The Art of Managing Virtual Teams

The Art of Managing Virtual Teams

During the last few months, the operations of probation and parole agencies have been greatly impacted by the “Stay-at-Home” orders issued by governors as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic (also referred to as the Coronavirus Pandemic).

The requirement of having offenders report to the office of the supervising officer and the practice of having officers conducting home visits were both discontinued. In most cases, officers began to meet with offenders through the use of video conferencing software such as Zoom or GoToMeeting.

Surprisingly, officers in many jurisdictions have reported that offenders appear more relaxed and more open about what is happening in their lives than they are when they report to the probation or parole office or when the officer conducts a home visit. Officers are reporting that there is a totally different relationship developing between the officer and the offender. Many offenders are beginning to see the officer not just as someone to whom they have to report and who oversees the conditions of their probation, but as someone who is trying to help them.

Pre-sentence Investigation officers are discovering that it is easier to obtain from offenders the information they need for the Pre-sentence Investigation Reports (PSI) prepared for the courts and that it takes them less time to prepare the PSIs because they are not interrupted by telephone calls, other officers stopping by their office to chat and other activities that accompany working in an office environment.

Some agency administrators are looking at these positive results and realizing that supervising offenders after COVID-19 is going to be different than it was before. This will mean that not only will the way the officers supervise offenders change, but if agencies continue the practice of allowing staff to work from home (WFH) the supervision of employees and management of probation and parole operations will also have to change.

Tips for Managing a Virtual Workforce

Some administrators may already have managerial and leader-ship techniques for staff in remote locations, such as satellite offices and institutions and some of those skills may also work with leading and managing the virtual work force, but some will not.

Just as we had to develop new methods of leading and man-aging staff when we established satellite offices and residential facilities, the same will prove true with leading and managing WFH employees. Simply put, we cannot lead and manage the virtual workplace the same way we lead and managed before. We must learn new and better ways to lead and manage in the new environment. As Eric Hoffer pointed out, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some tips to improve your effectiveness in the art of managing virtual teams.

1. View it as an Opportunity to Grow

Regardless of your comfort level in managing a virtual team, view it as an opportunity to increase your leadership and management effectiveness. Embrace early disruptions and focus on implementing the infrastructure, revised processes and new rituals that will enable your team’s success. As the world moves towards more remote and virtual models, your efforts won’t be wasted.

2. Understand the Challenges of Managing a Virtual Workplace

To lead a virtual team well, managers may discover they need to loosen their reins a little while finding ways to continue to hold employees accountable.

Without the ability to continuously monitor employees in a shared office space, they may find success by focusing more on what gets done and whether it meets well-defined quality standards than whether they are working the traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. In managing a virtual team, the manager should establish two measurements for work to meet: (1) quality, which should be defined as the completion of a task or responsibility in a manner that meets all standards of excellence for that task or responsibility, and (2) timeliness, which should be defined as completing a task or responsibility on or before the stated deadline for that task or responsibility.

It’s helpful, too, to be willing to experiment a little with technology and how meetings are conducted.

Adopt New Ways of Communicating

While most leaders/managers are aware that communication will be an obvious challenge with managing the virtual workplace, some challenges aren’t so obvious. Not only do you lose some of those hallway conversations, and quick in-office chats, but it goes deeper than that. When you don’t have enough face-to-face communication, it can become difficult to sense intent in messages between you and the person you are supervising. It’s harder to understand a message when it’s only text, or you don’t know the employee as well as other in-office employees.

When you first begin managing a virtual workforce, it will quickly become obvious that people have different preferences when it comes to communication. Some people prefer to be contacted by text, some by a phone call, some by email, some by instant messaging, and some prefer video conferencing even if it is a two-person meeting.

The most effective administrators will establish ways to effectively manage the communication styles of your entire team and create a structure that supports collaboration.

The most important things the manager of a virtual team can do is to establish clear expectations of team members which should begin with effectively communicating the team’s vision and mission. The manager’s focus should be on creating a shared purpose by engaging the team in answering the following questions: “What should be our contribution?”, “What are our objectives?”, “How are others depending on us as a team?” and “What are the key activities for successful performance as a team?”

In clarifying expectations, the manager should clearly define each team member’s role and responsibility, the specific tasks and outcomes to be accomplished and the standards by which performance will be measured.
It is also important that the manager establish clear check-in times for the team as a group and for one-on-one meeting between the manager and each team member.

