Virtual teams present different challenges and opportunities from those of an onsite team. Radical trust and good communication are crucial between managers and employees who don’t see each other in person with any regularity, and while it may sound daunting, hiring the right people—employees who are trustworthy and strong communicators—is the first step.
The best virtual employees will have a unique skill set that keeps them from disappearing into the ether, and their self-sufficiency allows managers to focus on creating an environment in which their virtual team will not only function, but thrive. “Virtual” commonly refers to working from home, though the term may also reference a “distributed” team, meaning a team whose members are distributed across several office locations. Either way, managing remotely is a skill that can be learned or further refined by considering what makes a successful virtual employee, learning how to foster good communication and engagement, and putting in place tools that promote efficiency and transparency.
Table of contents:
What is a virtual team?
“Virtual” commonly refers to working from home, though the term may also reference a “distributed” team, meaning a team whose members are distributed across several locations.
What are the benefits of having a virtual team?
There are some true upsides to a virtual team, whether you’re building one from scratch, have inherited a team that’s already distributed, or are moving a traditionally in-office team into the digisphere.
- More comprehensive and timely support for customers.
For support teams offering 24/7/365 Tier 1 support, for example, it can be a boon to have someone actively working in the time zone that needs the relevant coverage. Sure, managers might need to schedule late night or early morning calls with remote employees around the globe, but the team will be less fatigued and can perform at their peak when interacting with customers.
- Increased flexibility and quality of life.
Flexibility can go both ways. Allowing remote employees the flexibility to manage or make their own hours, or work off-hours, also means that you can have additional coverage. Removing a commute can sometimes add hours back to the day and may allow employees to tend to their families and lives, whether that’s picking up a child from school, eating dinner together as a family, or making it to the gym. Many people welcome odd hours in exchange for flexibility.
What are the challenges of having a virtual team?
Just as they present opportunities, virtual teams also present some challenges.
- People get lonely.
Some workers thrive in remote scenarios. Others live for the social hum of the office. And everyone gets lonely sometimes. Camaraderie and a sense of community are key elements of every healthy team. Managers can schedule additional team meetings over video conferencing and encourage the team to talk to each other and “gather” in collaborative tools. Human contact is part of your ecosystem. At the same time…
- People get distracted and struggle with time management.
Sure, this happens in the office too, which is one reason some people prefer working remotely. But dishes, gaming systems, and the laundry are a whole different set of challenges. Twitter has long been raging over whether remote workers should get dressed like they’re going to the office or embrace working in PJs. But these are personal choices. What’s key is to separate work tasks from household or social tasks—and to communicate and encourage this with employees.
- Communication can become more challenging.
The inner keyboard warrior can roar to life when we’re alone too much. Rule of thumb for managers and everyone else: Assume good intentions. Assume colleagues are doing their best, just as you are. Hop on a call or a video conference if email or Slack are getting thorny. Encourage employees to reach out for guidance or even just to vent. Have the team err on the side of checking in more often, to stay in touch and keep everyone in the loop. Even when employees feel a little isolated, the reality of a virtual team is that everyone’s in it together.
Radical trust and good communication are crucial between managers and employees who don’t see each other with any regularity. Encourage communication, engagement, and self-sufficiency. Fostering these traits will help managers focus on creating an environment in which the team will not only function, but thrive.
Hiring and training a virtual support team
Setting up a virtual support team starts with hiring and onboarding. The good news is that support agents are often a good fit for remote work as many tools are cloud-based and require as little as a laptop and headphones. Agents also often do a lot of collaborating within tools and need focused work time. Just keep in mind that if you are transitioning from an in-office to a remote work model, your agents might need additional training to get them up to speed on processes, tools and best practices for remote teams. More on that below.
While it might be daunting to imagine expanding your candidate pool to, well, pretty much anyone, many of the hiring practices are the same. The best candidates are still likely to be sourced through networking and recruiting, and hired through a series of phone screenings, virtual interviews, and in-person meetings (if circumstances allow).
When evaluating candidates for a virtual support role, consider the following qualities that are likely to help someone thrive in a remote work environment:
- Must be a great self-manager
- Must be a good communicator—both written and verbal
- Must proactively reach out for help
- Must have integrity
- Must be able to work independently
- Must thrive under a low-touch, high flexibility management style
- Must be okay without a regular, social environment in the workplace
These qualities aren’t always easy to identify, so take advantage of phone calls and video interviews during the hiring process to test how candidates perform in a virtual setting. For example, if there were any scheduling conflicts, did the candidate respond proactively with other times they’d be available? Or, if they didn’t understand a question, did they probe for more information before answering? These are cues that can help you identify whether someone is suited to remote work.
