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How do you manage a virtual team?

In short...

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Many people across the world have been forced into working remotely as a result of the current pandemic, leading to the quandary: how do you manage a virtual team?

In these strange times it has quickly become paramount for people managers to understand how to use digital tools to get the best out of their remote teams. With everything that is already going on, this can be especially overwhelming, so I am here to help!

As is change and collaboration expert, Sophie Chevalier of Marple&Moon. A specialist in strategy, digital collaboration and change transformation, Sophie has been working with companies on transitioning to a more efficient, digital way of working, since 2014. 

We discussed how to manage a virtual team and best practices for digital collaboration in-depth during episode four of my People&Digital podcast

Together we also compiled a free companion resource for managers, which you can access here: Guide to Learning & Implementing How to Manage Virtual Teams

Whilst, of course, I recommend you listen to the full podcast to hear our full rundown of the challenges team managers are currently facing and strategies for effectively approaching these, here are a few insights from our discussion…

Feel the fear but manage anyway

We shared our experiences of people managers’ concerns and frustrations during the COVID-19 crisis. I asked for her professional tips on working from home (WFH), particularly for managers who are faced with the challenge of making disparate home workers into a cohesive remote team during this period of social distancing. 

Sophie noted that the most common feedback she has received recently has been from people managers with a sense of fear about how to manage virtual teams properly and get things done with regards team collaboration.

For some, remote working may have already been operational but was generally two days per week, so managers still used to see their staff face-to-face on the other days each week. For others, working from home (WFH) was an entirely new situation.

Both scenarios presented new team management challenges; some managers were also under pressure from their own managers to ensure virtual staff were all working well. This was something I had also heard about, with some managers receiving two calls per day from their boss to check on their team’s progress. Talk about pressure! And especially during these already troubling times.

What the people managers we spoke to all wanted to know was “how do I manage my virtual team without feeling like the police, checking up on them and being very authoritarian?”. Also, “how do you mix up your management approach when some staff are clearly doing a great job from home, whilst others are really scared by it?”.

“I’ve observed a disparity between the really big companies which allowed WFH before, that have a big – and good – internal communications team, because they have professionals who gave tips and tricks to help them work properly,” explains Sophie. “But then, quite a lot of companies weren’t ready to implement WFH – and I’m not even talking about tools. I’m talking about culture, I’m talking leadership; and that’s why you end up with uber-controlling managers, or directors, because it’s very difficult to let people do their best in their own time.”

This is what led to Sophie and I collaborating on the Guide to Learning & Implementing How to Manage Virtual Teams resource, which is free to download. In it, you’ll find the answers to these questions, along with some helpful tips for managing your team remotely.

Video conferencing etiquette

One of the recommendations you’ll find in the Guide is to always turn your camera on when having virtual meetings – Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, etc. Although it may feel a little uncomfortable at first, especially if you – like many – are in your loungewear, with kids or pets popping up unexpectedly. One thing to remember is that we are all in the same boat and this shouldn’t deter you as there are a number of benefits to doing so.

Sophie recently experienced giving a long presentation over a video call, during which she was the only one with her camera on. “…That made me feel very alone,” she recounted, “because you can’t see if or how people are interacting with what you said… having a tool is not the end of it. It’s how you change the way you behave and do business to fit the new reality and the new context.”

This is something I too have experienced. I am pro-camera in meetings but agree that it’s not very comfortable because it’s new. Though at least you can get the temperature of the room and see people’s faces.

I like to think of it this way: a knife is a tool. If you give a knife to someone, one person might cut their fingers but another might make you the best carpaccio you’ve had in your life. It’s not because of the knife, it’s because of the person you gave the knife to and the skills they had. That’s the same situation as with the use of video conferencing. It’s not just about having the tool, it’s about knowing how to use it most efficiently to improve team performance.

An interesting example I shared concerned how virtual meetings appeared to solve an in-person issue one company was having with cliques. Some team members felt that side conversations were happening prior to meetings, so that some attendees were more informed and had ‘taken a side’ before meetings even began! Now that these meetings happen using video chat, the playing field feels more level, with everyone feeling better about contributing equally. Who’d have thought video conferencing could be used for managing conflict?!

Another important takeaway regarding video conferencing is to always take and circulate written notes afterwards too, including any deadlines, just to ensure you’re all on the same page as working virtually comes with a host of unavoidable interruptions and distractions.

Put some effort into purposefully designing your interactions 

Although it seems to be the default at the moment, is a video con-call really the best format for sharing information each time? I find large meetings, ‘events’ such as sales or marketing team presentations with 10+ people involved, do not work so well as video calls; these calls work best when there is a small, targeted audience. 

“People managers and leaders in companies need to think ‘what is the best channel for what I have to do and have to say?’” Sophie recommends. 