Benefits of Having a Virtual Workforce

Considering hiring an employee and allowing them to work virtually could improve the pool of candidates when filling positions within your organization. For example, if you were interviewing for a Pre-Sentence Investigation Officer, an applicant with excellent interviewing and writing skills might be the best candidate for the position even though they did not live in your jurisdiction.

This would not be a totally new concept. Dr. Kelli Martin, who was employed by the Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, accepted a position as a researcher for the Taylor, Bexar, and Hidalgo County CSCDs, but continues to live in Tarrant County.

A few years ago, El Paso County CSCD allowed an employee whose husband was transferred to move with her husband without giving up her position. She did all the visits to the state facilities for the other officers who had State Jail caseloads, which mean the other officers did not have to travel from El Paso to the locations where the State Jails were, thus reducing the travel costs of state jail visits.

Allowing some employees to continue to work at home would also reduce the amount of office space needed by the department even if employees were allowed to work from home only part of the time. Schedules could be arranged to accommodate the sharing of offices.

Once we adjust to having a virtual workforce, we may find that, with the right technology and the right management and leadership techniques, having a virtual workforce is not significantly different from leading and managing employees located in satellite offices.

The question we should be asking is not “Should we consider adopting components of the virtual workforce environment?”, but “How can we capture the advantages the virtual workforce provides and still effectively fulfill the organization’s vision and mission?”

What is your answer to that question?

The Art of Delegation – Part 2

The Art of Delegation
Part 2

At the end of April’s column, “What Are Your Leadership Priorities,” I suggested:

When you finish reading this column, ask yourself, “what is required of me?” “what gives me the greatest return?” and “what brings the greatest reward?” Then make a list of the things you do that do not fit into one of those categories. Those are the things you need to delegate or eliminate.

In May’s column I pointed out: (1) “Anyone taking that advice needs to ensure that when they delegate, they do it effectively. There is a difference between delegating responsibilities and abdicating responsibilities. Delegation is when a leader assigns a personally held task, project or responsibility to someone else while maintaining accountability. Your responsibility is to see that the job is accomplished in a way that meets all standards for quality and in a timely fashion,” and (2) effective delegation involves a process that includes the following components:

• Preparation for delegation
• Assignment
• Confirmation of understanding
• Confirmation of commitment
• Ensuring accountability.

“Preparation for Delegation” was explored in last month’s column, and if you followed the suggestions in part one, you have selected the person to whom you are going to delegate the task for one of two reasons: (1) The person is the best qualified and can deliver the best results or (2) the person is the one who will most benefit from the learning experience that comes from doing the job. Now, it is time to make the assignment.

Assignment: For delegation to be successful, the employee to whom the task is assigned must be provided the “big picture.” The employee should be given enough information to see how what he/she will be doing contributes to the overall operation of the organization. When making the assignment, you should describe what success looks like so that the employee has a clear picture of what you want accomplished.

Delegation is most effective when we are delegating responsibility, not just work. You should focus on the results not the process. The effective delegator focuses on the result and allows the employee to exercise initiative and to develop the methodology for achieving the desired result.

When assigning the project, it is essential the employee has the necessary resources to successfully complete the task. Point him/her in the right direction if the work involves other people or resources are needed to get the job done.

Let the employee know that you are available for guidance and advice and point out any roadblocks they may encounter.

Establish the parameters, conditions and terms before you delegate and do not impose controls after you have delegated. Conditions must be stated up front.

Confirmation of understanding: Delegation should be accomplished through a dialogue and in an environment that is conducive to fully explaining the project with a minimum of disruptions. Encourage the employee to ask questions and offer suggestions. Instead of asking “do you understand?” which almost always receives a “yes” answer, ask questions such as “at this point, do you have any ideas about what you will do to accomplish the result we have discussed?” or “What resources do you think you will need to get this done?” This will enable you to see whether or not the employee has a clear picture of what you have asked him/her to do.

Confirmation of commitment: This is the part of the delegation process that most managers overlook. Instead of confirming the employee’s commitment, they often just assume that employees have accepted the assignment.

Runners know that the most important part of a relay race is the handing of the baton to the next runner and they spend a huge amount of time learning this skill. Just as in running, the delegation process cannot be successful unless the employee takes the assignment he/she has been handed and successfully carries it to the finish line.

It is the delegator’s responsibility to confirm that the employee to whom the task has been delegated is committed both to the expected results and to the process that has been set out (including the schedule, budget, and tools) and that their overall goals for the task are aligned with the goals of the organization.

