Nearly every manager deals with remote or dispersed teams, even if they don’t realize it.
Do you communicate with a graphic designer in another office?
Or meet with a contractor over Skype rather than in person?
Then you know that while virtual teams have many benefits, they certainly offer many challenges for a manager. It can be difficult to keep employees on track due to a lack of personal contact, which can sometimes lead to a lack of trust.
What can you do to avoid these challenges and make sure your team is working efficiently while feeling connected to the rest of the crew? Here are five ways you can overcome some of the common obstacles virtual offices face – and better manage your remote team as a result.
1. Hire a diverse team.
Successfully managing a remote team starts with the hiring process.
It may seem obvious that you need to recruit people who will actually work productively while remote, but employers don’t always consider what skills are required to work virtually.
It’s best to hire people who are comfortable sacrificing the social element of their jobs. Losing the classic “water cooler” element of an office space has a surprisingly large effect on productivity, so your team needs to be fully prepared to get a lot of work accomplished with fewer opportunities to stop and chat and share stories about their weekends.
Additionally, most of us need frequent check-ins from our bosses and managers to stay on task. Hire people who are capable of doing a lot of work with little direction and guidance. They should be comfortable spending the majority of their work week on their own, so they need to be the type of people who thrive when left alone, rather than people who get distracted easily.
Beyond having these two characteristics in common, however, your team should be comprised of a wide breadth of personalities and skill sets. A study done at the London School of Economics showed that the most high-performing virtual teams are diverse – they are comprised of both legacy and new employees with varied and complementary skill sets.
While finding the perfect balance for your company won’t necessarily be easy, it’s important to put together the best team for the job. This means several rounds of interviews, solid recommendations, and even test assignments.
2. Provide the right tools.
When you work with a dispersed team, particularly one with no office home base at all, providing the right tools and software for your employees will help them stay organized, make communication more efficient, and help you stay on the same page as their manager.
Only you can decide which tools work best for you (and it can be a bit of a process of trial and error), but do consider some sort of file management system, communication system, and a productivity/checklist system. It can be as simple as Google Drive and Google Talk, or as elaborate as custom-made tools for your team. It just has to make things simpler rather than more difficult. You want everyone to be able to reach out to each other easily, share all the files necessary to collaborate, and keep track of tasks in the most foolproof manner possible.
Zapier offers a list of some of the tools that have helped their remote team find success here.
3. Communicate frequently.
Life as a remote worker can be isolating, and more than anything else as a manager, you must be available. When you cowork in the same physical space, it’s easy to take for granted how often your team members pop into your office with a quick question or looking for feedback.
Schedule daily or weekly meetings – they can be brief – with individual members of your team to give them a formal setting in which to ask questions and receive feedback.
In addition to these meetings, don’t forget to offer feedback consistently. Part of the feeling of isolation from a remote environment comes from the fact that employees sometimes plan and execute entire projects without anyone else seeing them. These short check-in meetings combined with ongoing email/instant messaging communication offer you a chance to make sure your team members are on track with projects, meeting deadlines, and accomplishing their goals while giving them the confidence they need to complete the job.
4. Pay attention to detail.
Having a shared vision is critical to success for any team, but for a remote one, you also need to break it down further. Clarify tasks and processes as well. Coordinating projects among team members is inherently more difficult when you have minimal face-to-face time and are operating over multiple time zones.
Simplify every project as much as possible and clarify the processes required to complete each job. Follow up at check-in meetings to make sure everyone continues to stay aligned on goals.
5. Create a sense of community.
You can do your best to try to hire people who don’t prioritize a social work environment, but it will still be important to create a sense of community among your staff. In fact, research at MIT shows that informal time together is the number one determinant of success in a team. All that time at the water cooler actually increases productivity.
So how can you replicate it virtually? Foster informal conversation by starting a dialogue with your team members. Whether it’s a group email thread every Monday about each person’s weekend or a monthly video chat where everyone sips their favorite glass of red and chats about their upcoming vacations, encourage your team members to get to know each other beyond their photo thumbnail and email address. It will pay off in the long run.