Since remote work is becoming more common, it’s important for companies to be getting virtual teams right. Whether you are managing a few contractors or leading virtual teams around the world, being dispersed causes workplace challenges. Ask yourself:
- How do you ensure everyone working remotely is on the same page?
- How do you instill a sense of virtual community?
- How do you increase the retention rate of virtual workers?
These questions are critical to resolve both on the employer’s and employee’s sides. Here are 10 tips for getting virtual teams right.
1. Create Structure Immediately
When employees are dispersed around the world, one thing they lack from working in a physical space together is structure. To be fair, corporate environments aren’t always the most productive either, but seeing other co-workers performing tasks day-to-day can be motivating.
As an employer, it’s important to establish goals and expectations for getting virtual teams right as soon as possible. Be clear about what your company’s objectives are and how your remote teams will work to accomplish them. Provide deadlines for assignments and accountability to track progress.
The beauty of working virtually is there’s no one looking over your shoulder. However, that also means staying extra self-motivated to get the job done on time. If you’re a virtual worker, create a dedicated home office and set working hours to adhere to and minimize distractions to focus on doing your best work.
Most remote workers need more structure than your average in-office employee to maximize productivity, so setting this tone upon hiring helps with getting virtual teams right. It’s up to the employer to provide structure for virtual teams, so be sure to establish it early and reinforce it frequently.
2. Build Rapport
Managing a virtual team isn’t much different than managing employees in-person. In fact, the argument can be made that if you can effectively manage a virtual team, overseeing an in-office team is much easier. However, one of the biggest challenges of working remotely is feeling disconnected from the company. Forming relationships with co-workers can bridge the gap between isolation and belonging.
In any working relationship, trust needs to be established for longevity and effectiveness. For organizations, getting virtual teams right means building meaningful work relationships quickly and maintaining them with open communication.
Great managers offer trust to their virtual teams and establish a precedent to receive that trust in return. Try to get to know the people you work with first — regardless of whether they’re in the office or working remote — and understand their motivations and personalities. Setting a relational foundation is crucial to keeping lines of communication open and employees engaged, especially if they’re working remote. Next, build rapport with virtual teams the same way you would in-person. Ask questions, share stories, and be willing to help each other.
3. Foster Community
Building a sense of community may be the biggest threat to getting virtual teams right. The good news is the same technology that allows us to do virtual work can connect us too.
Most employees dread in-person meetings since they can drain productivity, yet consistent meetings with virtual teams are a necessity. Remote workers don’t have the luxury of walking to a co-worker’s desk to ask a question, meeting by the water cooler, or going for a walk with a colleague. Video chats provide the opportunity for real facetime and conversation for employees who might otherwise feel isolated. When setting up virtual meetings, set a meeting agenda and make sure to allow open time for team members to catch up and collaborate on a problem together.
You can also set up a virtual project management platform like Slack or Basecamp. At first, employees might be hesitant to start conversations, but over time, your chosen platform will become a go-to place for advice, support, and resources. Offering several options to connect with others is a meaningful step toward building community in the workplace, even if your workforce is globally dispersed.
Lastly, if you have the budget for it, organizing an in-person retreat can do wonders for company culture. There’s no price tag on meeting face-to-face, and the investment will pay off down the line.
4. Keep Your Remote Team Lean
Size matters for getting virtual teams right for two reasons: speed and efficiency.
If you have a large virtual team, it takes longer to communicate and execute ideas. As technology rapidly changes, companies don’t have much time to waste deciding which opportunities to take. Having fewer people to coordinate with helps expedite iterative processes.
Additionally, it’s easier to get to know coworkers with a lean team. Virtual workers desire to be a part of something bigger, but how can you foster this mission if you don’t know your team well? There’s not enough time in the day to get to know everyone in your company, so feeling connected to your team counts more. If possible, aim to have virtual teams of eight or less managed by an individual.
Small teams can accomplish big things together.
5. Pay Attention to Chemistry
Jim Collins states in his book Good to Great, “Get the right people in the right seats on the bus.”
If your goal is to set your virtual team up for success, you have to start by hiring the right people. Then, place them in the best role to succeed. Employees tend to be hired for expertise but fired for character flaws, so keep this in mind when hiring remote workers.
Hiring remote workers encompasses much more than looking for competence and relevant experience. It’s about finding a cultural fit for your company. The most accomplished candidate may not be the right candidate for your company.
Don’t underestimate traits such as: punctuality, affability, empathy, strong communication skills, and mindfulness. Part of hiring the right fit is making sure your candidate plays well with others. It’s impossible to anticipate every potential weakness, but if you see any red flags ahead of time, be sure to address them before it’s too late.
With the added pressure of managing virtual teams, don’t make it harder on yourself by assembling a team that doesn’t mesh well.
6. Collaboration Is King
The key to getting virtual teams right is promoting collaboration in all directions. Members of a virtual team feel connected when their ideas are valued. Managers need to balance pushing their authority and shaping a democracy to get their virtual team on board for the same goal.