Ensuring Accountability: Accountability is key to the process of delegation. Finding out at the completion date that an assignment hasn’t been completed or has been done unsatisfactorily is the nightmare scenario of delegating.

To ensure accountability, you should establish deadlines and check-in dates when making the assignment. Make sure the employee clearly understands the due date for completion of the assigned task. By also assigning check-in dates, you can be aware of the status of the project without hovering and micromanaging and can offer guidance and advice without interfering. Two-way communication is an essential ingredient of the delegation process if accountability is to be achieved.

Once you have delegated the task, it belongs to the employee. Do not let them delegate it back to you. If the employee comes to you for guidance and advice, listen without assuming responsibility for the problem. If the employee asks you what you think, turn the question around and ask the employee what he/she thinks or what he/she recommends. Help the employee solve the problem. Give the guidance needed without taking the project back. There is a difference between rescuing an employee and providing guidance and support.

One other piece of advice (which was not included in the original outline for this article but which you should consider in delegating) is that when the job is done, give full credit and recognition to the employee who did it. However, if the employee was unsuccessful, take the blunt of the blame yourself. Do not use the employee as a scapegoat. Ultimately, as the manager, the responsibility for getting the job done is yours. Use the failure as a learning experience so you can become more effective in the delegation process.

By becoming an effective delegator, you enable yourself to tap into the strengths of others, free you up to do the things you are required to do or can only be done by you, and you enable others to grow and expand their capabilities.

Happy Delegating.

Your Team Is Facing a Challenge: Do You Step Back or Step Up?

Your Team Is Facing a Challenge: Do You Step Back or Step Up?

Your Team Is Facing a Challenge: Do You Step Back or Step Up?

Being a part of the John Maxwell Team as a JMT certified independent coach, teacher and trainer, I have the opportunity to participate and interact with John a few times every month through his podcasts, webinars and blogs. 

In one of those recent interactions, he asked the question that is the title of this month’s Contemplation Corner – “your team is facing a challenge: do you step back or step up?” 

Before you read any farther, take the time to ask and answer that question for yourself.  As a leader, which do you do?

Now that you have asked and answered that question for yourself, let me ask you another question. “Did you do as I did?  Did you think, ‘Of course, I step up to the challenge?’”

As John pointed out to us, “We’ve all been there. There’s an obstacle at work and you think to yourself: ‘I really need to step up and perform.’ And while that attitude may have served you well as a member of a team, when you become a leader, that same attitude can become a defeating prospect. As a leader, sometimes it’s more important to step back than step up.”

With that statement, he now had my rapt attention! I was thinking “Step back? There is a challenge to be faced, a problem to be solved.  What do you mean step back?”

He then pointed out, “While this may seem like a paradigm shifting without a clutch, it actually makes perfect sense when you examine it further.”

If you are familiar with The John Maxwell Company’s Five Levels of Leadership, you will recall that when people become “Level 3” leaders, they drive productivity, but they don’t accomplish this simply through their own productivity.

As John pointed out to us, “It’s critical that a team’s productivity goes up as a result of the team’s efforts, not because their leader is simply working harder. And this only happens if a leader is willing to step back and focus on their leadership skills, instead of trying to do everything on their own. If a leader ‘steps up,’ it can mean that the team is unable to step up on their own and grow. Without the ability to produce on their own, the team can lose momentum, stagnate and underperform.”    

That raises the question “How does a leader step back to let the team step up?”

John says, “To be an effective leader, you must take all the productivity skills you have worked so hard to build up to that point and work to imprint those skills on your team. By stepping back and focusing on the productivity of others, you will help them to thrive on their own. That’s being a true leader.”

“To make a real difference, this effort must be intentional. You should track progress to see if there’s real improvement due to your leadership efforts. Ask yourself: Is the team relying on you or are they working to solve their own challenges? And don’t be afraid to let your team fail. Learning from failure is how you can create the right environment for their ultimate victories. Almost every great success comes on the other side of a roadblock that needed to be overcome.”

There is an old axiom that says “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same is true of leadership.  We may create positive results through our own efforts, but if we develop the leaders around us, those results can be multiplied exponentially.

Our most important job is the development of others; then step back and let them do what we have equipped them to do.

Are you willing to step back in order to move ahead?

How to Postpone Procrastination

How to Postpone Procrastination

How to Postpone Procrastination

For years I have jokingly told my friends, “I am writing a book on The Positive Use of Procrastination; but for some reason I keep putting it off.”

