The Art of Virtual Leadership – 4 Keys to Leading Remote Workers and Managing Virtual Teams
By Philip Montero
Many organizations believe that one of the biggest challenges they face when implementing a virtual office is managing mobile or remote workers. It is unfortunate that they let this perception stop them from reaping the many benefits of a more flexible workplace.
Remote management is not radically different from managing people on-site. The biggest difference is a shift in management style from “eyeball management” (assuming workers are being productive because you physically see them at their desks working) to managing by results.
By learning to mange by results rather than activity, improving communication, and nurturing trust between managers and employees the whole organization benefits. In fact, virtual team managers have reported that their overall management skills increased for both on and off-site workers.
There are 4 main keys to leading remote employees. These tips for distance management will help you work more successfully with your mobile workers and virtual teams.
Basics of managing remote or mobile workers
- Managing by results, not activity
- Improving communication to stay connected
- Handling meetings and schedules
- Feedback and support
MANAGING BY RESULTS, NOT ACTIVITYOne of the most common fears that managers and executives have when considering virtual teams is, “How do I know my employees will be working if I’m not there to watch them?” Well the simple answer is that you won’t, not every minute. But realistically, you can’t be sure they are really working every minute you see them in the office either; it is easy to confuse activity with productivity.
A manager’s job is to provide specific, measurable, and attainable goals for the remote employee so that he or she knows what must be done and when. These can include reports completed, number of calls made, and number of support issues resolved – or any other appropriate measure of job productivity.
It is important that the employee and manager arrive upon a shared definition of the deliverables and timetable together. This ensures that everyone is on the “same page” and prevents miscommunication. It also ensures that the goals and expectations are realistic.
A manager’s value to an organization is as more of a coach and mentor, not an overseer. This move away from “eyeball management,” and the resulting clearer definition of employee job responsibilities, is one of the major contributing factors to the improved productivity normally experienced with virtual teams.
Shifting your focus to performance based management will help you build a more productive mobile workforce.
IMPROVING COMMUNICATION (STAYING CONNECTED)
Effective communication is one of the most important elements to ensuring a successful virtual team. This is one area of remote work that technology helps make very easy. A variety of tools are available that allow employees to stay in touch and collaborate.
The most obvious way to promote ease of communication with remote workers is to have defined working hours. By clearly setting hours employees need to be available, you can circumvent a common point of confusion and ensure timely communication. Recognize, however, that there is a balance between being in touch and being pestered. This balance must be developed over time.
When remote workers are not immediately available, or communication is not taking place in ‘real time’, another area that can cause challenges is the timeliness of communication. Managers and on-site coworkers are often concerned with not being able to get in touch with remote workers when needed.
An easy, but often overlooked, solution to this problem is to create a set schedule for checking and responding to voice messages and e-mail. This can be hourly, twice a day, or whatever is appropriate for your situation. This schedule, along with an expected response time, allows everyone to rest assured that their messages will be received and a response is forthcoming.
There are also a variety of practices managers can implement that assist remote employees to stay “connected” and still feel like part of the gang at the office. These include having regularly scheduled phone calls, including virtual team members in impromptu lunches and other social events, and routing more informal information, memos, and FYI items to them.
HANDLING MEETINGS AND SCHEDULES
Meetings serve a variety of crucial purposes for any organization or team project including sharing information, keeping up to date on developments, making decisions, reporting on progress, brainstorming, and exploring ideas, plans, and alternatives.
Keeping track of everyone’s schedule and including remote workers in meetings can appear daunting to an organization investigating virtual teamwork. By being creative with time management and using technology and tools properly, these can become non-issues.
There are web-based groupware and virtual office platforms as well as dedicated software solutions available that manage group schedules and shared calendars. These allow both on and off-site employees to access current schedules and up-to-date information on last minute scheduling changes.
An important realization is that not all meetings need to be face-to-face. If you use technology properly, remote workers can use a combination of teleconferencing, videoconferencing, web conferencing, and groupware to participate in meetings and attend presentations in real time without the additional cost or time requirement to travel. These tools also allow you to include remote workers in important ad hoc meetings that arise.
For times when face-to-face communication is preferable or necessary, schedule meetings when mobile workers and virtual team members will be in the office. A simple approach is to schedule consistent meetings such as a staff meeting the 2nd Tuesday of every month or a team meeting every Friday. This type of regularity makes meetings easier to plan around.
FEEDBACK AND SUPPORT
An important but basic management technique that is often neglected is giving employees ongoing feedback and support. Many employees – at all organizational levels – feel they don’t get enough feedback from managers on their performance. This type of ongoing discussion takes on heightened importance with virtual teams.
Regular meetings should be scheduled between managers and remote workers to assess needs, give feedback, and discuss problems. These are excellent opportunities to agree upon the scope of work to be done, timelines, and deadlines.
Another important way to improve the relationship with remote or mobile workers is to be sure to include them in feedback and praise. Many managers and executives give feedback and praise to their employees in a very informal way, often when they see these colleagues or coworkers in the office. Remote employees don’t have as many opportunities to bump into the boss or a manager, so some extra effort is required to keep them in the loop.
This doesn’t mean a lot of extra work, it’s more a presence of mind. Even using simple, quick ways of letting people know how they are doing – such as a brief voice message or email, or a quick note jotted in the margin of a report or memo – helps employees stay motivated and on target.
Also, don’t forget to occasionally make a pat on the back public, like at a staff meeting. This assures onsite workers that the remote workers are carrying their load and can minimize any possible resentment that onsite employees feel toward virtual team members and their work arrangement.
Fear of the challenges involved in managing virtual teams and keeping them connected are two of the most common obstacles organizations face. This often prevents them from taking advantage of the power and flexibility that comes with having a more mobile workforce.
Don’t let these fears get in your way. The necessary management techniques and strategies are not new, they are the same things that good managers have been doing for years to build trust and clear communication among their team. Using the guidelines I’ve shared with you in these four key areas you can effectively work from anywhere and keep your team connected!
An advocate of working virtually? It would be more precise to say that Phil Montero is an evangelist for distributed work. He’s been the spearhead of the remote work movement for more than a decade: teaching how to work effectively from a home office, the road, or practically anywhere.
The consultant, writer, speaker, and coach is the founder of http://www.YouCanWorkFromAnywhere.com – a site that assists organizations to leverage mobile work technology and create effective virtual teams.
His blog, http://www.TheAnywhereOffice.com, takes a big picture approach to the philosophies and strategies of navigating today’s digital lifestyle while covering topics such as work life balance, virtual teams, mobile work technology, and internet marketing.