High-quality relationships between managers and their teams are related to a ton of important outcomes including increased performance and reduced turnover. It’s no wonder that we go to great lengths to learn management best practices. Being a virtual manager, however, requires a different set of tactics and priorities. Along those lines, here are some management adjustments new managers should consider as they lead a virtual team.
Start with the Basics
Technological Know-How: Managers need to touch-up on their technical skills as it relates to virtual communication. Understanding how to start and manage a video call is no longer enough. Managing virtual teams requires time understanding how to include a variety of collaboration tools into virtual meetings with your team..
Check-Ins: Virtual managers need to encourage social cohesion through regular team check-ins. The cadence of the check-in depends on the type of work, the number of direct reports, and more. Have a conversation with employees about cadence and length. Then, experiment and adjust as needed.
Leverage Asynchronous Video: Video conferencing allows us to put hundreds of people together in real-time across different time zones. But be careful, multi-tasking, turning off the camera, and disengagement starts to increase once you have around 20 people in a virtual team meeting. If you are considering communicating something to more than 20 people at a time, it might be better to use asynchronous communication because more than likely there won’t be opportunities for much interaction.
Balanced Monitoring: Over-monitoring employees is common when leading virtually. Leaders tend to overcompensate when they can no longer pick up on subtle signals during face-to-face interaction. Although some degree of monitoring ensures stability in productivity, too much will annoy subordinates and degrade trust.
Building Rapport: Communication apprehension—anxiety due to anticipated communication with others—is more common in real-time virtual communication. This isn’t the same thing as introversion. In fact, it’s often associated with uneasiness and even worry. Which means that some of the most critical, perfection-oriented team members aren’t speaking up. Consider giving team members alternative outlets for to voice their suggestions and concerns if you notice their lack of participation in virtual settings.
Build the Foundation
Building Relational Trust: Building relational trust, whereby you look out for each other’s best interests, is a challenge for virtual teams. This is mostly because there are fewer opportunities for informal, impromptu conversations. Virtual conversations tend to be highly structured, typically in increments of 30 or 60 minutes. Further, there’s never enough time to fit it in the professional conversations, let alone the personal conversations that help build relational trust. Why is relational trust so important? It helps with team building and guides the way for a lot of the work your team will be doing together. Simply put, teams will fail without relational trust.
Allocate time. Building relationships takes time. The process is an investment. Although it might seem less important than the “real work,” it’s actually the foundation that allows the real work to be done well.
Share more candid information. Be thoughtful and strategic about the information you share with others. When given the opportunity, use it wisely to get” just personal enough.”
Create opportunities for others to share personal information. Never put others on the spot. Not everyone wants to share. Instead, be sure to “create opportunities” for colleagues to share as much as they are comfortable sharing.
Building Competence-Based Trust: It’s also important to build competence-based trust, which entails trusting that each other is capable and reliable. When working with remote teams, it’s more challenging to get a clear view of where and how colleagues add value to the organization. It’s also easier to “drop the ball” when communication is scattered across virtual mediums.
Clarify your competence. Don’t hesitate to explain to colleagues what you believe to be your key skills or abilities. This helps others understand how you will best contribute to the team. Share your experiences, but do so without ego. There’s nothing worse than a colleague who introduces themselves to new virtual team members with a laundry list of accomplishments.
Timely responses. The easiest way to weaken competence-based trust is to be slow to respond. Set expectations upfront on turnaround times with your team. And at least be sure to acknowledge receipt and then explain existing priorities.
Keep others up-to-date. Another common challenge with virtual interaction is the lack of closure on specific conversations. Did they see my message? Are they ignoring me? Are they still working through the next steps? Giving regular updates is really important.
Strategic Virtual Management
Face-to-face onboarding: Whenever possible, onboarding should be done face to face. Even if the onboarding is as short as 48 hours, it’s worth it. Team members will be much more comfortable speaking up, expressing concerns, and asking questions when they can read the room. Interestingly, turnover is at its highest during the first several months of an employee’s time with a company. When employees feel lost, emotional attachment is inevitably low, making it easier for them to leave.
Quarterly on-sites: When employees were primarily face to face, company off-sites typically fell flat. Team members are less interested in spending time and energy doing activities with people they already see every day. But the tables have turned in the virtual environment. Virtual employees want to shake hands and get to know colleagues on a more personal level. They want to build trust, establish connections, and network—key components of affective commitment—all of which can be done during a one- or two-day event. Along those lines, the best practice nowadays is to do quarterly on-sites where all remote employees come to a physical meeting space, such as an event center or headquarters. The key here is to create an on-site experience that is enjoyable and useful. A bad on-site will do more harm than good. Thoughtful agendas, high-quality interaction experiences, and strategic information are a must.
Familiarity through technology: Communication technologies are what has allowed us to have virtual teams. But the biggest obstacle for virtual employees is that they struggle to garner what’s called professional familiarity: understanding colleagues’ tendencies, strengths, values, and work-related preferences. Professional familiarity helps facilitates trust and high-quality team interactions, which are important precursors to affective commitment. Organizations should invest in HR-tech that facilitates professional familiarity. Employees need accurate, actionable, and on-demand information about their colleagues’ psychographics. Doing so will significantly heighten interpersonal understanding among team members.
Good managers know that all employees are unique, and in turn, each person deserves a custom approach. This gives team leaders and employees the best chance of having a high-quality relationship. New managers in this era need to add yet another layer of customization, namely, whether the employee is primarily working virtually. Managers that can prioritize the basics, build trust, and engage in strategic virtual management with remote workers will have the best chance for success.
If you’re a leader ready to learn practical management skills that utilize coaching to develop your team, check out the Boss To Coach Playbook.
About Dr. Scott Dust
Scott Dust, Ph.D. is the Fealy Family Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati. Scott is also the Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf, an HR-tech platform that facilitates coaching insights for everyone. Scott earned his Ph.D. in Management and Organizational Behavior at the LeBow College of Business, Drexel University, and his B.S. and M.B.A. from the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. His primary areas of research are leadership, leader-follower relationships, and teams. His work has appeared in academic journals such as the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Leadership Quarterly, and Human Relations, and he currently serves on the editorial review board of the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Group and Organization Management, and Journal of Social Psychology.