The way teams work has changed dramatically after the pandemic. In the last 2 years, nearly 80 million Americans switched to remote work and about 60 million people believe that their jobs can be done remotely (fully or partially) on a permanent basis. For team leaders, running a virtual team offered tangible benefits – the ability to expand talent pools, increased individual productivity among teammates, cost-cutting opportunities, and higher talent retention.
However, the transition to work from home has pitfalls. Leaders are specifically worried about performance tracking and building a strong workplace culture in a workplace where teammates have never met face-to-face.
In this post, we will explore some easy-to-implement strategies for managing virtual teams and suggest helpful tools team leaders can add to their collaboration and talent management stacks.
- Virtual team management challenges
- 7 virtual team management tips
Virtual team management challenges
While there are a few successful organizations that bet on remote work from Day 1, like Zapier or GitLab, building a long-lasting virtual team is uncharted territory for most leaders. Those used to relying on offices for seamless management, team-building, or performance-tracking, might find themselves all the more challenged in a fully remote or hybrid work environment.
At oVice, we’ve helped thousands of organizations worldwide transition from fully in-office to remote or hybrid work or set up a remote workplace from scratch. In our experience, these are the challenges leaders struggle to overcome when managing virtual teams.
When the privilege of sharing a common space is gone, leaders might struggle to connect with teams. Heavy reliance on asynchronous communication tools like email or Slack for updates can fuel anxiety since managers don’t know when their reports are going to reply to texts.
On the other hand, spending full workdays attending video conferences via Zoom or Microsoft Teams is exhausting to employees and leads to increased burnout.
In a physical environment, a lot of team-building happened spontaneously over coffee breaks, casual chatting, or working next to each other. The sense of proximity helped teammates connect and feel comfortable around each other.
Virtual teams, on the other hand, are often more distant, as employees may have never seen each other or met in person. That’s why, in a remote environment, managers have to be intentional about building culture. However, they should also avoid activities that feel forced and unnatural and focus on providing teams with natural opportunities to network and build relationships.
Lack of tools
In an office space, leveling the playing field for all employees was easier because everyone had access to the shared infrastructure. However, as teams go remote, inequalities can appear.
Team leaders should make sure that all employees have the tools they need (powerful hardware, stable Internet connection, environment that supports focused work) to stay productive.
Also, the switch to remote work exposed organizations to security vulnerabilities, since teammates are not always mindful about the networks they use for working or places where they leave their computers unattended.
Since a lot of remote employees work from home, they struggle with the inability to draw the line between professional and personal commitment.
The disruption of work-life balance happens in different ways – either errands and family commitments interfere with meeting deadlines or staying focused in meetings or teammates work late hours and struggle to dedicate more time to families, self-care, or passion projects.
Team leaders might find managing virtual teams particularly difficult if they are used to measuring efficiency by clocking in the working hours of their teams. In a remote environment, it is harder to make sure people spend their workdays at their desks without verging on privacy invasion.
As time-based productivity tracking is ineffective in a remote setting, leaders need to find alternative ways to assess performance and maintain workplace trust.
7 virtual team management tips
Set clear processes and workplace policies
Over the last two years, we’ve realized that one of the biggest mistakes remote team leaders make is presuming everyone is on the same page and not taking enough time to set up clear policies and ground rules.
In an office, it was easier for new hires to pick up on “unwritten rules” by watching and imitating their colleagues. In a remote environment, it’s harder to solidify a common way of doing things – that’s why a top-down approach is sometimes necessary.
We recommend creating internal policy documents that clearly specify:
- Attendance rules and ways to show your presence to a team manager. In our case, leaders would tell the rest or the team when they would expect teammates to log into the virtual space and be available for questions or conversations.
- Communication rules: what should be communicated synchronously (phone and conference calls) and what is better to share in writing so that the entire team can see and react to the message.
- Compensation: what the company covers (hardware, co-working space subscription), how salaries change depending on employees moving cities or countries.
Creating a unified policy for virtual teams will eliminate confusion and help avoid misunderstandings down the line.
