The Art of Virtual Leadership – 4 Keys to Leading Remote Workers and Managing Virtual Teams
Many organizations find that one of the biggest challenges they face when implementing a virtual office is managing mobile or remote workers. It’s unfortunate that they let this perception prevent them from reaping the many benefits of a more flexible workplace.
Remote management is not fundamentally different from managing people on site. The biggest difference is the change in management style from “eye management” (assuming workers are productive because you physically see them at their desks working) to management by results.
By learning to manage by results rather than activity, improving communication and fostering trust between managers and employees, the entire organization benefits. In fact, managers of virtual teams report that their overall management skills have increased for both onsite and offsite workers.
There are 4 main keys to leading remote employees. These distance management tips will help you work more successfully with your mobile workers and virtual teams.
Basics of managing remote or mobile workers
- Management by results, not activity
- Improving communication to stay connected
- Managing meetings and schedules
- Feedback and support
MANAGEMENT BY RESULTS, NOT ACTIVITY
One of the most common fears managers and executives have when considering virtual teams is “How do I know my employees will work if I’m not there to watch them?” Well the simple answer is you won’t, not every minute. But realistically, you can’t be sure they’re actually working every minute you see them in the office; it’s easy to confuse activity with productivity.
It is the manager’s job to provide specific, measurable, and achievable goals for the remote employee so that he or she knows what needs to be done and when. These can include reports completed, number of calls made and number of support issues resolved – or any other appropriate measure of job performance.
It is important that the employee and manager arrive at a common definition of the deliverables and schedule together. This ensures that everyone is on the ‘same page’ and prevents miscommunication. It also ensures that goals and expectations are realistic.
A manager’s value to an organization is more as a coach and mentor than as a supervisor. This shift away from “eye management” and the resulting clearer definition of employee job responsibilities is one of the main factors contributing to the improved productivity typically seen in virtual teams.
Shifting your focus to performance-based management will help you build a more productive mobile workforce.
IMPROVING COMMUNICATION (KEEPING CONNECTED)
Effective communication is one of the most important elements in ensuring a successful virtual team. This is one area of telecommuting that technology makes a lot easier. A variety of tools are available to allow employees to stay connected and collaborate.
The most obvious way to encourage easy communication with telecommuters is to have set office hours. By clearly defining the hours that employees must be available, you can bypass a common point of confusion and ensure timely communication. However, recognize that there is a balance between being in touch and being pestered. This balance must be developed over time.
When remote workers are not immediately available or communication does not occur in “real time,” another area that can present challenges is the timeliness of communication. On-site managers and colleagues are often concerned about not being able to reach remote workers when needed.
An easy but often overlooked solution to this problem is to create a set schedule for checking and responding to voicemails and email. This can be hourly, twice a day, or whatever is appropriate for your situation. This schedule, along with the expected response time, allows everyone to be sure that their messages will be received and a response is forthcoming.
There are also various practices managers can implement that help remote employees stay “connected” and still feel like part of the office gang. These include regularly scheduled phone calls, including virtual team members at impromptu lunches and other social events, and directing more informal information, notes and information items to them.
MEETING AND SCHEDULE MANAGEMENT
Meetings serve a variety of important purposes for any organization or team project, including sharing information, keeping abreast of developments, making decisions, reporting progress, brainstorming, and exploring ideas, plans, and alternatives.
Keeping track of everyone’s schedule and including remote employees in meetings can seem daunting for an organization exploring virtual teamwork. By being creative with time management and using technology and tools properly, they can become seamless.
Web-based group programs and virtual office platforms are available, as well as specialized software solutions that manage group schedules and shared calendars. They allow both on-site and off-site employees to access current schedules and up-to-date information on last-minute schedule changes.
An important realization is that not all meetings need to be face-to-face. If you use technology correctly, remote workers can use a combination of teleconferencing, video conferencing, web conferencing, and groupware to participate in meetings and attend presentations in real time without the added cost or requirement of travel time. These tools also allow you to include remote workers in important ad hoc meetings that arise.
For times when face-to-face communication is preferred or necessary, schedule meetings when mobile workers and virtual team members will be in the office. An easy approach is to schedule consistent meetings, such as a staff meeting on the 2nd Tuesday of each month or a team meeting every Friday. This type of regularity makes meetings easier to plan.
FEEDBACK AND SUPPORT
An important but often overlooked basic management technique is providing ongoing feedback and support to employees. Many employees – at all organizational levels – feel that they do not receive enough feedback from managers about their performance. This type of ongoing discussion takes on increased importance in virtual teams.
Regular meetings should be scheduled between managers and remote workers to assess needs, give feedback, and discuss problems. These are excellent opportunities to agree on the scope of work to be done, timelines and deadlines.
Another important way to improve relationships with remote or mobile workers is to include them in feedback and praise. Many managers and supervisors give feedback and praise to their employees in a very informal way, often when they see these colleagues or co-workers in the office. Remote employees don’t have as many opportunities to run into their boss or manager, so it takes extra effort to keep them informed.
It doesn’t mean a lot of extra work, it’s more of a presence of mind. Even using simple, quick ways to let people know how they’re doing — like a short voice message or email, or a quick note jotted down in a report or memo box — helps keep employees motivated and on target.
Also, don’t forget to give a public pat on the back from time to time, such as at a staff meeting. This assures on-site workers that remote workers are carrying their load and can minimize any possible resentment on-site employees feel toward virtual team members and their work organization.
Fear of the challenges of managing virtual teams and keeping them connected are two of the most common obstacles organizations face. This often prevents them from taking advantage of the power and flexibility that comes with a more mobile workforce.
Don’t let those fears creep in Yours way. The management techniques and strategies needed are not new, they are the same things that good managers have been doing for years to build trust and clear communication among their team. Using the guidelines I’ve shared with you in these four key areas, you can work effectively from anywhere and keep your team connected!
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