Our consensus is that shorter meetings, where people have already been prepared for what is to be discussed and there are a number of different presentations, can hold people’s attention more effectively for video chat. Other options can include adding to a shared drive, such as Google Docs or other collaboration tools – ClickUp, for example.

A great example of how this can work in practice comes from one of Sophie’s international clients who had already been planning to implement use of Slack before the shelter in place order and took the opportunity to expedite this.

She explains, “They moved forward introducing Slack because they were drowning in emails and the emails were to everybody where people were sharing what was happening in the different offices across the world… They’ve done it brilliantly, they’ve set up competitions, people are encouraged to share videos or photos of their new co-workers (kids, husbands, pets etc) and it’s been really fantastic because it’s brought a lot of the human side of it. It’s helped them to get their inboxes a little more manageable, too. Because even if it was great for them to share all those videos and messages, all those extra messages would be really overwhelming.” 

This is clearly a good example of both company and team culture as well as a clever way of leveraging work that was already in progress to enable better virtual communication. This was a project led by team leaders who have shown they really have the happiness and wellness of their staff at heart, in addition to the business goals of sustaining effective teams.

Making company values clear during COVID-19

Sophie spoke about having been asked ‘how do we keep the values of the company?’, which she admitted was a bit of a broader question. 

“I do think leadership is something you have or you don’t. I’ve been to some companies where you have the values in every meeting room in big print, everybody can tell you the campaign name for them but no one can tell you what the values are or what they actually mean,” she said, echoing my own experiences.

She feels that company culture is really a question of leadership and we both agree that, when it comes to leadership, you either have it or you don’t. 

Giving an example of one company that does, Sophie recalled team bonding techniques one of her clients uses, which can be done in person or using video conferencing.

“…during lunchtime they have small sessions of 10 – 15 minutes of activities, learning something together, so you take a break with your colleagues and are bonding one or two times per week, and now that they’re not working together (WFH) all of them are working with the camera on, and there is a high level of interactivity. People react, people ask questions on the chat, people start to talk and ask questions. So this is just a really nice way to keep contact with your team, to have an informal discussion, I think they had a yoga session or a cooking session. It’s not about work but it’s a good time to bring your values to light.”

Team communication whilst working from home

People seeing their managing team or direct team leader providing helpful solutions and communication tools, such as in the Slack example, can build trust as well as aiding team cohesion and virtual organization.

As a team manager it is also up to you to set priorities and decide what is most important for each member, and for the team as a whole. 

Given the current WFH and flexible work challenges, having clear goals where everyone understands exactly what their role is, and when their deadlines are, is imperative. As long as they are getting their work done to the agreed schedule and participating in all relevant team meetings, in these novel times, time management should be left up to the individuals. 

“Focus on the task and the objectives, rather than the time,” advises Sophie, “as policing people is not going to work”. She suggests agreeing on deliverables and timelines and letting them manage their workload without having to constantly report on how the work is going, 

Another thing people managers should remember remains just as important – if not more so – when working remotely, is to personalize your management style to individual team members. 

Work out how best to interact with each person, using which communication tool, so they all feel well supported as individuals, even whilst working in teams. If you aren’t sure which channel is best for them, just ask, and let them know how best to interact with you, too.

Whilst this may seem overwhelming in theory, Sophie points out that you probably used to spend a lot work hours doing this already, “I know this sounds like a lot of work but if you think about it, when you’re at work, the amount of time you have one-to-ones with everybody in your team, it adds up to a lot of time, so it’s really important to make sure you have the best channel and best rhythm for each team member. Some people love the independence, and maybe they don’t want the checking up, maybe they want to know that if there is a problem they can get in touch with you, and maybe they’re happy to have just a few chats here and there – and that’s fine.

Whilst others may be in more difficulty because they’ve never worked from home and they don’t know how they work and they don’t know how to organise their time, so for them maybe you need to be a bit more present and need to have a few more video conferences and calls, one-to-one. So it’s really about taking the time to find the best recipe for each of your team members; I know for people who have a lot of team members, maybe 10 or 12 direct reports, it’s complicated, but also, you’re a people manager, you know your team. So you do know – trust yourself.”

As she concludes, “You do know who needs a kick up the butt, who needs an arm around the shoulder and who can be set free.”

Lastly, have you seen this meme, maybe on Linkedin or Twitter? 

Covid Meme

What did you think of it?  

Sophie and I talked through our feelings on this during the podcast, and explored why, just because many companies now work remotely and use video conferencing, this does not mean they have completed a full digital transformation. Especially not in just four weeks!

We would both love to hear your thoughts on this, and if you have any feedback or queries for us related to managing virtual teams, teamwork success factors, or what happened when you tried out some of the advice in the Guide, please do let us know!

And remember, be kind to yourself – it’s ok to learn from mistakes and move on – but before you try to give anything, make sure your own battery is fully charged! 

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Learn & implement the best practices of Virtual Teams Management

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