Choose technology that facilitates management
Not having the immediacy and accessibility of the physical space puts leaders at the challenge of figuring out what makes people that work for an organization remotely a team. In our experience, the efficiency of remote companies depends on the tools they rely on.
For us, a virtual office has become a meeting point that substitutes the physical office and brings everyone together. Similarly, whenever possible, we try to use collaborative tools like Figma or Miro to give teammates more opportunities to work together in real-time.
Create team-building opportunities
For virtual team managers, intentionality in employee experience is key. They can no longer rely on employees spontaneously connecting and bouncing ideas off of each other. In many cases, creating an atmosphere that facilitates networking and collaboration is a leader’s daily responsibility.
A top-down approach to team building has its challenges – for example, employees might feel mandated, rather than naturally eager to network. To avoid workplace dictatorship, managers have to take the time to explain the importance of team building to their remote reports who might be simply interested in clocking out the hours and going home.
Commit to performance-based productivity tracking
In the office, tracking productivity by monitoring attendance was seen as natural and normal. It was also relatively easy to implement – a manager would see how much time people spend at work.
When it comes to working remotely, team leaders don’t have the tools to see if their reports are actually working when they are supposed to. In most cases, managers are supposed to take an employee’s word for it – so trust issues tend to pile up.
That’s why a different approach to productivity tracking is essential to successful virtual team management. Rather than pressuring people to prove their presence (which, taken too far, leads to digital presenteeism), leaders should set clear KPIs and monitor them at the end of the day, week, and month. We recommend setting up monthly performance review meetings with colleagues to go over the results of their work and share feedback.
Regularly communicate with teammates in 1-on-1 meetings
We have already mentioned the importance of regular performance reviews in virtual teams. They are essential to fostering workplace transparency but other forms of one-on-one interactions are just as important.
As the leader of an online team, make sure you take the time to connect with each of your colleagues for knowledge sharing, project collaboration, or casual conversations. Here are the types of interactions you can consider setting up:
- One-on-one Q&A sessions where employees can ask their managers work-related questions.
- Knowledge-sharing calls where a team leader teaches each team member a skill relevant to their career development in a personalized way.
- Small talk and casual conversations help the leader learn more about the team outside of work – discover what motivates employees or stresses them out and find a common ground for communication. Casual conversations are especially impactful when managing international teams, as they seamlessly introduce team leaders to new trains of thought and perspectives.
Collect regular feedback
Another way to avoid workplace dictatorship and goal misalignment are to give teammates more room for participation. In a virtual workplace, it’s common for employees to feel excluded from conversations and out of touch with their organization’s goals and ambitions.
Making employees part of the decision-making process helps leaders accomplish several impactful goals:
- Collect diverse opinions and make better-informed decisions.
- Make sure everyone is comfortable with a policy change or a new workflow, avoiding potential employee opposition.
- Leverage the team’s expertise and discover innovative ideas the leader wouldn’t necessarily have thought of singlehandedly.
- Create a sharing culture and promote workplace transparency.
Reconsider employee benefits
In a remote workplace, employees have to reconsider the way they approach employee benefits. As they cannot support teams with comfortable office infrastructure, they should compensate in different ways, more valuable to teams.
The key employee benefits to include in a virtual workplace are:
- Flexibility: giving your virtual team full control over their schedule and work location.
- Hardware/software compensation that helps employees stay productive
- Well-being-focused benefits: covering therapies, local gym subscriptions, etc.
In many ways the fundamentals of managing a virtual team are similar to working with people in the office – a leader has to listen to what they have to say, support them with presence and technology, and provide workplace benefits that promote productivity.
Other aspects of management are drastically different – you have to walk the extra mile to get people to collaborate and build relationships, trust is harder to build and maintain, and the nature of employee support has changed.
Virtual office technology is one of the ways leaders can facilitate the transition between in-office and remote work as it gives virtual teams a common meeting point and replicates the interactions of a physical office.
At oVice, we help leaders connect with virtual teams by supporting them with customizable and multi-functional online office spaces. Managers can use our spaces for project work, employee onboarding, and training, as well as team-building activities.