Do you have a strategy for managing virtual teams?

The trends, motivations and statistics behind the rise in remote working in last week’s blog highlighted why thinking about remote working is an important business consideration. As a manager, you will undoubtedly be faced with challenges that come with managing telecommuting workers and teams. Finding a starting point to a workable management strategy in this context can be daunting.

Working from home – even some of the time – is not advisable or suitable for everyone. It requires discipline. Employees working remotely have to be happy in their own company, able to use their own initiative, prioritise and be fully aware of their abilities and limitations. Having the right personality is a prerogative to remaining motivated and being successful.

Remote working has vastly expanded the talent pool as geographical considerations can now be bridged more easily with the use of technology. Potentially, you might have to sift through more applicants to find the right person for the job and face-to-face interviews might not always be possible. A reliable, efficient and robust process for both internal and external recruitment is essential to ensure that what a job candidate can offer matches the required job profile.

Some workforce analytics tools can provide reliable insights into whether a candidate’s workplace behaviour and needs matches the position that they are applying for. They give you a better idea on whether this person is likely to thrive on or struggle with remote working. This additional knowledge enhances the information gleaned from a traditional CV and interview process, helps to avoid hiring the wrong person, and minimises essential performance challenges later on.

Trust is key

The relationship between you as a manager and the members of your team has a huge bearing on their motivation levels and their loyalty to the company. Engagement is a strong contributor to staff retention rates. Managing your team effectively can be difficult, but this becomes even more challenging when your team members are spread out geographically. It can feel like you are shouldering a huge responsibility.

So, how do you know whether you can trust your remote team members to prioritise effectively, adhere to long-term goals, to keep you informed of their progress and concerns, and to remain engaged?

A common denominator emerges as the basis for managing individual remote workers and your team as a whole: You have to know your people!

Your team members have to know themselves, but above all, you, as their manager, have to know them individually. This is true for all leadership situations, but even more so when there is less opportunity for personal contact.

Again, behavioural assessments can be a good starting point in this context. They provide you with an understanding of your team’s behavioural characteristics and their motivational needs. This is vital to you being able to support them effectively and to create a well-functioning, connected remote team. Forming a picture of your remote employees’ likely behaviour in a work situation in this way removes some of the guesswork.

Where possible, this is enhanced by the trust built on your past experience with that person and their reliability, on whether you are confident that you have – and follow – common goals, and that they have the necessary skills and abilities to be successful in their job.

Equally, teleworkers have to trust that their managers to possess the right leadership skills to support them, set achievable goals and create collaborative and high-performing teams. They also have to feel able to rely on their managers to provide constructive and timely back-up if they run into difficulties. Identifying and meeting training and coaching needs also supports building mutual trust.

Data from the 2015 Remote Working Summit in Dallas suggests that 62% of remote workers leave a job because of training and performance challenges. When assistance for a particular task is needed or a serious issue arises, remote workers can quickly feel isolated. This feeling can colour an employee’s attitude towards their work and their employer negatively and you might risk losing them. A timely and immediate response for assurance and support is needed – that is if the problem has been communicated to you in the first place of course!

Not surprisingly, effective communication is essential

I have already mentioned the need for a robust recruitment process, trusting and knowing your people to minimise potential problems before enabling employees to telecommute. Once remote working commences, structured communication is essential to prevent your employees from feeling isolated.

As a blog on the Entrepreneur website highlights, targeted investment in technology will help your remote team members feel connected with you and each other. Software and equipment enabling online webcam-based conversations over laptops and mobile phones is a must for all team members. The ability to file share with anyone, anywhere is paramount.

However, it is your responsibility as a manager to facilitate and encourage the effective use of these communication tools. Routine check-ins with you and remote collaboration amongst the rest of the team have to be managed and scheduled. For part-time telecommuters, regular face-to-face updates are eqully important to avoid them feeling disconnected and uninformed.

For entirely remote teams, the impact of personal meetings for team-building and to align business goals should not be underestimated. Regular sessions, where all members of the team – remote or office-based – gather in person will help team collaboration and overall engagement.

So, what about a shared strategy?

Both parties, management and team members, have to know exactly what is expected of them and what they expect from each other. Everyone must know what their exact role entails and where the boundaries are.  In order to achieve any goals and to be productive, the team must know which path to follow to get there and be supported appropriately along the way.

It is the managers’ role to provide clearly-defined and unambiguous direction. A clear common strategy including shared values, guidelines for interaction, and some well-communicated ground rules is necessary. Something resembling a team charter which should allow for some input from the team and which should then be adopted by everyone. This might include the following considerations:

  • What are the common goals and how will you get there?
  • How do they fit within the company strategy?
  • Definition of all tasks and roles and how they will be apportioned
  • How to ensure consistency by detailing any processes and procedures that are always to be followed, i.e. a structured workflow
  • Managing deadlines
  • What constitutes acceptable behaviour in relation to
    • Working hours and business days
    • Communication performance such as full and timely replies to emails, voicemails, deadlines and attending team meetings
  • Explanation of channels of communications and their use
  • How decisions are made, how the team can influence them and how consensus is created
  • Contingency planning – what is the process when things go wrong?

With many businesses enabling remote working or moving toward a virtual working environment, attracting and retaining the right talent has become even more complex. Managing remote teams – who can be in different time zones and mainly communicate electronically, but rarely in person – presents unique challenges which require a fresh management strategy.  The above can by no means claim to be an exhaustive list, but it hopefully serves as a useful starting point for your approach to managing your virtual teams.

What are your experiences with managing remote workers? We would love to hear from you.

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