5 Tips for Managing a Virtual Team
The concept of working at home isn’t a new phenomenon. For many, work and home were the same thing – from seamstresses to shoemakers and bakers to blacksmiths. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was the norm when factories demanded people be on site. Then in the early 20th century, the availability of electricity and public transportation lured workers into offices. Now the pandemic has driven us back out.
What this means is that the current situation, then, is not “the new normal” as is being touted. It’s the old normal coming back around.
Even this new bout of remote working isn’t that new. IBM, a recognized early adopter, installed remote terminals in employees’ homes in the 1980s. By 2009, 40% of IBM’s global employees worked from home, once again highlighting the influential role of technology.
Even before the spread of the pandemic in 2020, remote working was growing. The pandemic forced our hand, pushing many out of their workplaces and locking the door behind them. We don’t know what happens next, but this hyper-growth in working at home is likely to have a long-term impact.
In the meantime, here are five tips to help your virtual team on the road to real success.
Surround yourself with the right people
Let’s face it, working in a virtual team is not for everyone. Just as some individuals thrive in an office environment, others will take a shine to remote working. It is important, then, if you’re recruiting a virtual team, to put together a group of people who fall into the latter camp or who can, as a minimum, adapt to this different working style. Members of a virtual team need to have exceptional communication skills, the ability to work independently and technology capabilities. Like any job, a sense of humor helps, too.
Skyler Stein, President of Gladskin, a biotechnology-driven skincare brand, hasn’t met all of the people he works with in person. “We launched Gladskin into the U.S. market in January and, due to COVID, have built our team without the ability to for most people on our team to meet many of our team members in person. In the absence of the organic relationship building that happens from sharing the same office space every day, we prioritized building our team culture this past year by holding sessions where individuals share their personality types and how to work best with themselves. This way, everyone has a ‘cheat sheet’ on how to collaborate best with everyone else on the team. It’s been an invaluable part of our team building and something we will continue even after the pandemic is over.”
Choose your technology wisely
There are a plethora of remote working tools on the market, from the Google and Microsoft suite of tools to Slack, Zoom, and Skype. Virbela provides a whole immersive virtual campus, complete with personalized avatars. Smartsheet provides personalized but collaborative workflow management. There are apps for time management, document sharing, project management, HR, meeting schedules. The list goes on.
It’s important to remember that these tools are just that – tools to enable work. If your virtual team struggles to use a tool, it may not be the right one for you. Once you find the technology balance, your virtual team's communication and workflow should be smooth and productive.
Training doesn’t lose its importance just because your team works from home. There are still work processes that need to be learned and facilitated, not to mention all that technology. Given that the virtual team environment also breaks down geographical recruitment barriers, training in cross-cultural work practices may also be necessary.
Remember, too, that people learn in different ways, but most learn best through interaction and participation. Training should be more than a set of pre-recorded visuals with a multiple-choice test at the end. Interaction and group learning, where possible, should be included to facilitate subject mastery and start the team-building process. “At Gladskin, we established clear team norms, so everyone understands what is expected. What type of information is communicated via Email versus Slack versus Asana, and what types of response times are expected for each channel? These are all norms we have clearly defined to make sure everyone's on the same page. For example, at Gladskin, if you get an internal email over the weekend, the expectation has been set that there is no need to respond until Monday.”
Build a virtual team culture
Virtual teams need all the same things traditional teams do to perform well, including encouragement, recognition, and reward. German utility company E.On introduced a Buzz recognition program that encouraged personalized recognition via digital and physical thank you notes. Simple, but it worked, increasing staff motivation through people feeling valued.
Obviously, a team that builds trust, mitigates conflict, encourages communication and increases collaboration has an increased chance of being successful. So, how can you do it? Along with providing communication mechanisms, encourage collaboration through work projects. Bring in team building activities, too – more and more virtual options are springing up with the increase in demand. Be careful with this, though. Choose activities that will make your team cheer rather than groan. I know a team that was none too excited about a Zoom work drinks get-together before Christmas, who was pleasantly surprised when a bottle of wine and a basket of local produce arrived on each of their doorsteps on the day in question. A little bit of effort goes a long way.
It may go without saying, too, but if it’s possible to meet in person on occasion, do so. Face-to-face meetings or events are known to contribute to relationship building.
Be firm but flexible
Working in a virtual team is not the same as working in an office, and it probably never will be. One of the main advantages for employees is flexibility (along with the zero commute time). It’s important to recognize this and maintain a flexible work environment. By the same token, work needs to be done.
Establishing core hours in conjunction with task-oriented work scheduling can increase productivity. Core hours ensures team members can contact each other and anticipate responses, even across different time zones, while task-oriented productivity goals allow for individual flexibility in time management.