Guidance for Managers of Virtual Teams
The challenges presented by Covid-19 are unprecedented and continue to evolve. In order to cope with these challenges, many companies are exploring ways to help their employees work productively from home. However, the shift from face time management to virtual management is not straightforward or simple. Virtual teams are fundamentally different from regular work teams. They cross boundaries related to geography, time, and organization and use technological means to communicate and collaborate. These differences can be overcome with planning and intentional management. This resource is designed to help you navigate this shift while maintaining productivity, trust, and communication.
First, know that all employees, managers and non-managers are experiencing these changes at the same time. While policy and procedure mandate a change, the process that individuals will go through is a transition. Individual people will move through the transition in different ways. While you may have some team members who are ready to implement a fully virtual work environment, some are still in the process of acknowledging that these changes are even necessary. Some of this difference is due to individual preferences for approaching change while some is a result of information and beliefs.
As a leader, you can gauge where an individual team member might be on this spectrum of change by talking with them about their feelings, concerns, and answering questions. Pay attention to whether the employee is focusing on the future or the past and whether they seem to be in more of an emotional or rational frame of mind. For more information on the transition process and to learn more about helping your employees navigate change, join us for these professional development opportunities (link).
The following are general considerations that will help you prepare to implement virtual work arrangements.
Accountability is key. Set expectations for completing projects or performing ongoing duties. Put the details in writing to the degree possible. Define work systems and timelines. Establish a regular meeting schedule so everyone knows the cycle of when work should be completed. Send an agenda for the meeting so people have time to prepare. Have clear deliverables. Have employees track hours and what they were working on during those hours.
Check in regularly using virtual communication tools. Make sure each person knows what tools should be used for communicating different types of information and the right contacts. For example: what system will you be using for conference calls vs. one on one check-ins? Are there channels available for informal conversations (remember that people will be missing the information that comes from passing in the hallway)? How will you communicate information that is time-sensitive or emergencies?
The following suggestions are more specific to management processes that you will want to maintain during the time of virtual work. Most of these are fundamental management skills that you already use everyday, with special focus on the new skills required for virtual leadership.
Trust is essential. If employees trust you and their team to be working toward common goals and a shared vision, they naturally collaborate and engage more with each other. Reiterate your mission and vision regularly, especially as it changes based on work needs of your department. Establish shared goals and connect the work of individuals and sub-teams to those goals.
Make sure that everyone is on the same systems. For example, if there are shared projects and communications, make sure that everyone is comfortable with using Google tools such as Team Drive, as well as the applications within the G-Suite. Be sure that guidelines for how documents will be stored and edited. If you have one team member editing a document in a separate platform, information will get lost in translation. Use project management tools and practices and document everything you can about work that gets done. If you are not comfortable with this technology yourself, know where to get tech support. Consider doing some team training with the tools you need/want to use.
Discuss safe, professional work environments. For example, where will your team members sit during video conferences or virtual meetings. In this rapidly evolving situation, employees may not have time to create a separate, prepared office space. Be sure that their work from home environment is safe and free from hazards, and they have appropriate connections and equipment. Discuss appropriate attire to wear during a video call (unless you’re comfortable with someone logging in wearing their pajamas).
Discuss work hours to be sure they overlap. While a traditional 8-5 schedule may not work for your entire team, make sure employees are working at least 3-4 hours of the same time so problems can be addressed in real-time.
Be intentional. Physical distance and communicating through a screen make it easier for miscommunication to happen and make it harder to listen.You may also face accessibility concerns for employees. Use good listening techniques, ask people to repeat what you’ve said, and build action plans so everyone is on the same page.
Check in with employees more often. Remote workers are more likely to feel alienated or disconnected, especially if there are members of the team who are not working virtually. Ask these team members about their work, but also talk with them about how they are feeling (physically and emotionally) as they cope with the changing rhythm of their life. Choose video channels over email and phone whenever possible.
Keep an eye out for new stressors. Because of social distancing measures, introverted team members may be forced to spend more time around their families with less quiet time to themselves. Parents whose children are home due to school closings may be trying to balance keeping children occupied with getting productive work done. Extroverts may feel trapped and isolated and may need a different type of social interaction. Help people name their feelings and identify their stressors. Know the resources available to help team members cope with these changes.
Be clear about your availability. While everyone else may be working virtually, that does not mean you must be accessible every moment of the day. Let your team know when you have open office hours when they should call you with questions. Be sure to let people know how you prefer to be contacted after hours and how they should contact you in case of an emergency.
Skills of Effective Virtual Team Leaders:
- Encourage team members to lean into their strengths and pair them with members whose strengths are complementary to theirs.
- Promote a feeling of inclusion.
- Provide information in a timely fashion.
- Promote trust and collaboration.
- Encourage discussion and remain open-minded.
- Manage conflict.
- Communicate through multiple channels.
- Demonstrate sensitivity.
- Develop processes that encourage accountability and commitment.
- Provide adequate resources and support
While the manager plays an essential role in leading a virtual team, individual employees should also be cognizant of the changing dynamics. Here are some suggestions for virtual employees:
Be prepared for a higher level of accountability. This may mean more detailed documentation of your work and time, and should not come as a surprise given the physical distance between you and your employer.
Abide by the expectations set for the team. Whether this is related to work hours, technology tools, or communication processes, the expectations that were set collaboratively with your team and there to ensure that the virtual work environment is productive for everyone. Discuss with your manager individually if you are having trouble following a specific expectation.
Create a professional home work space. Keep in mind that you will likely be logging/calling into meetings or having video chats often. Set your workspace apart from other activities and clear as much clutter as possible. This doesn’t require setting up a home office, but an open wall behind you and a table to set your computer on during meetings will help create a sense of professionalism. Maintain professional standards of appearance as necessary for your work obligations (i.e. don’t arrive for the video call in your pajamas).
Be prepared for meetings and participate. Login to the meeting on time with information prepared for your update. Remove distractions as much as possible. While your fellow dog-loving colleagues may be happy to see your puppy in the background, barking dogs can be deafening in a virtual meeting. Wear headphones if possible. It is easy to disengage during a virtual meeting, so brush up on your listening and communication skills. Take notes and write down questions to be asked later.
Be a self-starter. On top of greater accountability, you should be focusing on working with as little direction as possible. This may mean creating a system of organization that is different than what you would have in your physical office. It also may mean sticking to structures or schedules so you have focused, dedicated time.
Pay attention to your stress and emotions. Many people see working from home as a pathway to greater work-life balance, but it can be hard to adapt to the isolation you may feel. You may also feel disconnected from members of your team who are still working in the office. If FOMO (fear of missing out) gets too intense, know when to ask for some face time with your manager or members of the team. If you are feeling overwhelmed, know when and how to reach out for help.
Be flexible and empathetic. As other members of your team make the transition to virtual work, they may struggle in different ways. Some may need to learn new technologies. Some may not be as self-directed, and some may even have accessibility concerns. If technology hiccups happen, be prepared with a backup plan, and be patient as the kinks get worked out.
Skills of Effective Virtual Team Members:
- Flexibility and adaptability
- Strong communication and interpersonal skills
- Ability to think locally and globally
- Listening skills
- Initiative and self-management
- Consensus building skills
- Collaborative skills
- Patience and empathy
- Nonjudgmental attitude
- Cultural harmony
If you have any questions regarding tele-working during the Covid-19 response, please reach out to Human Resources.
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