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How to Manage a Remote or Virtual Team

Decades ago, former Novell CEO Robert Frankenberg announced that “Work is no longer a destination, it’s an activity!” Since then, more and more employees have been getting to work, without going to work.

Many managers and others still feel that one of the core characteristics of a team is “being together” but many who are further along in their “digital transformation” have come to feel that teams can be together if they can see and hear each other, even if they aren’t close enough to smell each other!

Managing Isolation

The most obvious challenge for remote workers is isolation, with different workers having widely different responses. Some find the removal of distractions highly conducive to increased productivity. They just get more work done. Others find the daily activities of home far more distracting than their office routines.

Some people take advantage of their isolation to indulge in activities other than work. They may watch television, go shopping, entertain friends, cook, garden, or sit on the phone. Others see the removal of direct supervision as an act of trust by their employer, increasing their sense of responsibility to remain focused on accomplishing as much work as possible.

The one constant is that each person, whatever their response, remains isolated. This must be actively addressed by management.

Being There

Those who manage remote workers must examine and improve their own communication habits.

For example, many managers don’t necessarily respond quickly to instant messages or “texts.” But messaging is the first thing many remote workers turn to when they need to ask a question. It’s quick and easy to type a message into Yammer, Skype or other communication platform. Managers must work to re-acculturate themselves to being far more responsive to increase their employees’ sense that they are well supported.

Managers will also want to overcome any resistance they have to communicating with video. Face-to-face interactions add a much more robust variety of paralinguistic texture to conversations. Facial expressions, movement and attempts at eye contact all convey a richness of experience that voice alone cannot. Pragmatically, being able to display a document under development on both participants’ screens and being able to simultaneously edit them creates a far more impactful sense of “working together.”

Michael D. Watkins, writing in the Harvard Business Review, recommends that managers, “Create a ‘virtual water cooler’.” The image of co-workers gathering around a water cooler is a metaphor for informal interactions that share information and reinforce social bonds. Absent explicit efforts to create a “virtual water cooler,” team meetings tend to become very task-focused; this means important information may not be shared and team cohesion may weaken. One simple way to avoid this: start each meeting with a check-in, having each member take a couple of minutes to discuss what they are doing, what’s going well and what’s challenging. Regular virtual team-building exercises are another way to inject a bit more fun into the proceedings. Also enterprise collaboration platforms increasingly are combining shared work spaces with social networking features that can help team members to feel more connected.”

When People Need Help

Responsiveness becomes most important when remote workers need support, either IT support or any other kind of support. In an office setting, they always have the option of “shoulder-tapping” a fellow worker to ask a question. Working remotely, they could conceivably start messaging others, but the best interests of the company are served when support is instantly available, or as close to instantly as possible.


Perhaps the most difficult, but most important thing to carefully consider is a change to how employees are measured. Many managers still manage by the clock, considering how many hours an employee puts in to be the key metric. Remote workers often invest even more working hours than office workers, starting when they would ordinarily set out to travel to the office, and finishing long after “quitting time” because they’re already home. Many managers have realized that it often doesn’t matter how much time a worker puts in as long as they achieve or exceed their objectives. Find ways to measure the work accomplished rather than the time worked.

54 thoughts on “How to Manage a Remote or Virtual Team

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