by John Edwards

7 new rules for leading IT teams in the COVID era

Sep 09, 2020
IT LeadershipProject Management

Getting IT teams to work imaginatively and productively has always been challenging. New social distancing restrictions elevate a demanding task to a new and even more daunting level.

A man in suit wears a protective face mask. / Post-COVID office workspaces
Credit: Ivan Kocha / Getty Images

Every successful IT project is the result of a team effort. Inspiration, enthusiasm, collaboration, brainstorming, advocacy and support are all key elements in IT innovation. But what happens to teamwork when social distancing rules drive members into COVID-19-created isolation?

When circumstances force teams to work apart, IT leaders need to adopt a new set of team-building skills, says Steven Hatfield, a principal and global future of work leader at Deloitte Consulting. Some enterprises already have a head start.

“Companies that have previously embraced future of work practices [are] well positioned to sustain their operations and respond quickly to the demands of navigating COVID-19, including fostering teamwork amid social distancing,” he explains. Within these organizations, teams are supported by an ecosystem of virtual resources, technologies and behavioral norms that define work as a thing to do, not a place to go to.

Here are the seven principles IT leaders at forward-thinking enterprises abide by in building collaborative, productive teams in today’s new challenging, cloistered working environment.

1. The future is hybrid

Welcome to the new normal. “In these times, we’re realizing how much we miss the in-person interactions from a nuanced, feeding-off-of-others situation,” says Kevin Haskew, CIO at ON Semiconductor. “Moving forward, we can incorporate the benefits of remote working with on-site/in-person working and get the best results from both approaches.”

The future of work is hybrid — a model where employees both work in the office and remotely, adds Bhushan Sethi, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ global people and organization co-leader. “Each dimension of collaboration, communication and coaching needs to be redefined as virtual work increases.”

Help staff members adapt to the new work model, suggests Pradeep Kumar, general manager of HPE Pointnext Technology Services. Kumar believes that all widely used work tools should be able to provide a seamless experience to both on-site and off-site employees. “Effective use of technology can not only help employees work better together, but also create a significant differentiator for the business,” he notes.

2. Goals are doubly important

It’s important for IT leaders to clearly establish and communicate goals to the entire team. By giving team members a fuller understanding of how their work brings value to the organization, defined goals help staffers become more productive and accountable.

“Employees need transparency on how their part of the process or project impacts the department’s success,” says Tyler Cahill, manager of organizational development for national staffing and recruitment firm Addison Group. “This is especially important in an era of social distancing, as it ensures that no matter the geographic distance, everyone is on the same page, aware of individual responsibilities and how their contributions contribute to the organization’s success.”

Cahill also suggests defining the critical wins that need to be achieved within the next six to twelve months. “Then, begin reverse-engineering these [wins] into smaller milestones that an individual or group of employees can work toward,” he advises.

Cahill also recommends using online project management tools to ensure individual ownership awareness and continuous team progress. “This way, no matter where team members are located, they can log in and see the progress that’s being made toward goals,” he explains. “It will also help limit unnecessary emails or messages that clutter up an inbox.”

3. ‘Digital-first’ is foremost

Adopting a strong “digital-first” strategy is necessary to promote effective teamwork in an era of social distancing. Remote and cross-regional teams aren’t new, but due to COVID-19 they’re now being adopted far more rapidly and chaotically, leaving little time for staff to adjust to the new work environment.

“To maintain productivity, as some team members return to the office while others continue working remotely, organizations should focus on building an ecosystem of virtual resources, technologies and cultural norms that help mimic and provide the same support and collaboration that a physical office environment would,” Hatfield says.

Although important, digital-first technologies such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud tools are useful only if employees actually use them. It’s up to IT leaders to encourage and support users as they adjust to new types of applications, services and processes. “Begin with employee needs and the user experience,” Hatfield recommends. “Incorporating design-thinking throughout the process will help maximize the impact of new digital technologies.”

Transitioning to a digital-first workplace can lead to long-term benefits. “Streamlining time-intensive processes opens up more opportunities for people to work creatively and strategically on tasks that are more engaging, and can lead to more innovation and collaboration among team members,” Hatfield says.

4. Open communication is king

Team communication can quickly deteriorate when employees are scattered across different, isolated locations. To unite team members, industrial robots manufacturer Vecna Robotics conducts staff meetings that respect both social distancing requirements, as well as employee preferences.

“For those in the office, this means chairs six-feet apart and masks worn at all times,” says Kay Perkinson, the company’s chief of staff. “For others, this means dialing in from their desk, if they’re more comfortable when further distanced, or from their home, if they prefer to be a bit more secluded.”

Social distancing can also lead to employees feeling lonely and isolated. Vecna addresses this concern with a series of initiatives. “We promote a variety of non-work activities that really help to bring our team together,” Perkinson says. “This includes remote and in-person social hours, coffee chats, yoga classes, club meetups and more.”

5. Asynchronous collaboration tools are essential

Asynchronous collaboration tools can be a highly effective teamwork technology in an era of social distancing, says Brian Westfall, principal analyst at Gartner’s Software Advice service. Digital whiteboards and Gantt charts have already been tremendously useful for collaborating with remote teams working in different time zones, he notes. “They’re effective because they don’t require people to be in the same place at the same time, and they promote idea equity.”

Asynchronous tools also give every team member an opportunity to contribute while also promoting a safe work environment. Westfall advises beginning with an enterprise-wide system. “Then, individual departments and teams can set up the asynchronous format that works best for their needs,” he adds.

6. The workplace is open for experimentation

What will the workplace look like after the COVID-19 pandemic recedes into history? “We don’t yet know the answer,” admits James McGlennon, CIO at Liberty Mutual Insurance. “What does seem to be clear, based on surveys and insights from our people, is that the new normal won’t be like the old environment.”

It’s likely that office structures and layouts will transform rapidly. “They’ll be repurposed for interpersonal relationship development, celebrations, training,” McGlennon says. “Experimentation will be key for determining what’s really going to work”

As the new normal takes hold, McGlennon recommends asking team members which time and scheduling approaches work best for them. “We’ll have to be even more flexible with meeting times and helping people offset work hours where possible,” he says. “Teams will need to agree on meeting times that work for everyone and allow people to flex their workdays.”

Kim Billeter, people advisory services leader at consulting firm EY Americas, suggests abandoning traditional concepts of work that can be done in-person versus work that can be accomplished remotely. “Empower and enable teams to achieve success in all facets of their work from all potential access points,” she urges. “It’s critical to differentiate virtual collaboration [by] using beautiful design, adaptive and agile methods and engaging visual/audio cues to keep attention and creativity in a state that serves the team.”

7. Burnout is your biggest enemy

Burnout is a major contributor to productivity loss. “People may be reluctant to miss work because they want to demonstrate their value at a time when companies are laying off workers,” Sethi observes. Yet overwork often leads to wrong or confusing outcomes. With many employees working longer hours than prior to the pandemic’s arrival, it’s important to encourage team members take some occasional time off to recharge.

Beyond supporting everyday work tasks, collaboration tools can be used to help stressed staffers unwind, suggests Cory Colton, principal executive coach at Inflection Point Coaching. To ensure a continued sense of esprit de corps, in-office impromptu gatherings and watercooler conversations can be replaced with virtual hangouts where the goal is simply to connect, check in and renew relationships. “No business talk is allowed,” Cotton states.