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How to effectively manage virtual teams in uncertain times

(Image credit: Image Credit: NakoPhotography / Shutterstock)

Due to the impact of Covid-19 there has been an explosion in the number of virtual or remote teams (1) as organisations across the world try to get the best out of their workers remotely.

Because of this recent rapid rise in home working and the separation of workforces, managers are finding themselves in uncharted territory when it comes to managing teams.

Managing virtual teams needs to take a different approach from managing the traditional team. But research shows that virtual team management failure almost always occurs due to managers applying the same practices as face to face management - they don’t consider what’s different.

However, this isn’t surprising because most managers have never had virtual team management training. So here’s a breakdown of four key issues, with actions you can take to excel at managing virtual teams, now and in the future.

Lack of understanding: virtual teams aren’t just separated by physical geography

Virtual teams are diverse teams. Each member will be faced with their own set of challenges bought about by working from home with relatively short notice.

To effectively manage each virtual team member you need to remember that no two people or two teams are the same. Each team member is living and working in a totally different environment, with different personal circumstances.

This means you need to learn to embrace and understand the difference in your team. At present you may need to consider factors that impact each team member’s ability to work virtually from home, and how you can negate them.

For example, some of your team members may have issues with unreliable Wi-Fi connections at home, or may be looking after their children whilst working.  So being flexible and thinking carefully about the best times to have video calls would be a great way to limit the impact of these challenges and get the best out of each team member. You may also want to change working hours where possible to aid more productive workflow for certain colleagues.

Poor communication: can you hear me now?

Working from home presents a huge range of potential distractions, ranging from attention-seeking pets to daytime TV. Even before Covid-19, we were already faced with a huge amount of digital distractions and information overload, so the current circumstances make communication a greater challenge.

This is a big problem because when you’re working in virtual teams, communication is even more crucial than when working face to face, as clarity is everything. Virtual team members can’t quickly ask the person on the desk next to them to clarify something they don’t understand.

Plus as people often can’t see each other face to face (e.g. when talking on the phone), and feed off non-verbal clues like facial expression and body language, it’s easy for misunderstandings to occur.

This means you should be very careful about ensuring all team communications are understood, especially when teammates can’t see each other’s face and body language. Emails are the most prone to error because both parts of the conversation aren’t happening at the same time, so we don’t have the opportunity to instantly clarify or correct ourselves.

That’s why you should encourage all team members to never be afraid to seek clarification or ask a question if something isn’t clear to them. Other practical tips include having regular meetings with fixed dates, letting everyone have their say in meetings, and agreeing on a virtual platform where you can share information and collaborate.

Using the wrong channels: don’t email the fire service when your house is burning

If your house caught fire would you email the fire service or call them? Of course you’d ring them immediately. The same goes for work – if it’s an urgent situation, you should probably call your colleague, rather than wait for them to see your email. Hence you need to pick the right channel for each situation, but virtual teams don’t always pick the best channel for the communication.

You should decide as a team which communications should happen via which channels, to help your team build co-operation, meet deadlines, and create the trust that’s crucial to succeed. Just remember the hierarchy of communication (face to face is best, followed by video call, then call, then email, then text message) and chose your channel wisely.

You should also ensure that all communication is as effective as possible at helping your team get the job in hand done. So, every communication should be crystal clear about WHO, does WHAT, by WHEN (the magic three W’s). This will help ensure your team meets requests, commitments and deadlines.

Get the most out of working from home

Working from home may be a new experience for some or all or some employees. So it’s important for managers to help staff adapt to this new way of working.

Firstly, you should encourage team members to think carefully about their workspace. There are clear benefits of having a separate office space, you can ‘go to work’ and then close the door on it and go back to your living space.  And workers who haven’t got this option can set one up mentally.

Get some noise cancelling headphones that block out the outside world. Try to create a view that means you’re not distracted by domestic tasks.

You should also encourage team members to think about the pace they work at best and be honest about whether each is a sprinter or marathoner. Sprinters work in small intense periods of time, and can get a good chunk of work completed quickly. They need small breaks to catch their breath, such as five minutes every hour. Marathoners like to work in longer periods of time. They like to get focused on the task and they work best with long uninterrupted chunks.

Also, working from home means your team members need to be strict and dedicated to getting tasks accomplished. One effective way is for each team member to start the day with goals and deliverables. Start by making a plan on what you need to do, how long each task will take and then order in priority.

Ultimately, virtual teams have never been more prevalent or important as they are right now. If you want to help your team to adapt and thrive you need to take the right approach to virtual team management.

Michele Don Durbin, SVP of Marketing, Evernote

As Senior Vice President of Marketing for Evernote, Michele Don Durbin is tasked with empowering Evernote’s more than 250 million customers to stay in control of their lives, at work and home.