Sometime in the last twenty years, the American Dream shifted from a puppy, two kids, +1 and a picket fence to something more like, “working from home without pants.”
And with this shift toward remote work came the rise of virtual management; a field dedicated to the skillful practice of managing and leading remote teams.
Overall, this “Work From Home” movement is positive:
- Hundreds of thousands of people are productively working from home, co-working spaces and my couch.
- The movement is “self supporting” with remote workers building tools and resources that solve problems for remote teams.
- High paying jobs are slightly more defused across the country and world.
It is easy to see why Americans are giving up pants in favor of a nearly non-existent commute.
Yet for the many benefits, working remotely also comes with unique challenges like:
- Keeping remote workers engaged and productive.
- How to manage remote teams.
- “When was the last time I showered?”
As a manager and leader of virtual teams, it is your job to help your people navigate these challenges and come out on top of the remote work pile. If you can navigate this area well then you and your team will have a strong foothold for not only a successful career but also a happy and healthy life.
This article is a field guide for virtual management and how to lead remote teams. The content includes tips and ideas for effective remote team management, suggestions for virtual team building activities and culture development, communication strategies and more.
- How to manage a virtual team
- How to build team morale remotely
- Challenges of managing remote employees
Let’s get to it.
How to manage a virtual team
In many ways, managing a virtual team is similar to managing a local one. Below is a short list of some highly effective management techniques, some of which are specific to managing remote teams. You are welcome to steal these techniques as is, or adapt them for your own use.
- Give your people more than they ask for. One of the biggest wins you can have as a manager and leader is giving your people more than they ask for. If someone asks for a raise and deserves more, give a higher raise if you can. When you exceed asks, your team will believe you have their best interests at heart, which is a powerful motivator. Here is a list of employee benefits to consider.
- Work like hell to provide opportunities for your team. Nobody is motivated by a lazy manager, and this is especially true of folks with great work ethic. Inspire people to do their best work by doing yours. Roll up your sleeves, believe in a DIY mindset, and make results happen that give your team growth opportunities.
- Give direct feedback. If you ask someone for a number out of 10 on how direct they believe direct reports want communication to be, they will often say seven or eight. If you ask that same person the level of directness they personally want, it is often a 9 or 10. Direct feedback is necessary for personal and career development, and this reality is even more true in remote management. You can give this feedback in 1 on 1 meetings.
- Manage in four week cycles. If you are a small or medium sized company then your priorities likely shift regularly. As a manager, you likely know what your highest priorities are, even if they constantly shift. For direct reports, these shifts can create a gap between what you said is a priority, what they believe you want to prioritize, and what you actually want to prioritize. To overcome this challenge, manage in four week cycles. To start, you do 1 on 1 meeting with each of your team members. The goal of the meeting is to create a list of projects for the following month. These projects are “must do” and will take priority over anything else that comes up that month. At the end of the cycle, you do the next meeting and the expectation is that your team will have completed all projects and be ready for more. This system creates very clear priorities, especially for remote teams, and will help skyrocket productivity.
With effective management of your team, you can inspire very high levels of productivity and commitment. You should also invest in remote team culture, and one way you can do this is with virtual retreats.
How to build team morale remotely
One of the most effective ways to build team morale remotely is to invest resources in virtual team building. The following is a short list of ways you can do team building with virtual teams. You should consult our list of virtual team building activities for more comprehensive information.
- Start virtual meetings with icebreaker questions. These prompts will help attendees feel more comfortable speaking and sharing their ideas. Start with easy icebreakers like each participant’s name, role and dream vacation. Then, you can check out our list of ice breaker questions for virtual meetings for more inspiration.
- Use breakout rooms on virtual conference calls. When you do large group video calls, you will find that some attendees are more interested in surfing off to corners of the internet with Facebook friends, breaking news and cute pictures of hedgehogs. To engage these defectors, split your call into small group breakout rooms where everyone has a chance to speak and be heard.
- Make and send videos. You can make and send quick selfie videos from your phone. Use this tool to create videos to say hi to your team members. You can also make “shout out” video that highlight contributions each team member made that week and why it matters.
- Play games together, often. Many games work in the online format. You can play everything from Pictionary to Bingo to Hangman to Hearts. Here is a list of Zoom meeting games.
If you use some of these team building techniques then you will notice an increase in happiness, engagement and productivity for your team. There are other benefits of team building too.
Here is an entire list of ideas to boost employee morale.
Challenges of managing remote employees
Managing employees anywhere is challenging because you are helping unique individuals navigate complex careers. The challenges of managing remote employees is like a compounded version of this reality. Not only do you need to support and lead your people in cohesive action, team building and more, you need to do it without the benefit of trust built through face to face interactions and the nuances of body language and more. In short, managing remote teams is like playing the management game on difficult mode.
Here is a short list of challenges of managing virtual teams.
- Engagement is unknown. If a direct report at your office is disengaged from work then you can probably identify it via observing body language, behavior and productivity. With remote work you don’t have these cues and someone may go weeks or even months feeling disengaged. You can remedy this challenge in a number of ways. First, closely monitor performance metrics related to work output. Second, call your people and ask how they are doing. Check out our list of ideas to engage remote employees.
- Pay rates are distorted. If all of your people live in one city, then it is reasonable to assume they are on the same playing field for “cost of living.” If you have team members in NYC, San Francisco, Bali and Rio de Janeiro then cost of living is no longer equal. The remedy to this challenge is to establish functionally fair pay rates, which could be selecting a specific city as a proxy for cost of living or using a formula to generate the amount.
- Team building is harder. When your people are in the same room together, small talk and building loose connections is relatively easy. With a distributed team the challenge of connecting requires deliberate investment in time and energy. You can play online team building games like “Can You Hear Me Now?” and Chair Up!
The challenges of managing remote employees are many, and worth it.
Final thoughts on virtual management
A thousand years ago, nobody was thinking about virtual management. Even twenty years ago, the concept of remote leadership and how to manage remote workers was a glimmer of a far-off and unknown future. Which is understandable; our ancestors had a lot to worry about, like which township to pillage and Y2K.
Your reality is different. You can and will manage remote teams, and you have an opportunity to blaze a new trial in effective virtual management. Do your best work, take care of your people, and be the best f***ing virtual manager on this side of the 2000s.
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