When in doubt, don’t overthink it. Self-starters who can manage their time and balance competing priorities tend to make good employees, whether the position is onsite or remote.
The importance of onboarding and training
Regardless of location, every employee deserves to have thorough onboarding. To set remote workers up for success, you’ll need to provide the same resources on-site employees receive, plus additional support to make them feel welcome and valued.
Ideally, you’ll have a digital repository of written or video onboarding resources, which could including things like:
- High-level review of company culture and processes
- Introductions to teams and key stakeholders within the company
- Explanation of product/service offerings and positioning
- In-depth training specific to their department and role
- Hardware and software tools (including appropriate training on how to use them)
Onboarding new employees in person can be beneficial but isn’t always practical. When onboarding and training employees virtually, encourage the use of tools that allow screen-sharing and encourage video conferencing whenever possible. Seeing people’s faces helps establish personal connections, which is critical in the absence of those natural “water cooler” moments you’d have in a shared physical space. The same is true for employees who are transitioning to a remote environment—give them the tools and training they need to still feel connected to the group. Ideally, implement a centralized knowledge base that everyone can access and add to.
Whether someone is new or simply new to working remotely, they’ll likely have a lot of questions. Implementing a virtual “open door” policy can help them feel comfortable asking for help. Express to your employees that everyone should feel empowered to reach out via email, phone, video or your company’s messaging platform (Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.) if they have questions. Communication should happen early, often, and without hesitation. Just note that whether there are multiple tools and communication mechanisms in place, employees should know where to look first for any urgent communications.
Tips for managing a virtual team
Maintaining a sense of accountability across the board
Working from home requires employees to manage their own time, be self-motivated, disciplined, and organized. This can be a shift for some who are used to a more regimented schedule with lots of face-to-face interaction. Asynchronous communication will now serve as the primary way of communicating and this can be a difficult transition, especially for managers. Simply put, this means not expecting your employees to answer immediately. Focus on the work deliverables as a performance measure.
Some specific strategies include:
- Setting specific boundaries on working hours by establishing a set meeting cadence such as a morning daily standup or end of day checkpoint.
- Determine who will be responsible for maintaining tools and what the policy is if something goes down while the person who “owns” the tool is offline.
- What does the support schedule look like? With a virtual/distributed team, do you need an on-call schedule?
It can be easy to assume that virtual teams will struggle with productivity—without a manager looking over their shoulders, won’t employees be distracted by the Internet, video games, and the temptation to take a long afternoon nap? While some team members might succumb to those distractions, most want to stay on-task. And with some forethought, managers can help their virtual teams do just that.
Adopt a scrum-style daily standup meeting: This is a short video call in which each employee states what he or she is working on, pain points, and so on. Besides giving managers a sense of what everyone is working on, the meeting itself can instill a sense of accountability, since tomorrow’s meeting will cover whether or not today’s tasks were completed. Meanwhile, be sure to establish one-on-one meetings so you can do a deep dive into what each worker has on his or her plate, which also serves as an opportunity to discuss more sensitive topics and do some coaching.
Set boundaries: This is vital; virtual teams often face after-hours emails and calls when they should be off the clock. This is a life/work balance issue that, if ignored, will lead to burnout and lower productivity. Also, take a look at how many meetings remote workers have to attend—just like their onsite coworkers, unnecessary meetings can sap productivity.
However, it’s important that remote employees understand that it’s their responsibility to stay engaged and productive. Being self-motivated, disciplined, and organized comes from within, and good practices can help employees keep distractions at bay. That can include taking breaks at specified times, setting up a work area away from things like TVs, and even dressing up as if you were going into a physical office.
If your team has recently transitioned from on-site to virtual work, don’t panic when your reporting tools indicate that productivity has dipped. This is normal as teams adjust to the new work environment—but keep an eye on the analytics to see whether productivity returns to previous levels or if the decline continues.
Collaboration is ubiquitous to any healthy work environment, but it can be tough to collaborate remotely. The chances are that virtual team members may never meet, and even if they do that won’t ensure that future collaboration between them will be smooth and efficient. The good news is that there are tools and processes managers can put in place to foster successful collaboration between team members.
For starters, you’ll want to consider what forms of collaboration work best for your team. Here are some questions that will help:
- What combination of email, phone, and/or video conferencing is most effective?
