Virtual, remote and distributed teams are the future of work.
More than 3.9 million Americans now spend at least half of their employed hours working remotely, and that number is only going to continue rising.
Remote work is popular among talented workers, and with the right management strategies, it’s a superior option for employers as well, especially in technology.
In this guide, I’m going to teach you everything you need to hire, manage, and retain talented virtual teams.
Let’s get started.
Why Virtual Teams Require Different Strategies
Working with a virtual team is drastically different from a local, in-house team. It comes with its own set of challenges and you will need a fundamental shift in the criteria you use for putting your team together and measuring that team’s performance.
Less face-to-face contact
The first is that there is less face-to-face contact. Even with the occasional Skype meeting, the majority of your communication will be via email, which can leave more room for miscommunication and misunderstandings that might not occur if you were to have a brief chat at your desk.
Another difference is that each virtual employee must hold themselves accountable to their work. In a structured office environment, it can be easier to stay on task when everyone else is working hard (and there’s a chance your boss might walk up behind you and catch you on YouTube). At home, or even in a cafe, workers must set their own hours and schedules – then stick to them.
Finally, virtual workers often have to juggle family distractions throughout their working day. Whether it’s a pile of laundry, a sick child home from school, or a dog that’s destroyed the bean bag, there are countless interruptions that can occur at home. While it’s nice to think a virtual worker can shut themselves away for the day, a realistic manager will keep these distractions in mind when planning and tasking out projects and communication.
These differences can look like problems for managers unfamiliar with virtual teams, but the fact is, all it takes is a few small (and manageable) adjustments to processes and strategies you already know.
How To Attract & Hire Effective Remote Talent
The first step in dealing with virtual teams is to hire talent that is capable of working effectively no matter where they are. You already know how to hire, you simply need to approach this process with an adjusted mindset.
As a strategy for attracting virtual talent, cultivate a reputation for effective hiring and management practices. The best talent won’t put up with fickle employers who don’t respond to emails, offer sub-par rates, or expect unrealistic turnaround times.
Effective managers of virtual teams will:
- Offer fair pay rates
- Have reasonable expectations for deadlines
- Provide legitimate contracts
- Be clear in work requirements
- Uphold good communication
1. Find the best fit
When searching for new talent, look not at the type of worker, but at how well they would fit the job at hand. They could be a freelancer, a full timer, an offshore employee, or even an agency; the best fit might not pass the recruitment test for your old models, but they will tick all the boxes when you’re looking for virtual staff.
Consider a laundry list of things you need in your employees to help find your fit, such as:
- Particular skills
- Working hours
- Technology/hardware (such as their own copy of Photoshop etc)
- A portfolio of prior work
2. Place job ads
Old habits die hard, and managers who are used to posting ads in the same places will continue to do so, even when hiring virtual teams. Think outside the box, or at least, think outside your usual geographic area, and outside your usual recruitment websites.
Here are a few places you can consider finding new talent:
- Freelance websites such as Fiverr, Freelancer, and Upwork
- International recruitment sites
- Local job sites for major cities for more reach
- On your own website – the talent might come to you
- Amongst existing talent – they may be able to refer others
3. Conduct interviews
As you conduct interviews, keep in mind you list of requirements for the best fit, rather than covering the same ground you usually would in a traditional interview. Your questions can also revolve around some of the known difficulties of remote working, such as:
- What do you find to be the hardest aspect of remote working, and how do you manage it?
- How do you schedule and track your time?
- What is your preferred method for feedback?
- What are your typical working days/hours?
- Do you have the software/tools for the job?
- Would you be available for additional hours if required?
Once you have attracted and hired your talent, the next step is in effective management to ensure you get the best possible performance and efficiency from your virtual teams.
How To Effectively Manage Virtual Teams
Much of the expertise used in traditional management applies to virtual teams as well. From people skills to dealing with client issues, effective management draws on a lot of the experience you already have, then simply extends it to suit the digital nature of the work.
Guiding your talent
You’ll be there to help talent meet their performance targets and expectations in the quality of work, you’ll guide them through issues and conflicts, and help them recognize when they’re struggling with time tracking and make improvements. As you won’t be there in person to read their body language and see their face every day, it’s extra important to keep an eye out for signs of trouble through other methods.
- Are their emails less friendly than usual?
- Has the quality of their work dropped noticeably?
- Are they missing deadlines?
- Simply not responding to emails in a timely manner?
One single issue could have simple rectifiable solutions, but more than one could signal the worker is struggling with morale and work satisfaction.
Proactively building relationships
One way to build and maintain an effective working relationship, and to help avoid issues with talent morale, is to actively invest your time and energy into their personal and career goals.
