TUM Knowledge Base: Scientifically-Based Recommendations for (Virtual) Teams and their Leaders

As the corona virus forces millions to work remotely, particular challenges arise for teams to work together efficiently and their leaders to lead their teams from a distance. Dr. Kristin Knipfer, Habilitation Candidate at the Chair of Research and Science, and Head of the TUM Research Lab Leadership | Learning | Innovation has addressed the need for evidence-based advice and put together a broad collection of scientifically-based websites, webinars, and handouts. In an interview with us, she discusses how teams can deal with the challenges they are currently facing, how they can emerge from this crisis even stronger than before, and how team leaders can make all the difference.


Dr. Knipfer, what hurdles has the current situation around COVID-19 created for teams?

Many teams are currently experiencing a break down in their work routine as a result of the corona crisis. They are urged to adapt to completely new, mainly virtual, ways of teamwork. Instead of the usual face-to-face meetings, teams now meet primarily online in video conferences. Team members seldomly receive feedback from others but must actively seek out for it. Informal exchange no longer takes place at the coffee machine but are now scheduled as a “formal” meeting. Team members may be absent due to illness or are not performing at their usual level. Still, most teams are under pressure to continue to perform in a very uncertain situation. The corona crisis really represents a very special challenge and burden for teams in organizations in many respects.

How can teams continue to work together efficiently despite these manifold challenges?

During the last few years, team research has been increasingly concerned with the question of how teams deal with stress and strains and what helps them overcome crises – and possibly emerge from them even stronger. ‘Team resilience’ is the capacity to overcome situations that endanger team cohesion, team cooperation or team performance and to quickly function again as a team. Resilient teams identify and attend to potential threats to their teamwork and turn to solutions early on. They support each other in order to successfully overcome the situation. They realize, for example, when a peer needs support and stand in for each other. Right now, team resilience is more important than ever!

How can team resilience be strengthened?

My research shows that, even under routine conditions, teams are more successful if they regularly take the time to reflect on how they work together and what they want to achieve as a team and, if necessary, they are flexible enough to adjust their goals and strategies. This ‘team reflection’ is even more important in the current situation that is characterized by improvisation and experimentation. However, research shows that virtual team meetings are very task- and action-oriented. Team reflection rarely ever happens – at least not automatically. Therefore, my advice to teams is the following: Take the time to discuss current challenges and how to deal with them on a regular basis.

How could such a ‘team reflection session’ be set up?

I would definitely schedule a dedicated team meeting for it and allow at least one hour. A (neutral) moderator helps to avoid whining spirals and to have a constructive conversation. The following guiding questions can structure the discussion:

– Which concrete challenges are we facing at the moment? Which challenges are still to come?

– How do we, as a team, deal with the situation? How can we deal with the situation even better? What does each team member need right now?

– What do we plan to do in concrete terms? When and how can we determine whether the measures taken are successful? 

The last step is often neglected, so make sure that your team comes up with concrete lessons learned!

And when we return to (new) ‘normality’, a structured after-Corona review can help teams build team resilience, too: How well did we, as a team, deal with challenges? How can we deal with future challenges (even) better?

What role does the team leader play?

A very crucial one, of course! Transparent communication is particularly important when the situation is unclear – and this uncertainty should be explicitly expressed by the team leader. To be a role model, team leaders should share their own challenges and struggles with their team. They must take warning signs from the team seriously and should actively encourage their team members to voice concerns and problems and not ‘bury their heads in the sand’. Leadership from a distance always requires mutual trust: Hence, as a leader, do not burden your team with extra strict rules but build on your team’s self-responsibility, for example, with regards to working hours.

What I found particularly striking was the recent finding that in the Corona crisis, leadership that focuses primarily on clear objectives and initiating structure seems to be less effective than leadership that focuses on individual appreciation of each team member and their needs. Therefore, my advice to leaders is to show your understanding that your team will – temporarily –not perform up to its usual level of productivity or efficiency. Express your appreciation for every effort of your team members to continue to work well together in this critical situation. And finally, show confidence and trust in your team!

Where can teams and their leaders find more evidence-based advice?

I have compiled some concrete tips and hints for teams and their leaders as well as a broad collection of scientifically-based websites, webinars and handouts in the TUM Knowledge Base Führung und Teamarbeit on our website (Chair of Research and Science, Prof. Dr. Claudia Peus).

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