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7 Steps to Managing a Virtual Workforce

How to manage a distributed workforce and still build your desired team performance and culture.

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I have previously written about how Covid has changed the workplace forever. Before Covid, companies were not fans of virtual employees. They thought employees needed to be in one place for them to be managed and contributing as part of the team. But, once virtual work became required in the wake of Covid, they quickly learned differently. That the staff was doing just fine working remotely, with revenues still coming in as normal. This was great for the workers looking for the flexibility of working from home, and now preferring to work virtually going forward. The real problem is: how do you truly manage a distributed workforce over the long run and still build your desired team performance and culture. The following guidelines will help you learn exactly how to do that.

1. Learn what your team’s desires are

This does not need to be a one size fits all situation for each of your staff members. Some people love virtual work (not commuting, working in pajamas). And, some people prefer working in the office (break from the kids, socializing with friends). So the key is learning which path your team members prefer, working virtually or working on-site. It is important that everybody’s needs and goals are aligned for the long term for it to be successful for all parties.

2. Change your recruiting approach

If you prefer to evolve to a virtual team for the long run, you will need to change your recruitment approach. Your job descriptions need to clearly speak to a virtual office and remote team. That will weed out the candidates that don’t want to be working remotely. And on the flipside, many candidates are now actively seeking remote positions. Their current employers have reverted back to in-office work, and they want to keep the virtual work they were doing. Many are even willing to consider a pay cut to enable that flexibility for themselves.

You will also need to figure out where the employees are geographically located. Some companies have said the employee can be located anywhere in the world, if they have the right skills. This opens up cheaper talent pools in Eastern Europe and Asia. But, others have tried to keep hiring in one central location so that it would be easier to get the team together in person, whenever that may be needed (annual meetings, weekly happy hours, easier training). If you are a small company, try to keep it centralized, especially to simplify payroll tax filings in one state. Once you are a larger company, you will need to cast a bigger net to find new workers from a broader geographic region.

3. Provide in-person options for those that want them

Many companies are offering a hybrid approach, allowing employees to come to the office when and if they ever want to. The result is losing the 10,000 square foot office with dedicated desks for each worker, and instead, replacing it with a 5,000 square foot office with shared work-stations. Similar to what you would see in a shared office workspace, like WeWork, where employees would reserve a desk or meeting room for the day, as needed. This is sometimes referred to as a hotelling model. The good news: your home office rent costs just got cut in half!!

4. Replicate or keep in-person activities for team building

Restaurant Furniture Plus engages a virtual work force that is largely based in the Cleveland, Ohio area. They recently launched a new fun committee that plans monthly in-person events in the area (happy hours, bowling parties). This helps to break the monotony and loneliness that comes from working at home, and does a great job of reinforcing the fact that they are all part of the team. Without events like this, an out of sight, out of mind mentality can set in, which doesn’t help with team building. 

If you are truly a virtual business with staff located across the country, in-person events become much harder and cost prohibitive. You will need to figure out how to replicate the above with virtual events. In the wake of Covid, several new service providers are offering virtual team building events (trivia nights, murder mystery parties), which you may want to consider for your business.

Related: How Companies are Offering Perks to Their Remote Workforce

5. Managing and cheerleading becomes twice as hard

As a serial entrepreneur of in-person companies, I loved walking up and down the aisles, seeing what people are working on, patting staff on the back, taking them out to lunch or whatever. You lose all of that with a virtual company, but those things are still equally important to your success. So make sure you have good analytical reports that can help you see which employees are doing well vs. goal, and which ones are struggling. Provide compliments and employee awards virtually. Set up virtual lunches with your team to talk about anything other than work.

6. Culture building becomes twice as hard

It’s hard to build a one for all and all for one culture when you are never seeing your peers in person. Worse yet, it is much easier to hide, and ignore having difficult conversations, when someone cannot easily tap you on the shoulder and take you into the conference room to talk about it. You still want your staff to be loyal to the company and have their peers’ backs. So you need to keep emphasizing your team’s cultural values, and make sure all staff are living by those same standards, even while working from home.

Related: 6 Tactics to Improve Collaboration for Remote Teams

7. Avoid Zoom fatigue

In a virtual company, the only way to have group meetings is by web video (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet). The problem with web video: it can be tiring, hurt your eyes and it can be easy to tune them out. Cameras can be turned off, or you see staff doing other work while the meeting is in progress. Only schedule meetings that are absolutely needed, keeping them to a minimum. And, let the team know that when you do have them, they are important and they need to be focused on.

Closing thoughts

I actually love the move to virtual workforces. I think it will make businesses materially more efficient, saving them from spending on unnecessary costs. And, it will make most staff members materially happier with the increased flexibility that comes with working from home. But for it to be a success, it is important you follow the high level guidance above. Having run a virtual business for the last four years, it certainly has presented some challenges. We have learned from those challenges, optimized for them and it has resulted in our scaling of the business to new heights, with an engaged and loyal team. Good luck replicating this in your own businesses.

Related: Important Soft Skills and Leadership Practices for Navigating the ...

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