- What tools should the team use? Consider Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, and Zoom.
- What other collaborative resources are available? Or, is there an app for that? Perhaps there’s a team Slack channel, or a shared Trello board to track projects.
Once you choose the right tools to help your team collaborate, you’ll want to determine how often each employee should interact with other team members and set up recurring meetings (virtual dates) to follow through with that goal. Use meeting times to check in with each other and collaborate on work projects. This can be as a one-to-one interaction or with multiple team members; whichever achieves the better collaboration goals you have.
Remember, most remote employees will be working from different time zones. Schedule meetings that are convenient for all participants and that fall within normal working hours. Of course that’s not always possible—especially if the team is located across the globe. In that case, rotate the recurring meeting so that everyone makes a little sacrifice now and then and takes a meeting at 6am, if needed. An excellent tool for planning meetings in multiple time zones is the World Clock Meeting Planner at timeanddate.com.
Fostering great communication
The best thing a manager can do, outside of making employees feel appreciated, is to foster great communication. Managers should communicate as frequently and proactively as they expect their team to. Make an effort to connect as much as possible, be proactive about sharing status on work projects, stick to those recurring check-in meetings, and record meetings as needed for future reference.
For starters, managers will need to adjust to relying more on writing as a form of communication. This means that we often lose tone, nuance, and non-verbal cues as mediums to express ideas. As such, it’s important to be empathetic and assume positive intent to avoid potential misunderstandings.
Recognize that, for some, remote work is a transition. Put yourself in their shoes and be patient. Managers will want to use empathy-building questions to better understand each employee’s different communication styles. Ask your colleague questions about themselves; how they’re doing, what they’re working on, and so on. More than anything, effective communication is making an effort to understand who your colleagues are as people.
Motivating employees to thrive creatively amid uncertainty
Motivation will drive a lot of decision-making, which involves motivating employees to not only continue the good work they’ve been doing, but to thrive creatively amid uncertainty, whether that’s uncertainty at large or just feeling disconnected from decision-makers. Here are some ideas you can put into practice:
- Award comp time.
While remote employees may be great at managing their workload, they will still appreciate being recognized for times when they’ve gone above and beyond or have worked extra-long hours.
- Surprise individuals who are doing a good job with a gift card delivered to their email inbox.
Promote and support attendance at virtual training events; where in-person versions of continuous learning opportunities can encourage them to think differently and approach problems in new ways, virtual ones can do the same.
- Focus on relationships.
While you won’t have the water cooler anymore, you can still foster great relationships with your employees, you just need to be more intentional about it. Host a regular team or organization happy hour virtually, have coffee with someone virtually, or create new “water cooler” opportunities for connecting socially with your team.
Prioritizing job satisfaction
Humans are, by our very nature, social animals. We’re drawn to each other, driven by a need to collaborate, communicate, and commiserate. For remote workers, those imperatives can be difficult to satisfy, which can have a disastrous effect on morale and job satisfaction. So what can a manager of a virtual team do to overcome this?
First, think about one-to-one interactions. Be sure to reach out to your team members frequently—once a day if you can manage it—and let them know you’re available. That said, don’t make it just about the work; if the only time you communicate is to ask about the status of a project, you’re missing an opportunity to connect on an emotional level. Remember, unlike on-site teams, you can’t just tap an employee on the shoulder and invite them for a casual lunch or a cup of coffee.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have that coffee time with your virtual employees—the very technology that makes remote work possible can bridge the physical divide. Get creative about setting up regular video calls, and how to best use that time to combat isolation and foster stronger bonds between team members.
Similarly, take advantage of collaboration tools like Slack to encourage connection. For example, remote collaboration tools can randomly pair employees from different teams for a conversation, which can help your virtual employees feel more connected to the company at large.
However, all the technology in the world won’t overcome the challenges of managing a virtual team. It’s also important to sometimes bring everyone together, into the office, for periodic team-building events or offsites. Try to schedule quarterly working or planning sessions with fun social activities, whether that’s a trip to the local axe-throwing venue or a how-to pottery class. These opportunities for socialization and bonding will help keep your virtual teams feeling happy and motivated.
Make your team the gold standard
As with any team dynamic, remote managers and employees must actively work on fostering open communication, including both praise and constructive feedback, and on building trust. If managers can place the emphasis on performance and delivery, and look for opportunities to coach and fill gaps in training, a virtual team has the potential to run like a well-oiled machine.
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