The Four Pillars: Maintaining High-Performing Teams When Working Remotely

With millions of workers now making the transition to working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining motivation and productivity can seem like a challenge. However, a better understanding of the four 'pillars' of agile teamwork can help to ease the struggle.

Practically overnight, workforces around the globe have shifted from on-site to remote working. This poses a number of issues for businesses, from ensuring technology is in place to enabling reliable access to required services and applications, maintaining productivity and business output, and providing remote workers the support they need. Successfully navigating this new normal requires agility and alignment – hallmarks of high-performing teams. Shelley Winter, global head of thought leadership and solution design at YSC Consulting, explains to CEO Today how these teams can continue to perform highly in their new environment.

Working apart and under strain can test the most high-performing teams as they must adapt to new virtual processes and interactions. It’s not simply a matter of working the same, but from home. For teams already struggling with relational or operational issues, virtual working can make a challenging situation more difficult. Research demonstrates that virtual working and geographic dispersion have an overall negative impact on team performance, the only exception being in teams which demonstrate strong dynamics.

For leaders already struggling with team effectiveness, this new situation can actually provide opportunities to improve interpersonal dynamics through virtual interactions. Our own research, which analysed data from 75 teams across industry sectors, revealed it matters more how people work together on a team than who is on the team. Therefore, any focus should be on the core dynamics and processes that support a team’s ability to align and adapt to their context.

There are four pillars for fast-tracking team agility: purpose, cohesion, exchange and clarity, which I’ll spend the remainder of this article detailing.

For teams already struggling with relational or operational issues, virtual working can make a challenging situation more difficult.


One of the key traits demonstrated by high-performing teams is an understanding that they’re working to achieve their shared strategic objectives rather than operate as successful individuals. When this shared purpose is lacking, leaders have no reason to align, and human nature dictates that they will focus their people on activities they each deem important instead of activities that support the better functioning of the team.

The COVID-19 crisis now provides an impetus for siloed teams to identify their shared ‘why.’ Executive leadership should take the opportunity to ask teams what they need from their collective leadership, and what clients and important stakeholders need in this new context. Communicating why it is necessary to lead together to get through the crisis and ensuring business continuation into the future creates a sense of urgency for better alignment. During a period of crisis, employees will look for signs that leadership has control, and where uncertainty exists, that they are in it together to find new solutions.


The challenges facing organisations currently will likely create doubts amongst the workforce and leaders, even in high -performing teams. The need for cohesion and shared belief is amplified during a crisis. Yet when under stress even the best of us can become transactional, sacrificing bonding for efficiency. The reality is that investing a small amount of time to connect personally builds a sense of support which offsets physical remoteness.

While time spent together should focus on aligning priorities and ensuring clarity of communication, create space at the beginning of virtual meetings to connect with and support each other. Ask how people are feeling and invite them to share what they need from each other to feel supported in their leadership right now.


One issue with virtual working is that it can be a blockade to transparency of work streams as leaders remotely work in parallel responding to different demands from respective people. In the current context, leaders should schedule regular one-to-one calls and to ensure energy and focus are channelled appropriately.

It’s important to be as transparent as possible without overloading people. Although frequency of communications increases, length should decrease. Leaders should link shifting priorities both to the changing context and to their team’s purpose, which maintains focus on what matters.


As stresses mount, it’s human nature for people to either attack or withdraw from the one that is causing this stress. While conflict always exists in teams, remote working makes it far easier to withdraw from conflict. Unresolved conflict breeds resentment and dysfunction within teams.

Leaders need to create a space where having robust and challenging conversations is encouraged, and where everyone has the opportunity to speak up. However, fostering the necessary atmosphere virtually is a challenge. Body language, and other subtle social cues picked up in a room with people are no longer at leaders’ disposal, so they should be more explicit with their words.

While conflict always exists in teams, remote working makes it far easier to withdraw from conflict. Unresolved conflict breeds resentment and dysfunction within teams.

It is important that CEOs react to surface conflict early with a mindset of curiosity. When using video conference technology, be sure to make the positive intent of your messages clear. Simply naming the tension in the conversation and seeking to understand it with a curious mind can ensure differences in opinion are worked through.

In this period of crisis, there will be a variety of issues vying for the attention of CEOs and leaders. Remote working can and will present challenges to team alignment and agility, but remembering and focusing on the four core means of accelerating team performance should be the cornerstone of navigating through these troubled times.

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