The COVID-19 pandemic delivered a myriad of challenges as workers scrambled to take their base of operations into their homes. Now here we are, six months later, and many companies have overcome the initial speedbumps of managing remote teams and built a toolkit for managing remote workers. They had plenty of practice, too. By April, nearly half of the American workforce had gone remote. Now, a new survey shows 43% of those workers don’t want to change back to the way things were.
What are the challenges of managing virtual teams? How have successful virtual teams made the transition? Are there tips and resources available to help your remote team be more productive?
Even before COVID-19, remote work was an increasing option for many companies. Gallup showed in 2012, 39% of employers worked at home occasionally, but by 2016, that number increased to 43%. With the increase of gig economy workers, the number of full-time work-from-home contractors continued to rise. By 2017 about eight million Americans worked from home all the time.
However, persistent fears that these workers weren’t productive seemed to linger in the minds of employers. This cliché was ruled false by a two-year study by Stanford University that found these workers were 13% more productive than the traditional office workforce. With the added bonus of the overhead savings associated with reduced utilities and office space, it was literally putting more money in the bank for companies that embraced remote work.
It seems that remote work is here to stay, at least for now. But what are the challenges of managing remote employees, and how can employers know they’re getting the best bang for their buck?
Transitioning to video-conferenced meetings instead of having face-to-face meetings and instant messaging instead of popping your head over a cubical wall to chat about the latest project are just two examples of how remote work has changed how we collaborate, communicate, and manage teams.
Communication alone is a huge issue when your team is remote. Managers need to be sure off-site workers have all the tools they need online to perform their work well. Employees need a responsive manager that can answer questions quickly to keep their productivity high.
In 2018, a survey of remote workers covered some of the challenges they face from their perspective, including:
Managers, pay attention to these numbers. A distracted employee is a less-productive employee. A lonely employee may feel disengaged from the company.
Managers say scheduling is sometimes more challenging when their teams are spread across time zones. Employees need to remember time zone differences when scheduling meetings. Plus, they may not get the answer to their question immediately if their boss or coworker hasn’t made it to work yet.
How can you track the status of a project when there’s no bulletin board full of sticky notes to go over? How can managers know their workers are completing tasks on time when they’re away from the office? One of the benefits of working from home is that employees can and should have the flexibility to work when they are most productive. For example, developers may write their best code at 2 am. Marketing executives may post on social media at 7 pm because the view rates are traditionally higher at that time. There are benefits to the scheduling flexibility that comes with work-from-home.
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In this way, working from home is a little bit of a trust exercise. Managers must be able to trust but verify. That’s where online tools will play an important role in tracking behaviors and project progress. There is less oversight when you can’t actually see your workers, but there’s no reason you can’t use tools like Asana, Confluence, Basecamp, Trello, or other project management tools to track how things are going.
One of the biggest challenges of managing virtual teams is how to continue or to build corporate culture when everyone isn’t in the same room. How can you onboard a new employee when you can’t give them an office tour?
Fortunately, we can give you some pointers on how to overcome these challenges.
The trick to overcoming the challenges of virtual teams is to begin with communication. You can and should create clear channels for the information flow between employees in their homes and your management team. Employees need to understand and feel comfortable with how to use these channels. Do you have a forum for feedback and ideas? Where and how do you communicate about projects? Are you checking in every day on a specific communications channel?
Pay particular attention to the quietest members of your team. You’ll always have one or two wallflowers. Managers should make an effort to get to know all of their workers as people, not just production units. You can overcome their loneliness by setting up regular Zoom check-ins to see how people are doing and how you can help them succeed in this new normal.
Be clear with your workers about when they are expected to work. Make sure calendars are updated, and any time away is noted. Managers should consider a virtual open office door policy during certain hours so workers can feel comfortable talking with you. It is this approachability that will help your employees feel connected to the organization.
Culturally, a good tip is to work with your HR team to schedule virtual events that bring everyone together. Whether it’s a Friday lunch-n-learn with a particular team or a full-on town hall meeting, getting together to see everyone virtually is vital for keeping organizational cultural momentum flowing.
There are dozens of online resources available to give managers a toolkit for managing their remote staff. Some of our favorites include:
While these are just a few of the great free tools available to help you overcome the challenges of managing remote employees, there are lots more out there that you can take advantage of to help you build successful virtual teams.
The genie is out of the bottle, and we expect many companies will keep their remote team models at least through the winter, perhaps longer. There are ways to build successful virtual teams, and plenty of tools available to help you communicate, collaborate, and grow your corporate culture. Good luck!