As communication technologies have advanced, the need for work teams to be physically grouped together has dissipated. Now it’s possible for teams to work closely with team members who are miles – or even continents – away.
But these advancements come with their own set of difficulties, particularly for those tasked with managing such widely spread out teams. Here is some advice on how to effectively lead a virtual team.
Without the daily in-person interaction that comes with managing a physical team, keeping tabs on individual team members can be one of the biggest challenges for managers leading virtual teams. That’s why team leaders should regularly check in with their employees for a one-on-one discussion.
“When you are working with a virtual team and you can’t physically see how someone is doing, you need to check in with them personally,” says Shilonda Downing, founder of Virtual Work Team LLC. “The meetings needn’t be long, but just ensure that your team member is not overwhelmed and/or is not facing other challenges that could affect their work. When you show a genuine interest in your team members, they feel appreciated as a valued member of the virtual team.”
For some employees new to working remotely, time management can become a problem. Managers should understand that this adjustment may be difficult but also send a clear message that deadlines will be enforced.
“Set clear deadlines and hold the team accountable. Sometimes when people work unseen, they may feel that they can get away with not being as present as they would in a brick and mortar office,” says Downing. “Ensure your virtual team knows that just because they have the luxury of working remotely, they still have to show up every day and produce to continue to thrive as a member of your team.”
Consistent communication channels
As anyone who has worked remotely knows, clear communication becomes even more important when team members aren’t physically near one another. With so many options – from email to instant messaging to phone calls – it’s important for the manager to clearly define what will be the main communication channel for virtual team members.
“For members of a virtual team, it’s crucial for them to know where they can sign on to get an understanding of completed and ongoing work for a project,” says Noel Radley, research associate at Software Advice. “Team leaders and managers can facilitate a discussion of which communication channel is the right one to communicate about tasks, as well as make decisions about where tasks are assigned.”
Team leaders should also identify communication preferences amongst their team members and take these preferences into consideration. “There’s a difference between younger workers (who more often prefer email) and older workers (who more commonly cite a preference for talking on the phone),” says Radley. Workers forced to use a method of communication that they find difficult or ineffective are likely to grow frustrated, leading to more problems down the line.
The importance of being responsive
One of employees’ favourite benefits of working remotely is the relative freedom to set their own schedule and work at their own pace. This can be a beneficial arrangement, provided employees complete their work on time. However, extenuating circumstances are bound to arise, so managers should establish clear expectations in regards to availability and responsiveness throughout the workweek from remote employees.
“Getting back to your manager in a timely manner reassures them that you haven’t fallen into oblivion, and whether you snuck away to get your nails done or if you’re jamming on a project, you’re there and have everything under control,” says Georgette Pascale, president and CEO of Pascale Communications.
Business isn’t just business
It’s important not to lose sight of the value interpersonal relationships bring to a work environment. The sense of camaraderie that develops amongst team members who physically work together often leads to increased worker satisfaction and more effective teamwork.
While perfectly recreating the social aspect of an office environment may not be entirely possible for virtual teams, managers should still strive to help their virtual team bond.
“WyckWyre is an entirely remote company, so at times it can be difficult to work as other companies can,” says Michelle Burke, marketing supervisor for WyckWyre Food Industry HR Systems. “However, we hold monthly virtual happy hours to build team morale, and have weekly calls to talk about our positive and negatives of the week, and give ‘shout outs’ to one person who helped us that week. This keeps everyone engaged with one another and builds a stronger team even though we aren’t physically together every day.”
Ultimately it all comes back to creating and maintaining effective communication with and amongst remote team members. Managers of virtual teams should make clear communication a top priority both in assembling their team and in general day-to-day operations.