I guess one of my friends got tired of the joke and told me that I really should write something about dealing with procrastination and I am taking up his challenge.

As I began to examine the problem of procrastination, I learned two important things: (1) everyone procrastinates sometimes, but it is a much larger problem for some people than for others, and (2) people have been procrastinating for centuries. The problem is so old that ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle even wrote about it.

With that information in my mind and my fingers already on the keyboard I began to think, “Maybe I shouldn’t write this article after all.  Maybe I should put it off until I have done more research on the topic.” 

While my mind was telling me to procrastinate, I decided that I was not going to procrastinate while attempting to write an article on procrastination.

 

What is Procrastination?

As I was contemplating how to begin a column on procrastination, the words of one of my former college professors kept echoing in my ears – “operationally define your terms;” “operationally define your terms.”

In order to quiet the voice of my former professor, I decided to begin with defining exactly what procrastination is. Dic-tionary.com defines procrastination as “to put off until another day or time; to defer; to delay.”

As used in this month’s column, procrastination is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones to the point that it becomes counterproductive.

Effects of Procrastination

Letting ourselves put things off can have greater implications than may be obvious to us.  Procrastination not only causes personal stress and the guilt that comes with it but may include other consequences such as gaining a bad reputation with coworkers, family and friends.  It can also cause individuals to lose their ambition to succeed and keep them from accomplishing their dreams.  Procrastination can even be health threatening if we know we should see a doctor but keep putting it off.

Reasons for Procrastination

If procrastination is counterproductive, has all the negative impacts just described, and keeps a person from accomplishing the tasks he or she should do or wants to do, why do people procrastinate?

If you were to read the numerous articles written on the subject, each with its own list of the reasons people procrastinate, two things would quickly become obvious: (1) there is no single reason for procrastinating, and (2) some people are habitual procrastinators while other people’s procrastination is based upon the tasks itself.

Some of the most common reasons identified for procrastination are:

Lack of motivation,
Lack of skill,
Fear of failure,
Fear of Success,
Lack of Interest,
Sense of rebellion.
Regardless of what reasons drive us to procrastinate, if we are going to continue postponing things anyway, why not postpone procrastination.  That raises the question, “How do you postpone procrastination?”

Steps to postponing Procrastination

Begin the task – The first step to stop procrastination is to start the task. While we may not be motivated to accomplish the task, we should start anyway.   Making the first move is an evidence-backed strategy for beating procrastination.
Tim Pychyl, a psychologist and director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, says that his group tested this approach in a small study and “found that once students got started, they appraised a task as less difficult and less stressful, even more enjoyable than they had thought.”  He explains in an email, “They said things like ‘I don’t know why I put it off, because it’s not so bad’ and ‘I could have done a better job if I got started earlier.”

We often stop ourselves from starting because we think we are not ready yet.  We do not know enough yet, still have to do all kinds of things first, etc.; but is that really true?  What stops us is really our own attitude about the task.  When we think too much about something, it tends to become an incredible obstacle as all kinds of rationales for postponing the task pop into our heads.  We need to just quit thinking of reasons not to do whatever it is we are postponing and make the first move.  Often the next steps flow automatically from just doing. 

It’s easier to keep going with a task after you’ve overcome the initial hesitancy of starting it in the first place.  That’s because the tasks that induce procrastination are rarely as bad as we think. Getting started on something forces a subconscious reappraisal of that work and we find that the actual task is not as difficult or as boring or as threatening or whatever other reason we have for not doing it. 

That is what happened when I started this month’s column.   Once I started writing and wrote a few paragraphs, I began to get motivated to complete the task.

Set goals with deadlines – When you have a task to do, set a goal for its completion. As Tony Woodall stated, “A goal without a deadline is just a wish.”  It is easy to keep putting a task off if there is no deadline for its completion.

After waiting for some time to write this column, I decided one night that I would complete it before the end of the workday the following day.  I got up that day determined to do that and did it.

Remember the feeling of accomplishment – Think about how good you felt the last time you completed a task that you had been putting off for quite some time. Seize the opportunity to feel that way frequently by completing the tasks that you have been putting off. When you start the task use the feeling of completing a long-postponed task as the motivation for doing it again.
I feel really good about completing a column on the topic of procrastination.  It has been long overdue and it feels so good to have finally written it.  I am going to remember that feeling the next time I feel myself procrastinating on a task.

I have already decided that the next thing I am going to postpone is procrastinating on a task.