In 1997 I asked my boss to consider allowing me to telecommute on a part-time basis. My proposal went down in flames. Although the company already had field-based people who telecommuted full-time, and my boss herself worked from home on a regular basis, the prevailing mindset was work was someplace you went, not something you did.
Fast forward a few years to the early-2000’s and I’m supervising team members who worked remotely full-time. The exodus continued for a few years and by the mid-2000’s nearly half my team worked virtually. A little more than 20 years after I submitted my telecommuting proposal, the world has become a smaller place. My organization has associates in Canada, the U.K., Singapore, France, and scores of colleagues work out of home offices around the globe.
My experience mirrors the reality of many leaders today. Managing teams with virtual workers is commonplace and will likely increase as technology becomes ever more ubiquitous in our lives. Here are three specific strategies I’ve adopted over the years in leading a virtual team:
Establish the profile of a successful virtual worker – Not everyone is cut out to be a successful virtual worker. It takes discipline, maturity, good time management skills, technical proficiency (you’re often your own tech support), and a successful track record of performance in the particular role. I’ve always considered working remotely a privilege, not a right, and the privilege has to be earned. You have to have a high level of trust in your virtual workers and they should be reliable and dependable performers who honor their commitments and do good quality work.
Have explicit expectations – There needs to be a clear understanding about the expectations of working virtually. For example, my team has norms around the use of Instant Messenger, forwarding office phone extensions to home/cell lines, using webcams for meetings, frequency of updating voicemail greetings, email response time, and out-of-office protocols just to name a few. Virtual team members generally enjoy greater freedom and autonomy than their office-bound counterparts, and for anyone who has worked remotely can attest, are often more productive and work longer hours in exchange. A downside is virtual workers can suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” so it’s important they work extra hard to be visible and active within the team.
Understand and manage the unique dynamics of a virtual team – Virtual teams add a few wrinkles to your job as a leader and a specific one is communication. It’s important to ramp up the frequency of communication and leverage all the tools at your disposal: email, phone, webcam, instant messenger, and others. It’s helpful to set, and keep, regular meeting times with virtual team members.
One of the biggest challenges in managing a virtual team is fostering a sense of connection. They aren’t privy to the hallway conversations where valuable information about the organization is often shared, and they miss out on those random encounters with other team members where personal relationships are built.
Team building activities also look a little different with a virtual team. Potluck lunches work great for the office staff, but can feel exclusionary to remote workers. Don’t stop doing events for the office staff for fear of leaving out virtual team members, but look for other ways to foster team unity with remote workers. For example, when we’ve had office holiday dinners and a Christmas gift exchange, remote team members will participate in the gift exchange and we’ll send them a gift card to a restaurant of their choice.
For many jobs, work is no longer a place we go to but something we do, from any place at any time. Virtual teams aren’t necessarily better or worse than on-site teams, but they do have different dynamics that need to be accounted for and managed, expectations need to be clear, and you need to make sure the virtual worker is set up for success.