Set up a weekly one-on-one call or meeting to touch base, spending 10 minutes on the topic of their choosing, 10 minutes on a topic you set, and 10 minutes about the next steps and their continued training and learning. Not only will this be an excellent chance for you both to attain the information you need, it will also give you an opportunity to gauge their feelings around their work situation with you in ways you couldn’t via digital means.
Thinking about personalities
As with any worker-manager relationship, and for relationships within virtual teams, personalities do matter.
It can help for you to understand the personalities of each person on the team, and to get a feel for how those personalities interact, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, in order to encourage harmony amongst the group and avoid any clashes that could affect the work.
If you need a guide in this area, personality tests such as Myers-Briggs type indicator and the DISC test can be a good place to start.
Nurturing relationships amongst teams
You can nurture better interpersonal relationships amongst virtual teams by educating the talent in how to relate to one another more effectively.
For example, it may be difficult for a graphic designer to understand the challenges of a software coding job, and vice versa, so you can help all talent see things from others’ perspectives to avoid any insidious resentment that can arise from one person believing their job to be tougher than another’s.
Here are a few ways to help humanize each virtual team member:
- Group video calls
- Group emails
- Introduce new members each time
- Virtual ice breakers (share a favourite meme etc)
- Encourage team members to connect on LinkedIn
- Share updates on how each member is going during large projects
Dealing with issues amongst virtual teams
As a manager, you may need to pull rank to give feedback and guidance for personalities that may be causing issues.
Should this situation arise – or if you can see it becoming a problem in future – you can organize a private talk with each of those involved, and kindly but clearly explain how their personality comes across to the group. You can talk them through how they may process information differently from others, then discuss ideas and concepts that can help them bridge that gap to better understand others’ points of view.
Using existing skills
Naturally, there are many ways to effectively manage teams, and just as many to effectively manage virtual teams. Starting with examples and ideas discussed here, you can use your existing skills and experience to find your own ways to guide your talent.
With an exceptional team on board, and everyone working well individually and together, the final question becomes: How do you maintain this extraordinary status quo?
How To Retain Talented Virtual Teams Long Term
Once you have your talent on board, the goal is to keep this hard-working and effective team going for as long as possible. But it’s not always as easy as it sounds.
Understanding the difficulties of remote working
One of the biggest differences for virtual workers is that they have to track their own time. Similarly, one of the biggest challenges for managers will be to remain calm when talent struggles – and fails – to keep on top of this task.
On your part, it’s important to remember that tracking time is not an enjoyable duty for anyone, so your job is to help them deal with this challenge in any way you can. Even if all you do is acknowledge the frustration, let them know you’re aware of it, and that you care about their battle with time tracking, the battle will be half won.
If you can actively make the job easier for them, you’ll likely earn yourself a very reliable and loyal worker.
Paying on time
Another tip is a simple one, but one that so many employers fail, that just by getting it right, you’ll instantly be a step – or a leap – ahead.
Pay on time. Perhaps even pay a little early.
Even if the invoice isn’t due until the end of the month, consider paying it as soon as you can – especially if it doesn’t make any real difference to your coffers, as it could make a huge difference in theirs. Should you encounter problems within your own company for meeting invoices on time, prioritize fixing those issues so you can bump your payments ahead of schedule and become a stand-out employer worth long-term loyalty.
Continuing relationship management
A less obvious way to ensure longevity from your virtual teams is to create ways to build bonds long term.
You won’t have the standard Friday night drinks, the chats in the elevator, the casual catch ups over coffee in the break room, or anything else that you would usually find naturally in a traditional workplace setting.
Instead, you’ll have to find your own ways to build these bonds, which could be through simply asking casual questions in emails, booking additional call time, or meeting in person (if possible) each quarter. It could even be through sending your favorite cat gifs every week – it’s up to you.
Much like a traditional working environment, fostering a constructive culture can help to improve an employee’s likelihood of staying with the company.
This culture must be focused on feedback, growth, values, and improvement, rather than pointing out flaws that need to be fixed and errors. While you will obviously need to address issues as they arise, a positive tone will be more constructive than negative feedback.
Making each team member feel valued
Finally, don’t let a worker ever feel like they are not valued – that they don’t have a place within your company, or that they don’t contribute in any meaningful way.
It’s your job as a manager to ensure each employee knows what they are working towards; not just as an individual, but as part of a cohesive team. Share with them your goals for the company, and highlight how they will play a role in meeting those targets, making sure to give them special thanks or mentions when they achieve certain objectives.
Working with virtual teams can be hugely rewarding, and can save companies costs by not having to offer physical workspaces or any of the other trappings of traditional workplaces.
However, managers need to be aware of the differences in working with virtual teams, the challenges faced by talent, and how to overcome those hurdles for effective outcomes from each worker. This begins in the hiring stage, and is vital throughout day-to-day management in order to retain skilled virtual teams in the long term.