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Leading a virtual team: mental wellbeing for virtual teams

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and here in the UK restrictions are lifting and things are getting a lit bit easier and from next week, the slow return to offices and campuses is entering a new phase. Whilst the weather is still a bit mixed we are slowly moving into a brighter time of year. In this month’s post, we are checking in with mental wellbeing for virtual teams.

We are NOT going back

Over the past year, many of the organisations and individuals we work with have mostly been working remotely, deserting their usual busy workplaces, sometimes willingly and sometimes with regret. Now we are seeing the reversal of this shift and whilst it’s not happening as suddenly or as completely as the ‘great pivot online’, it is happening.

There are a lot of interesting discussions just now about how to return: some employers are conducting pilots and research, others have already consulted staff and taken their decisions… and other again are hoping to return to the routines they knew before March 2020. A great deal depends on context and the culture of the organisation, but it is fair to say that we expect more blended, flexible and all together online working arrangements to be one result of this pandemic.

In our case, we moved online a few years ago and the strategic reasons for our move continue to be valid, more so now than before. Hence, for the second time in as many years, we avoid the practical upheaval that comes with shifting work around. Like many others, we worked from home when all this started, and we will still be working from home when… when the pandemic has loosened its grip.

Mental wellbeing is still at risk

I don’t underestimate how much we gain from being a distributed organisation in terms of strategy, operations and resilience. The gains are huge, especially for a team of 6 working for an independent charity. We made the right choices a few years ago and over the past year, especially last year, that has made a big difference to our organisation and us as a team.

So whilst we don’t have yet another workplace transition coming up, the last year has still put a huge train on everyone’s mental health and wellbeing. Even with some experience and a good home-working set up, working through pandemic times has been extremely challenging and I am mindful that now there are a whole new set of worries to take into considerations as family life, schooling, social activities and work are all changing again.

This Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing Checklist is a good starting point for any workplace to monitor the progress of their mental health support for staff. Although I am aware of what we do, I still found it helpful to complete the checklist and to reflect on how we meet our duty of care, how to communicate what we do to staff and what I personally can do to help in my capacity as CEO.

I am glad to say that we are already actively doing things across the board that the checklist suggests, which I felt was reassuring. Effectively managing staff’s mental health and wellbeing concerns is, I find, quite hard when you never see each other face to face. It’s definitely possible, but depending on the individual, it may take some ingenuity to find ways to achieve the best outcomes, and plenty of busy managers will probably give up well before then.

Mental Health tips for virtual teams

Over the past few years, we found ways that works for us:

  • Create time and space to talk: For many people working from home seems to be a never ending marathon of back to back meetings in Teams or Zoom. That’s a tough context in which to create time or space to talk about mental health. I’ve often blogged before about different ways of working, around a document, whilst walking, offering time to reflect and write together… and you really need to find pockets of time and space that suit your team(s) in order to get meaningful conversations.
    In addition to our weekly group meet ups, we have one to one catch ups and we don’t schedule meetings back to back for the whole week. We have informal and formal spaces which are always there, for meet ups, chat and conversations.
  • Read the signals: For some, what works for everyone else isn’t a good fit. That applies to in person management just the same, but I feel working virtually increases the danger of missing obvious signals. If you have just come from one meeting and the other person has done something different, it’s easy to talk at cross purposes. So if you are talking about personal stuff, asking about wellbeing or mental health, you need to be prepared to look out for subtle signals, including tone of voice or chat, body language and even emoji.
    We don’t record our informal chats, so that there is a space in which to chat that is safe and personal. We can use that space to talk about things that may be difficult to talk about in more formal settings.
    We also don’t have to have catch ups in the same format each week. Sometimes we go for a walk. Sometimes we have phone calls. Sometimes we have cameras off. We don’t always feel the same, so our working practice isn’t always the same either.
  • Talk about mental health: in our small team, we check in on how we are doing every week, we have social times set aside, we talk about it with our HR professionals, at appraisals, and we have organised coaching, therapy and other support.
    Our Team Days are a big part of the way in which we touch base with each other. They give us time and space for personal conversations, to talk about our wellbeing and life outside of work. One of those days is coming up later this month and I am really, really looking forward to hanging out with my colleagues.
    Yes, it will be virtual team day, but it’s not all online, ‘real’ things will be shipped by post for use on the day and this year we even have a guest coming along to help us create what has become a bit of a tradition in our team: an alternative team portrait. It’s a great way to talk about how we are as a team, what working remotely feels like and how we feel about where we are at.

All previous Virtual Team blog posts and podcasts are available here.