By Stephen Kearney

Virtual teams are increasingly common, particularly for knowledge work, and can enable access to team members with a broader range of skills or allow people to work from home. Virtual teams bring a range of challenges, and wellbeing is an often overlooked one. Oftentimes, wellbeing is one of the reasons the team member is virtual, such as when they want to work from home to support family commitments. However, virtual teams can have an unanticipated impact on wellbeing.

There are two reasons why wellbeing needs to be a deliberate consideration when leading virtual teams:

  • Much of the information that might normally inform a leader’s impression of wellbeing is not as available.
  • Virtual teams can also impact on some of the protective or preventative factors we know support wellbeing.

There are also aspects of virtual teams that impact on wellbeing:

  • Distance from the social connection of the workplace can be hard.
  • Isolation from other team members can lead people to feel like they are the only ones who are struggling.
  • There can be a sense of disconnection from the workplace and changes/events therein. In some respects, this can be helpful and protective; however, it can contribute to a sense of being ambushed by changes.

As a leader, what can you do to be proactive and harness some of the benefits of virtual working whilst minimising the downsides?

Make wellbeing a part of the set-up, and collaborate on designing a wellbeing plan at the outset. Be explicit and transparent about your concerns about the impact of virtual teams on wellbeing, and design a proactive plan together. Everyone’s personal situation and role will be different, but it can be useful to say something akin to, “We are about to head into a stressful and demanding period, and it’s great to have you on the team for it. I am aware that you (as a virtual team member) may not have some of the supports that other members of the team have, so I’d like to figure out what we might do to proactively promote your wellbeing, and ensure we identify and address any issues early?”

Establish review and response plans. Set in place a regular rhythm where you review both the virtual arrangements and wellbeing. Maintain this rhythm during times when the workload is less, so you have a baseline against which to notice changes and the chance to make corrections early.

Small and often. Human beings are evolved to have regular interactions with the rest of our tribe, and the desire to connect with others and synchronise our perspective is built into our DNA. Regularly checking in with your team members, and having small and frequent conversations, allow this opportunity. This is particularly so when the individual is under pressure, because the human mind under stress finds it easy to fill an information vacuum with the worst-case scenario.

Push info. As a leader, particularly when you are busy, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of only passing information out when you have concrete news or something you consider is worthwhile to discuss. Might your virtual – and other – team members benefit from knowing more?

Connect them with other members of the team. Where possible, build regular interactions with other members of the team, so they have a broader network of connections than just you, and some without the power differential.

Slow down and centre yourself before your interactions. There is ample evidence that busyness and a sense of urgency impair our ability to connect with others (see the Good Samaritan Study for an example). Deliberately setting aside a minute or two before a virtual conversation to centre yourself, close your email, clear your desk and gather your thoughts will create space for you to consciously and unconsciously notice how your team member is going.

Reflect after your conversations, and trust your gut. Human beings are hardwired to empathise with the emotions of others, particularly if we centre ourselves and gather our awareness beforehand. If you have a phone call with someone and feel flat or out of sorts afterward, query whether that might be something you picked up from them.

Build wellbeing check-ins into your team rhythm. Make the wellbeing conversations part of both one-on-one and team shared processes (i.e. shared meetings, reflection phases, and offsites). This creates a chance for you to build a baseline so you might notice changes early, and also for people to raise issues. This might look like a conversation around a shared wellbeing framework, sharing individual wellbeing stories or tips, or setting individual wellbeing goals. It’s important that these moments are part of shared team events as well, as it’s sharing this kind of information, and the associated candour and vulnerability, that build connection and trust.

Check in on their engagement in their work. Having work that is intrinsically appealing and rewarding is fundamental to sustained wellbeing, all the more so if social connection is less. Sometimes the constraints associated with being virtual team members mean that they get less pivotal work than centralised members of the team. Checking in on engagement in work, what pieces of work they are enjoying, what they are not, helps pre-empt and correct early on.

All in all, the things that enable virtual team wellbeing are the same as those with any other team, however the distance can make it easy to forget to do these things, particularly when workload and tempo are high. Taking the time to slow down, reflect on oneself and others, and be deliberate will make the most difference.