I’ve been working with hundreds of virtual team members in over 9 different countries in the past 8 years. Managing remote employees oftentimes made me want to tear my hair out.
Sometimes I had no idea what my team was doing, or that team members would “flake out”–they’d work effectively for a while and then their quality of work would taper off or they’d quit, or I get frustrated about not being able to communicate with them effectively, or I had many issues finding and hiring great people remotely.
But now I know a lot more about handling tough situations and issues that come with the territory when managing virtual teams. The strategies I use reflect my years of experience figuring out what works best to keep the teams coherent, productive and motivated.
These strategies on how to manage virtual teams are what we use at Time Doctor, where we have over 50 full-time global team members all working virtually, remotely, to create the best remote management and productivity software for individuals and businesses.
One of the biggest reasons why virtual teams fail is because they don’t compensate the fact that team members are not bumping into each other. They kind of forget about the other team members, live in their own world and do not communicate or collaborate as much as they need to.
In a virtual environment, you need to create opportunities for team members to just “chat” both formally and informally. Some effective options are online chat rooms (like Skype), project management software (like Basecamp), and video conferencing (Google Hangouts is free).
In our business we have a chat room open for each team in the business. Team members leave messages for the team that they are a part of. It’s essential to keep these chats alive but not distracting. There’s enough conversation to be able to discuss important issues and to feel like we’re connected as one team, but not so much that it becomes distracting.
We also have a fun company wide chat room open for non business related chat. This creates a bit of a water cooler effect where employees can chat about anything they like. It can be a lonely existence working by yourself at home and this company wide chat helps keep a feeling of social connection.
By the way, here is how we chose our team chat app.
Depending on your needs, choose the type of communication that works best.
When you’re not in the same room how can you explain something visually on your computer screen? A YouTube video or a screen capture tool like Jing is a great way to do this. Capture desktop screenshots and put arrows, labels and notes using Jing or create quick screen capture videos and share it with other team members via YouTube. You can also create explainer videos using tools like mysimpleshow.
There are tools that enable you to share your screen so that another person can see exactly what you are doing. Some of these tools even allow people to control another computer remotely. Many of these tools are free-to-use for small teams, including TeamViewer and Join.me. Skype also has screen sharing capability but without any option to control another computer remotely.
If you have a document that is being edited by many people, Google Drive is the best option. If you have a document that just needs to be shared, and will not be edited simultaneously, then you can place your documents (such as an excel file) in a shared Google Drive or in Dropbox. Many project management tools also have file sharing and collaboration features, so that’s another alternative for collaborating on documents.
For smaller teams you might be tempted to wing it and handle everything via email. This is dangerous. Project management systems are helpful in managing virtual teams because they help to organize documents and conversations into projects, making it easier to find them later. They also help with organizing and storing shared files. If you run your business purely with emails it can quickly become an unmanageable, disorganized mess.
Without systems, your business can fall apart. A business run in an office can compensate to some degree for not having systems and processes simply by the fact that people can talk in person and look over each other’s shoulders. In a virtual team, each person can be in their own world. They may develop their own processes and procedures that don’t mesh with the way other team members are working. It’s best to have a documented, standardized way of working that you’re constantly refining.
For example in our business, developers follow a very specific process for suggestions, building, testing and documentation.
People working from home will rightly want flexibility with their work hours. And it’s important to allow a degree of flexibility when managing remote employees. On the other hand, if things are totally erratic then it will be difficult to get a shared collaboration window when all of your team are online at the same time and able to chat.
Whether your team is virtual or not, you need to try to measure their productivity. What are the key indicators of success for each job? Get transparency around this so that you will know quickly (in a couple of weeks and not in 6 months) whether each team member is being productive or not.
If you are paying based on hours worked, then it makes a lot of sense to track how many hours each person works.
In an office environment you can see who is coming in each day even if you are not tracking attendance. In a completely virtual environment it can be difficult to understand exactly what is going on, how long each person worked, and what they are working on. There is a minority of people who are self motivated enough that they do not need any tracking of attendance or hours. However there is also a large majority who need some level of discipline when working at home.
We built the Time Doctor software to handle these exact issues, and also to track websites visited, applications used, time spent working and time on breaks. Our time tracking software can show you for example whether a team member is working or chatting with friends on Facebook. We also have some free timesheet templates that you may want to try out in case you are not ready to try out a software yet.
If members of your team work in different time zones, make sure that you have an overlapping period where everyone is working and organize your virtual meetings during these times.
One of the issues with working from home is that people can feel lonely and isolated. Not everyone copes well with this style of working. Most people do not have this issue and love the freedom that comes with working from home, but it’s important to check in from time to time and make sure everything is working for them.
You don’t need to hire someone full time right off the bat. You can get a taste of working with someone by hiring them for a small project, and then when it’s completed if you’re happy move on to full time work. It’s important that you do move on to full time work because if you have someone on part time or on a temporary project, their attention will be divided. It’s quite possible they will no longer be available just when you need them most. My experience is that staff who are working part time eventually drop off and stop working altogether. Full time people are relying on your company for their livelihood and are more likely to stick with you long term.
There are a lot of people who want to work virtually. Many professionals are willing to take a pay cut for the opportunity to work from home. While it’s true that you can find lower-cost team members virtually, if you pay them well, you’ll ensure that your team works hard and sticks with you for the long term.
Take a look at their environment at home. Do they have a quiet place to work? Are they constantly distracted by children in the house? On the other hand are they living at home by themselves and unable to get out and spend time with friends? Both distractions and isolation can be issues and it’s important to make sure that your team is happy & productive working from home.
If you’re hiring employees remotely then they are not going to get the same kind of “learn by watching over the shoulder” method that can happen in an office. So when you hire someone, make sure that they have a training program (videos can work well) that educates them about your company and the way that you do things. Do as much as you can to get them adjusted to your company and to learn how to perform in their role.
Remote workers can miss the feeling of a company culture. It’s difficult to create and maintain culture through written words alone. It’s much more powerful to create videos and use video conferencing services such as Google Hangouts. You can record hangouts for future employees as well. Use videos as a way to inspire your team, and to reinforce core concepts in your company culture (such as your company vision and mission).
It’s hard to develop true friendships remotely. Meeting in person about 4 times per year or as often as possible is the best way to create stronger bonds within your company.
Don’t forget that your team are human beings wired to connect with others. People can get connected from outside of work but it’s great to fill some of this need at work as well, much more in a virtual team. In my experience, this is especially important in jobs that do not involve as much human contact, such as in software development.
When working virtually it may take extra effort to keep people feeling committed to their team. They need to know that not only they’re contributing true value to the team’s common goal; they are also valuable to the team’s success in achieving its goal. Some ways to achieve this are:
Anything you can do to create a feeling that they are not just working separately but are truly part of your company and part of a team is worthwhile.