While not every CEO has bought into the idea of a remote workforce (witness the famous – or infamous — policy switch enacted by Marissa Mayer at Yahoo), the virtual environment in which staff works from home, regional offices, client sites and on the road has grown in both size and popularity. Many executives now understand the necessity to secure talent without regard to geographic boundaries, and the advances in collaborative technology and networking facilitates the efforts to recruit and retain the most productive employees. This workplace evolution has reconfigured entire departments, divisions and companies by creating virtual teams that work solely online with each other. Thus, the challenge to modern managers surrounds the need for skills to lead high-performing, cohesive teams in the expanding virtual workplace. “Management by walking around,” while never the best method, is useless in this online world. The physical separation of staff and management changes how colleagues communicate, work together, establish authority and policies, transfer information and measure performance. While innovative networking, collaboration and remote access technology provides the infrastructure for the virtual team, updates in corporate culture and standards are critical to ensure success.
Manage by Outcome, Not Scrutiny
Gauging productivity by the appearance of “busy-ness” is a common mistake made by many managers. In a physical workspace, effective managers learn not to assume that one employee is hard at work simply because he is sitting at his desk. In the virtual workplace, the corollary is to assume that an employee is unproductive when a phone call or email is not answered immediately. Thus, managing by outcome is a critical element with virtual teams. This starts with communicating and setting clear, quantitative objectives, setting deadlines and enforcing them, and measuring achievements against those objectives.
Effective Communication with Virtual Teams
Successful employees who work remotely tend to be self-motivated and disciplined. However, just because they don’t need constant reminders to get their work done, it doesn’t mean they don’t crave recognition and thrive on positive feedback. Poor feedback or none at all is a common complaint among virtual teams, and this is often the result of inconsistent interaction between the manager and team members. Remote staff needs consistent contact with their managers and coworkers to maximize quality and productivity in addition to developing a sense of community. Managers must facilitate the connections by finding the best mix of interaction and technology. Generally, companies that have virtual teams focus on four areas of concern: establishing commitment, building trust, managing communication across the virtual environment and ensuring self-motivation. Frequent, clear communication is key to each of these issues.
Consistent Communication of Clear Expectations
Employees need objectively defined expectations to direct and measure their performance. Many virtual managers fail to understand that in a physical environment employees receive a large amount of information in informal settings, such as hallway chats and conversations at the cubicle. Remote workers frequently have less access to their supervisors and seeking out information from the manager takes more effort. Thus, the supervisor who proactively documents expectations and quickly distributes changes or updates to those objectives via email, phone call or fax will ensure a more-productive workforce in addition to providing documentation for instances when unproductive employees must be corrected or reprimanded. Collaborative technology for shared project tracking and document sharing keeps the entire team in the loop. Moreover, utilization of teleconferences, instant messaging and group email increases the connections between management and staff. In addition, interactive software and webinars give employees the capability to view the same presentations, regardless of their physical location. While technology facilitates communication, an effective manager needs more than that to motivate and supervise remote staff. Ensuring productive communication takes planning and excellent skills with both verbal and written interaction. Regular conference calls are critical, as are active listening skills. The ability to ask pertinent questions to draw out crucial details from staff is even more important in a virtual environment in which facial expressions, body postures and other physical gestures are not observable.
Measuring Project Success in a Virtual Workplace
Any measurement of the success or failure of a virtual project must include an assessment of the tools available to the team. Nothing can dampen morale faster than inadequate platforms and systems with multiple glitches and crashes. Keep the equipment modern and functional. This requires frequent reviews of hardware, software and connectivity, as well as updates to the technology as it becomes available. Many of the traditional skills associated with recruiting, retaining and motivating staff apply to the virtual world. However, implementing those methods takes a little extra effort, outreach and creativity in the online environment. With consistency and commitment to these motivational techniques, the virtual manager can establish a highly productive online team.