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Six perspectives on leading a virtual team during a time of crisis

The move to social distancing has been an unexpected and rapid change for many businesses. As a result, many managers now find themselves in charge of teams that have had to replace their usual, office-based ways of working with remote working practices – in many cases for the first time ever.

Throughout Europe, many teams within Microsoft have worked in an entirely virtual way for years – with team members spread across geographies. The leaders of some of these teams wanted to share some of their own key learnings as they’ve adapted to ensure they are best supporting their people during this challenging time.

“When I returned from my sabbatical last year, I made a resolution to always have video on during Teams calls with my remote team. I didn’t ask anyone else to do it – it was just my own commitment to making sure I was present and paying attention. But little by little, everyone started turning their cameras on too, voluntarily. Being able to see the team – and for them to see you – is such an important part of feeling connected and building team chemistry on both a professional and personal level. It’s also invaluable when you’re needing to pick up on the unspoken cues team members give off that mean you might need to step in and help them.”

Whitney Cubbison | Communications Director, Microsoft Western Europe

“When you work remotely, and every meeting is a virtual meeting, you find there are only so many conversation starters. After a while ‘how are you’ gets tired and the responses are formulaic rather than any indication of how anyone is really doing. I like to start every team call with a different question – for example, today I asked ‘how are you feeling today that’s different to how you felt last week?’. Having the ritual of checking in with each other is incredibly valuable – and asking for that information in a different way helps to keep the conversations fresh and encourages my team members to open up and share how they’re really feeling.”

Magda Taczanowska | Enterprise Commercial Lead, Microsoft Poland

“With people working entirely from home these days, team members are juggling a lot of additional responsibilities in their home and family lives alongside their work – and these new routines will vary greatly for each individual. So, it’s really important that we acknowledge that team dynamics will be asynchronous – as not everyone will be working the usual ‘9-5’ – and show flexibility in how we arrange meetings, share feedback or set deadlines, to accommodate these additional responsibilities and commitments.”

Debbi Hoehn | Azure Business Lead, Microsoft Central & Eastern Europe

“Virtual meetings can be as productive as in-person ones, but that doesn’t mean they automatically play out in the same way. You have to build in time at the start for the participants to “settle in” just like in a meeting room.  Have a clear agenda and throughout the meeting have time for dialogue and interaction, in order to make people feel comfortable and involved. Also, particularly when there are a lot of people in a meeting, virtual or in-person, it’s important to make sure you give space to those voices that sometimes need a little more time to come forward and make themselves heard.”

Maja Løve Dybdahl | Microsoft Dynamics Business Group Director, Western Europe

“As a people manager, you have to adapt the cadence and intensity of how often you check in with your team when you manage remotely. No matter how good the tools are, being in front of a screen is exhausting, so you don’t want to be the one adding meetings to days that already feel quite screen-intensive – but you also want to make sure your team members feel heard and supported. Change the rhythm of how often you check in with your team, so you talk to them more often but for shorter periods of time.”

Jaime Galviz | COO and CMO, Microsoft Middle East and Africa

“When you work in an office, there are lots of ways in which team members interact in informal ways – the ‘water cooler’ moments or the banter across desks. When you’re working virtually these moments have to be initiated as they can’t happen spontaneously – encourage your team members to connect as often as they need, whether it’s a scheduled chat or a quick ‘ping’ to share a thought. There’s a temptation to think of meetings as ‘work’ and chats as ‘play’, but both can be equally important in sparking new ideas and sharing useful information.”

Jenni Rantakari | EMEA Modern Workplace lead