In a nutshell: The virtual workplace has advantages for both employees and employers, but managers may need to change their approach to dealing with their teams.
Telework is nothing new — the term itself dates back to the ’70s. But its presence is growing.
Research conducted by Global Workplace Analytics finds that 50% of the U.S. workforce has a job compatible with at least partial telework and up to 25% telework at some frequency. Additionally, up to 90% say they would like to work remotely at least part-time. And employers are listening: 40% more U.S. employers offer flexible workplace options than they did five years ago.
The benefits of working virtually have advantages for both the employee and employer, according to American Express’ OPEN Forum’s “The 7 Key Benefits of Virtual Office.” Employees have no commute time from their living room to their home office, they have the opportunity to be more active (which has benefits for employers in terms of health insurance) and they can use fewer vacation days because they have all day to make up any missed work time for an appointment or kids’ school activity. Employers can save money on overhead (in terms of providing office space) and technology (if they allow employees to use their own technology) and access top talent worldwide.
While supporting telework sounds like a no-brainer, there are challenges associated with working virtually, particularly, managing a virtual team. But there are ways around them. Below you’ll discover how you, as a manager, can overcome the most common teleworking obstacles.
Check in with Employees Regularly and Frequently
As the manager, you need to make sure to build a relationship with each and every direct report. Just because your employees are not located in the office, don’t forgo the one-on-one meetings. According to Harvard Business Review’s “Making Virtual Teams Work: Ten Basic Principles,” these performance management and coaching opportunities are fundamental to making a team work and may even be more important since you’re separated by distance. A virtual environment doesn’t provide as many opportunities for immediate feedback so a one-on-one on a regular basis — consider once a week or once every two weeks — will help employees feel like they’re on the right track with the project they’ve been assigned and gives them a predefined time to ask any questions.
Encourage Personal Interaction
If your team is spread out all over the country, or world, it can be challenging for employees to feel connected personally to one another. Body language and facial expressions are an important part of effective communication and may be lost in a virtual working environment. So, your job as a manager is to encourage interaction beyond email, text, chat and phone. A video conferencing system can allow employees to have a face-to-face interaction. Nonverbal cues, like holding back a yawn or smiling and nodding, takes any guesswork out of interpreting the conversation. You should also try holding a weekly team video conference call (depending on its size) to drive home the importance of building relationships.
With no watercooler in a virtual office environment, there may not be apparent opportunities for socialization and chatter about news happenings, hobbies or weekend activities. There are several ways you can advocate teambuilding from a distance, though. There are now what are called enterprise social networks (ESNs) for companies to encourage social interaction and workplace collaboration among employees. They act like social media networks just for your company. Some companies with a significant virtual environment assign mentors or buddies to new employees so they have someone other than their manager or team members to develop social relationships with. And chatroom lunches are another way to get virtual employees meeting others. You could even do something simple like asking a personal ice breaker question at the beginning of each team meeting, so people get to know each other better.
Build a Team Spirit
When everyone sits around a conference table, there may be a feeling of “we’re all in this together” once a collaborative project has been assigned. But a conference call kick-off might not feel the same. When you have multiple employees working together on the same project, be sure they understand the team’s goal as well as what their individual objectives are (and how they’re linked), according to Forbes’ “How to Beat the Five Killers of Virtual Working.” Provide them with what metrics their performance will be evaluated on and any potential incentives to meet them. A project wrap-up is a good idea too, so team members can share lessons learned and celebrate success. Forbes suggests a creative reward like Starbucks gift cards, so everyone can bring their free Frappuccinos to the next virtual team meeting.
Trust your Employees
If you hired them (especially if you hired them to start virtually), you need to trust them. It’s not going to work if you’re testing them to see how quickly they respond to a chat inquiry or questioning what times they’re logged on. You hired them because you felt they could get the job done, so let them do it. Giving employees the benefit of the doubt will help at first, then building interpersonal trust will give you the confidence that they will come through for you, according to Harvard Business Review’s “How to Build Trust in a Virtual Workplace.” A great suggestion is to take a “monitor and mentor” approach to managing and not a “command and control” mindset by sharing and rotating power.
Throughout a team project, shift the managerial power to the employee with the most relevant knowledge about that stage of the assignment. This shows them how much you trust in their abilities and ensures they’re being responsible for their part.