Managers should over-communicate your company’s vision and how to carry out your core values to virtual teams, especially when employees are first starting out. Show people by example before you tell them.
Make sure to listen to your virtual team’s voice, too. Brainstorm ideas together and make sure you implement at least some of the suggestions that come from your team. This is vital for buy-in. As a manager, it’s not your job to take your team’s suggestions, but if you never use their ideas, they’ll stop speaking up about how to make improvements.
Many business leaders complain that their workforce doesn’t take ownership of the work environment, but the reason why is because they don’t feel heard. If you want your team to take responsibility, you should first give them responsibility.
Collaboration within the entire organization is the best way to utilize the collective brainpower in the room and engage everyone on your virtual team.
7. Remember that Onboarding Is Just the Beginning
It’s amazing that companies believe refining the hiring process is the complete answer to getting virtual teams right.
Refining the hiring process is just the beginning. During the Great Recession in the late 2000’s, thousands of companies cut training and development resources and labeled them a “luxury item” for businesses. But when people are hired, they need training and additional guidance when switching roles, and companies saw the impact quickly. Training is a fundamental part of acclimating to a job, especially if you’re working remote.
Take, for instance, a new manager. When an employee is promoted to managing a team, the skills they use day-to-day will change. What previously helped them excel in their previous position might help them in small ways to lead a team, but additional training and development is vital to moving into this new role.
Managing people is less about your performance and more about your team’s performance. This type of training needs specific instruction to produce effective management results. This training should be ongoing as well — managing a virtual team is a difficult task that requires time management and multitasking skills. If you don’t have training to accomplish it, you’re not going to succeed.
The organizational goal is to create a learning environment comprised of internal and external educational opportunities. Online courses and virtual training are readily available. Companies need to take initiative in selecting creative solutions to develop their employees.
8. Try Giving the “Anti-Performance” Review
Performance reviews hold people accountable for their results. For getting virtual teams right, this can be intimidating since employees spend most of their time physically isolated from others, and scrutiny — even when scheduled — can be stressful.
Performance reviews tend to be spread out over time and keep employees guessing about where they can improve throughout the working year. Instead of causing anxiety with semi-annual performance reviews, why not consistently coach your employees and offer continuous feedback?
Surprises are overrated when it comes to your performance. Continuous coaching provides more frequent direction for what behaviors you want to encourage in your workplace and what you want to intervene on immediately. When done properly and consistently, small flames can be extinguished before becoming fires.
If performance reviews exist to correct behavior and encourage behaviors already aligned with your company values, coaching can do this more effectively. Areas of improvement shouldn’t be a surprise if virtual teams are getting daily or weekly feedback. Try having weekly 1:1s with each team member to make sure they feel engaged and included. Get feedback on how to maintain open communication and ensure even remote employees feel connected to your company’s mission.
This can be time-consuming as a manager, but with a lean team, it’s easily accomplished. Coaching is a form of steady development that keeps teammates on the right path.
9. Cultivate Individual Strengths
Getting virtual teams right starts with highlighting individual strengths. The job of a manager is to put people in positions to succeed. This happens by identifying what each person on the team does best. Don’t make the mistake of placing employees with competing strengths in the same role based solely on seniority.
Tools such as the StrengthFinder assessment are helpful to identify natural talent. Virtual teams can take this test after being hired to figure out where they can best add value. When people are leveraging their strengths and individual talents at work, everyone wins: managers, co-workers and customers. Nurturing individual strengths functions as a career development tool that promotes efficiency and results in higher retention rates.
10. Emphasize Autonomy
Some of the perks of working remotely are the flexibility it provides and lack of commute. But once the novelty wears off, reminding teams of the following makes for getting virtual teams right:
What matters is getting the job done. How you accomplish it shouldn’t.
One of the most frustrating feelings someone on a virtual team can experience is being micromanaged. There’s a fine line between oversight and total control. As a manager, you should care about the outcome, not the style used to get there. Once virtual teams feel someone is looking over their shoulder, trust quickly erodes.
Autonomy is a human drive, and working virtually grants that. Managers can either give trust or take it away. Virtual teams must be more self-motivated than someone working in an office where others are around to hold them accountable, but that should be addressed during the interview stage.
Make Your Virtual Team Work
If you’ve entrusted an employee by placing them on a virtual team, trust them until they show you they don’t deserve it anymore. Getting virtual teams right is rooted in trust, constructed by coaching, and preserved by creative uses of technology. Hiring remote workers opens the talent pool globally while not limiting your resources based on location.
Use the tips above to build a strong virtual culture that lasts!
Scott Asai helps people develop leadership skills to advance in their career. His live events and online school attracts a large audience of millennials and introverts. Scott’s professional background consists of: B.A. in Psychology, M.A. in Organizational Leadership, Certified Professional Coach and Certified Strengths Coach.