“New technologies are enabling workplace innovations such as remote working, co-working spaces and teleconferencing. Organizations are likely to have an ever-smaller pool of core full-time employees for fixed functions, backed up by colleagues in other countries and external consultants and contractors for specific projects.”
– The Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum, 2016
In 2016, the WEF gave company executives a sneak peak at what the future held in a five-year outlook, and the prominence of virtual teams was, well, prominent. And they weren’t wrong.
Odds are your organization already works virtually, at least a little. Whether it’s co-located colleagues working at just 90 feet away from one another (that’s all it takes), permanent employees working from home, consultants working halfway around the world, or even freelancers hired online, nearly everyone has experienced a virtual working environment at least once.
In its report, the WEF also listed the top 10 skills companies will value most in employees by 2020 – though not from the point of view of virtual teams. In this blog series, we’ll do just that, one skill at a time. In this entry we’re looking at skill #2: Critical Thinking.
Critical thinking in virtual teams
Thinking critically is all about stepping back to examine all aspects of a situation – particularly new challenges or obstacles. There are many resources for developing critical thinking skills, often talking about the importance of “clarifying the question.”
Clarifying the question means getting everyone on the same page, ensuring they understand the objective and how their expertise can contribute to achieving it. Otherwise, you wind up with a bunch of smart people working at cross-purposes as they focus only on their own narrow piece of the puzzle.
Unfortunately for virtual workers, hyper-focusing on your narrow piece is all too easy. Working on your own naturally increases feelings of isolation and slows the development of trust, making it harder to bring the big-picture thinking required to solve problems that impact everyone.
But with the right tools and strategies, virtual workers can clarify the question just as well as their co-located peers.
Develop critical thinking in virtual teams
Raise your hand if this is familiar: you walk away from a “successful” team meeting, only to discover later on that nobody agrees on what was discussed. This is a common enough challenge when clarifying the question, and one that can get exaggerated in virtual teams. See how Lunch & Learn training sessions can help your team.
Fortunately, by using the right communication strategies and collaboration tools, virtual teams can effectively get everybody on the same page:
Use a virtual whiteboard
Most web conferencing applications include a virtual white board for participants to jot down shared notes about the problem they are trying to solve. These notes give the facilitator and team see what people are thinking and ensure that everyone is discussing the same topic in the same way.
Managers can also invite their staff to submit ideas in advance to pre-populate the whiteboard so everyone in the meeting hits the ground running.
Use polls to challenge ideas and avoid groupthink
Playing devil’s advocate to challenge assumptions and spark new ideas is essential to critical thinking. However, remote workers often wary about being judged for breaking the flow of the conversation and will keep quiet, even if they have a valuable disagreement.
Web polls are a great workaround, automatically pausing the conversation and making it feel safer for virtual staff to share their thoughts.
Pause and summarize
Once everyone seems ready to move on from an agenda item, even after conducting a poll, it’s crucial to pause and summarize your conversation. Doing this is one final check that everyone is on the same page, helping make up for not having visual cues like facial expression and body language to guide your interpretation of what everyone is thinking and feeling.
Thinking critically about virtual teams
With the right communication strategies in place, there’s no stopping virtual teams from realizing all of the cost savings and efficiencies they promise – especially when they’re equipped to take a step back, work together, and think critically about their challenges and objectives.
Future-proof your virtual teams with lunch & learn training sessions