managing virtual teams

Leadership tips for managing virtual teams

More and more leaders are managing virtual teams – a reality many of you have just been thrown into it in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to “flatten the curve” of the outbreak.

Technology has made telecommuting a norm, and several leaders I know manage folks who work remotely all the time. At Padraig, our talented team is geographically dispersed across four time zones. Even if you’re new to this and feeling overwhelmed, it can work really well. 

Stats show that well before COVID-19 was a concern, more than 40 percent of North American employees work from home at least part of the time and that number has continued to grow steadily. 

Even before Covid-19, there were many benefits to telecommuting, including:

  • Recruitment: It’s possible to hire the best and brightest talent from anywhere in the world to work on your team. 
  • Work-personal life balance: Flexible work arrangements attract team members who need to care for children or aging parents and to many others for a variety of reasons. More than 50 percent of employees look for opportunities to use their time more efficiently.
  • It’s a key perk: According to a recent survey by Gallup, over 60 percent of millennials were already seeking out workplaces that offered flextime. (It’s also a draw for Gen Xers and other generations!) 
  • Retention: Workplace surveys show that the majority of people said being able to work from home is a bigger draw than a raise.
  • Productivity: A study by Stanford University showed that people who work remotely are far more productive than their in-office counterparts, producing results that were equal to an extra full day of work per week.
  • Health and wellness: Researchers also found that telecommuters don’t burn out as often as those who work onsite. They’re also not sharing germs!

Well, those last two points may not apply immediately in our current situation with COVID-19, the skills we learn now as remote leaders will serve us well.

The biggest challenge for us, as leaders, is to make sure that we are successfully managing virtual teams. But how do you motivate and connect with staff you don’t see in person?

There are several strategies that can help you with the unique challenge of managing virtual teams:

Find ways to make sure remote team members feel connected and included.    If you still have some staff onsite, communicate with and consult remote workers any time that you’re consulting with those onsite — make it part of the culture. (Benefit: hive mind!) It’s easy for telecommuters to feel isolated, but if you make a point of including them via videoconference or teleconference then others will follow your lead.

Be available. You don’t have the option to stop and chat with virtual team members in the hallway, so build in some times to connect in other ways. Establish regular check-in times because one-to-one meetings build a solid culture of engaged employees. Ask for feedback and how you’re doing to support them as remote team members. What works and what could you improve? What do they need from you and the organization?

Be responsive. It’s very easy for remote workers to feel isolated, so make an effort to answer queries from remote workers promptly. This way they won’t feel that being out of the office is a hurdle to them being heard, valued and “seen.” Right now, in these uncertain times, your team members need to be reassured and feel that they’re kept in the loop.

Get to know your remote workers as individuals. Not only do you build stronger teams by building relationships, but effective employee recognition considers the individual. You’ll get a sense of how team members work over time (sort of 24/7 or late at night or early in the morning). Figure out when their “office hours” intersect with your own and who would like to own or lead a collaborative project.      

Use technology to span the distance. When you have a meeting, turn that camera on! Where tone can be misinterpreted by email or text, a video call helps to give context to your discussion. It’s also much more humanizing to see someone’s face on Skype, Google Hangouts or Zoom (or whatever platform you choose!). It’s the next best thing to being together in person. If it’s a group meeting, start with icebreakers or a round-table check-in for team building. Something to discuss? Share screens and chat about it because it’s much easier to work through misunderstandings or objectives this way than by emailing back and forth. And, check-in frequently with the remote staff during the meeting. It isn’t always easy to jump in or interrupt when you’re the one forgotten participant online. If you work in a large company or for the government, you probably already have this technology available. If you’re a smaller organization like we are, you can Google many options. We use Zoom, while we know others who use GoToMeeting or AnyMeeting. 

Have a regular video teleconference where everyone on the team dials in. This way, there’s no us-versus-them feeling of the remote workers and the onsite folks. With folks working from home perhaps suggest they stop in the kitchen for a mug of coffee or tea and a snack for the meeting. Start with an icebreaker that encourages people to share how they’re doing– maybe even sharing a photo from outside of work and saying a few words about it. 

Communicate openly and precisely. When you’re talking about your expectations, don’t be vague with remote workers. They’re not in person with you to read your facial expressions, watch you interact with their peers or see how you handle clients. Be very clear about what you expect them to produce, from quality to precise guidelines to dates and times for deadlines. Consider things like when or if you want a progress report and if you have an expectation for someone to reply to a call or an email within one working day. (Also, did you miss our last blog? We offered tips on how to reassure your team in uncertain times.)

Consider using a project management system and collaboration tools that keep everyone on the same page. We use Asana at Padraig and some clients use Trello boards to manage deadlines, projects, and day-to-day work. Whatever you choose, using an online project management system helps to keep everyone informed about the various parts of the process and on task. Document sharing saves the back and forth on emails and helps to ensure everyone is working from the same draft. Model friendly, cordial interactions online so that people remember they’re dealing with team members and treat them similar to how they would face-to-face. (Hey, Greg, could you pass this to Anna to proofread when you’re finished? Thanks!)

Create a shared calendar. Encourage folks to include personal milestones to the shared calendar as well as work-related deadlines and events. This way, people feel more connected and get to know each other outside of the office. (Happy 50th, Anya! How are your kids handling social distancing, Sanjay?))

Remember remote workers need to feel valued and appreciated, too. Just because they’re out of sight, don’t forget to show how you appreciate and recognize the contributions of your telecommuting team members (and there is a difference between recognition and appreciation!). As you get to know your remote workers as individuals, you’ll get a sense of how they like to be recognized (quietly in a private way or in a bigger way in front of the team). When someone isn’t in the office regularly, sending a parcel with a handwritten card and some company swag might make them feel less disconnected from everyone else. 

Watch that your remote workers don’t burn out. Sometimes team members who work remotely feel they must be available at all times. Encourage them to set healthy boundaries for when they are available by phone or text — and when they’re not — and your support will influence the interactions with their peers. Trust that your remote team members will get the job done and everyone will feel reassured your focus is on goals and not activity. 

Once we’re through the other side of the pandemic, try for a face-to-face meeting periodically. In the future, when you are travelling and can arrange to meet somewhere, take them for a coffee or lunch. Host a regional meeting and bring people together, or fly everyone somewhere for a team meet up if you can afford it. You could plan to have a client event and bring your remote team members out for it – getting the most value for marketing and team building.

Coach’s Questions

Have you ever considered the differences in managing virtual teams and onsite workers? What are you going to change this week? What other strategies can you incorporate to embrace and manage remote workers? If you’re not set up yet for remote workers, which strategies would work best for you as you move into this realm?