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Your approach to managing virtual teams should be similar to your approach to managing in-person teams—which, broadly speaking, can go one of two ways. In 1960, Douglas McGregor published his seminal business management book The Human Side of Enterprise, in which he identified two basic types of managers: 

  1. Theory X managers, who have a negative view of employees and consider their team members lazy and untrustworthy. They assume that most people are not ambitious, and that the primary employee motivation is financial, with security following close behind. 
  2. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, assume that employees are trustworthy and highly motivated. These managers assume that everyone has a capacity for creativity and responsibility, and employees are generally driven by a need for fulfillment. 

McGregor’s revolutionary theory stands true today. If the pandemic and its repercussions have taught us anything, it’s that Theory Y managers had it right. When it comes to managing people, Theory Y leaders rely on the whole team’s creative problem-solving, using new technologies to keep up effective communication in a virtual environment despite the challenges of physical distance. 

The question remains: how can you adapt existing skills as a team leader to effectively manage virtual employees? To manage virtual teams is to juggle various challenges at once. Physical location isn’t the only issue: multiple time zones, employees taking advantage of reduced supervision, and a decrease in social interaction are all factors that can contribute to a less motivated team. 

However, there are positives

  • Many employees find they have a much better work-life balance while working from home, which in turn can boost levels of engagement and productivity. In fact, a 2021 study by OwlLabs found that 55% of employees put in more hours while working remotely than they did at a physical office. 
  • Employers have access to a much wider talent pool, and are not limiting their recruitment to just one city or even one country anymore. This benefits both sides: employers don’t have to settle for someone who is not an ideal fit for the job but lives nearby. Equally, employees don’t have to move just because they want to find a job that better satisfies their needs. 
  • Virtual teamwork is possible; all it takes is some creativity and willingness to participate. 

In this article, we run through our five top tips to build trust and keep performance levels high while managing virtual teams. 

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5 Top tips for managing your virtual team

From constant feedback loops to new communicating technology, it is possible to overcome the challenges of working remotely—and even to perform better as a team. Here are our top five tips for succeeding as a virtual team manager. 

1. Establish consistent communication 

Reduced potential for informal communication that you might have had in the office, for example an impromptu coffee or monthly work drinks, means that you’ve got to work harder to keep the whole team involved. It’s important to keep up one-on-one meetings with your team members. 

You may have heard of ‘Management by Wandering Around’ (MBWA), the concept that, as a manager, you spend part of your day walking to the desk of your direct reports and casually checking in with them on how they are doing. This isn’t possible with remote teams.

However, even if you’re not in a physical office, you can make use of the many tools at your disposal to do the same via phone or web-conference call. Schedule in a time at the beginning of each week to have a 30-minute check-in call with each team member. Begin by asking them how they are feeling or by checking in on their personal lives. The goal is to connect on a personal level, not to pry. 

A personal meeting on a regular basis can help you understand the particular stresses that might be affecting an employee’s productivity while also making them feel valued for more than just their work.  Remember to ask your virtual team members about any roadblocks that might be limiting their performance at work. Support is key, especially from afar. 

2. Set clear deadlines

No matter the task, be explicit about when you expect to receive the deliverable. While this is always a good management practice, it is even more important to do when managing virtual teams, as it is less easy for them to connect with you. Communicating clearly and often, by creating goals and having crystal clear expectations, helps keep employees both accountable and motivated

Follow each call with a written summary of expected deadlines and action points so everyone can see it in writing. Ask team members to let you know at least three days in advance if they do not think they are going to be able to hit the deadline. This gives you time to think of and implement a Plan B if necessary. Make sure employees have a good understanding of why you want the advanced warning so that they feel they can be open about any struggles they’re facing when it comes to meeting deadlines. 

3. Celebrate success

It often feels like work never stops. As a manager, it is easy to go from one work task to another without appreciating your team. Continuing to work without recognizing the team’s accomplishments can lead to burnout or to members feeling undervalued. In fact, 83.6% of employees feel that recognition affects their motivation to succeed at work. 

Before major holidays or after the accomplishment of a major project, have a virtual celebration. Do more than just have a personal conversation. Consider having a theme or a small, fun activity, or even sending a little gift card to team members to show your appreciation. 

A little gesture can go a long way: while it is important to mark big milestones, don’t forget the smaller reasons to celebrate. Employee birthdays, for example, or celebrating the birth of an employee’s baby, can be instrumental in building strong team relationships—as well as helping employees feel seen. 

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4. Maintain set feedback loops

Effective virtual team members depend on effective feedback. It’s important to keep up task-related communications before, during, and after each project. This ensures that no one’s work goes under the radar, and helps employees keep learning and upskilling. 

In addition to brief, focused meetings with each team member, providing a monthly comprehensive update that showcases the team’s progress, achievements, and challenges is essential. This might contain project updates, KPI, and goal alignments, giving a sense of the bigger picture that can often be lost if a team is working remotely. 

5. Seize opportunities for team building

Last but not least, team building. Not sharing a physical location, or spanning different time zones, shouldn’t be the reason your virtual team lacks cohesion. You might schedule virtual meetings as a group, or plan regular group activities: whatever it is, ensure there’s frequently something non-work-related to look forward to. 

Over the last couple of years, organizations have been getting creative with new techniques for virtual team building. Wherever you are in the world, it is possible to create meaningful interactions online. You might choose to have a virtual wellness session, for example an opt-in lunchtime yoga lesson, or a miniature team ‘campfire’. You might choose a game, like a virtual scavenger hunt or escape room—or host a DIY craft challenge. Whatever it takes to get your virtual employees involved, team building is a must

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While managing virtual teams might require a little extra effort and creativity from managers, there is huge potential to maintain a happy, productive workforce. Establishing good practices, such as regular feedback loops, from the outset can help a team keep up momentum. 

The bottom line is— believe in your team. Believe in their capacity to adapt and perform well, even to develop new skills while working at a distance. For help building better teams or helping your managers adapt a Theory Y mindset, contact Comprehensive Learning Solutions.

Karen Feeley
Karen Feeley

Instructional designer

Karen Feeley is a seasoned professional with over 25 years of experience in workplace learning and development. She is a published author, trainer, instructional designer, editor, and project manager with a proven track record of success in the private, public, and non-profit sectors.

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