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?\n\nWhen 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.\n\n\u201cCompanies 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,\u201d 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.\n\nHere are the seven principles IT leaders at forward-thinking enterprises abide by in building collaborative, productive teams in today\u2019s new challenging, cloistered working environment.\n\n1. The future is hybrid\n\nWelcome to the new normal. \u201cIn these times, we\u2019re realizing how much we miss the in-person interactions from a nuanced, feeding-off-of-others situation,\u201d says Kevin Haskew, CIO at ON Semiconductor. \u201cMoving forward, we can incorporate the benefits of remote working with on-site\/in-person working and get the best results from both approaches.\u201d\n\nThe future of work is hybrid \u2014 a model where employees both work in the office and remotely, adds Bhushan Sethi, PricewaterhouseCoopers\u2019 global people and organization co-leader. \u201cEach dimension of collaboration, communication and coaching needs to be redefined as virtual work increases.\u201d\n\nHelp 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. \u201cEffective use of technology can not only help employees work better together, but also create a significant differentiator for the business,\u201d he notes.\n\n2. Goals are doubly important\n\nIt\u2019s 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.\n\n\u201cEmployees need transparency on how their part of the process or project impacts the department\u2019s success,\u201d says Tyler Cahill, manager of organizational development for national staffing and recruitment firm Addison Group. \u201cThis 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\u2019s success.\u201d\n\nCahill also suggests defining the critical wins that need to be achieved within the next six to twelve months. \u201cThen, begin reverse-engineering these [wins] into smaller milestones that an individual or group of employees can work toward,\u201d he advises.\n\nCahill also recommends using online project management tools to ensure individual ownership awareness and continuous team progress. \u201cThis way, no matter where team members are located, they can log in and see the progress that\u2019s being made toward goals,\u201d he explains. \u201cIt will also help limit unnecessary emails or messages that clutter up an inbox.\u201d\n\n3. \u2018Digital-first\u2019 is foremost\n\nAdopting 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.\n\n"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.\n\nAlthough 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."\n\nTransitioning 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.\n\n4. Open communication is king\n\nTeam 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.\n\n"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\u2019re more comfortable when further distanced, or from their home, if they prefer to be a bit more secluded."\n\nSocial 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."\n\n5. Asynchronous collaboration tools are essential\n\nAsynchronous 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\u2019re effective because they don\u2019t require people to be in the same place at the same time, and they promote idea equity."\n\nAsynchronous 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.\n\n6. The workplace is open for experimentation\n\nWhat will the workplace look like after the COVID-19 pandemic recedes into history? "We don\u2019t 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\u2019t be like the old environment."\n\nIt's likely that office structures and layouts will transform rapidly. "They\u2019ll be repurposed for interpersonal relationship development, celebrations, training," McGlennon says. "Experimentation will be key for determining what\u2019s really going to work"\n\nAs 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."\n\nKim 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."\n\n7. Burnout is your biggest enemy\n\nBurnout 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\u2019s important to encourage team members take some occasional time off to recharge.\n\nBeyond 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.