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Virtual Reality: Tips for Successful Management of a Virtual Team

Virtual teams are becoming the norm for many corporate departments. According to SHRM’s 2017 Employee Benefits Report, more than 60% of companies offered telecommuting options. Today, that number is even higher. While much has been written about the benefits and drawbacks to the individual worker of being able to work remotely, there aren’t many resources for managers who are responsible for the performance of people they don’t see regularly.

Like any other team, a virtual team is comprised of people with different skills, backgrounds and roles, all working together to achieve common goals. While there are many components needed to build a high performing team, the most vital is trust. Team members who trust one another share information, collaborate, innovate and support one another efficiently. Trust reduces friction and enables a team to make better decisions and to be more nimble in response to change.

The primary challenge of managing a virtual team is building trust with and among people who are not in the same place. With minimal in-person interaction and visibility, the manager of a virtual team must use every opportunity to build trust with and within the team. Here are five tips for making the best use of each opportunity.

1. Develop a strong on-boarding process

On-boarding sets the tone for a new employee’s relationships with their manager, their teammates and the company and can provide a foundation for trust.  For virtual teams, a thoughtful onboarding process can save considerable time and energy in the future by minimizing misunderstandings, building commitment and helping the new person deliver value more quickly.

2. Build trust one interaction at a time

As the manager of a virtual team, take advantage of all the available opportunities to build trust within your team by:

  • Creating opportunities for them to work together in pairs or small groups;
  • Giving positive and constructive feedback in a timely and respectful way;
  • Creating a safe environment for people to share their ideas and suggestions;
  • Communicating your expectations clearly and applying them consistently, and
  • Working to earn their trust in every interaction you have with them, especially during times of high stress.

Despite all of our technological advances, trust is still built one interaction at a time. By staffing your team in different combinations on projects, you give them the opportunity to interact with each other. Each time you give or receive feedback and in every email or phone exchange, you create a track record with your team. Feedback that is thoughtful and expressed in a way designed to help team members improve and grow will engender trust, as will clear communication.

Perceived favoritism by a manager can quickly undermine trust so it is important to clearly communicate your expectations regarding performance and team interactions and to hold everyone equally accountable for meeting those expectations. Strive to be consistent, reliable, respectful and fair.

One of the biggest threats to managers of virtual teams is when employees deliver bad news too late. An employee may hide bad news because they fear negative consequences or don’t want to seem incompetent. If, however, your team members trust you and know that your reaction, even to negative news, will be measured and fair, they are far more likely to share it with you promptly. In fact, the best opportunity to build trust is during a crisis. It’s an opportunity for you to remain calm, even when others panic, and show your team that you support them. To build rapport with each team member, schedule a weekly or monthly check-in.  Those one-on-one conversations will give them an opportunity to raise issues or share news and will deepen your relationships.

3. Ground your virtual team in real world relationships

At a minimum, the full team should have an in-person meeting at least once a year. The meeting should cover substantive matters but it should also include networking and social time to allow team members to get to know each other. To make these meetings impactful and valuable, consider adding the following activities to the agenda:

  • Discuss the value proposition of the team and brainstorm new ways to achieve it.
  • Learn more about the strategic direction of the business – bring in business leaders as guest speakers and allow for Q&A.
  • Share success stories and ideas for dealing with common challenges.
  • Train in soft skills like emotional intelligence and executive presence.
  • Conduct team building activities tied to a charitable cause (e.g., a competition to build bikes, which are then donated).

4. Use technology thoughtfully

Too often, people use technology, particularly email, to avoid confrontation or to protect themselves from blame rather than to solve a problem. This is particularly tempting in the virtual team setting. As the manager, you will set the tone and the example for how and when to use technology. Messaging, email, phone and video calls are all important tools and each serves a different purpose. Set clear guidelines for when to copy someone on an email or include them in a phone call based on their role. A team that makes good use of technology with consistent guidelines works more efficiently and creates less room for misunderstanding.

5. Measure what matters

Managing a virtual team makes it difficult to know what people are working on at any given time and whether they are being efficient. Managers who try to ensure that their people are at their desks all day will be resented by strong performers and deceived by poor ones.

Measure what really matters about your team’s performance. For example, being accessible and responsive to clients is critically important. Be clear about your expectations for performance. Reward those who meet or exceed those expectations and put in place consequences for those who do not. By measuring performance based on the results your team members achieve, you accomplish the goals of the organization while giving individuals the autonomy needed to be productive and build commitment.

There is tremendous power in virtual teams. Without the tether of a physical office, you have access to a wider array of talent and can build a highly skilled and diverse team. To effectively motivate and manage a virtual team, you need to invest in building and maintaining trust within the team. Be clear about your expectations, use technology thoughtfully and measure what matters. The results will follow.

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