d like to continue working remotely at least some of the time even after the pandemic ends.
What culture shifts have you noticed in your organization? Should some be intentionally continued? What skills does your organization need to be productive in the virtual environment?
By introducing some of the strategies here – exploring innovative new ideas – training and development can have a huge role to play in proactively offering solutions.
Amy Glass is owner & CEO of BRODY Professional Development. Email Amy at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Michele Pepe is senior facilitator for BRODY Professional
Development. Email Michele at email@example.com.