leadership, Remote Management, tips

Tips for Leading a Virtual Team


As we try to limit COVID-19’s spread, many organizations and institutions are starting to test their contingency plans and shift to more virtual work options. I’ve heard a LOT of leaders voicing concerns about the shift toward managing remote employees.

Having managed almost exclusively remote teams for more than a decade, here are five key lessons I learned along the way about setting them up for success.

1. Establish clear (and realistic) expectations. Agree on when people will be available, how they will be available, and what responsiveness looks like.

2. Agree on preferred communication among team members. In addition to discussing how you want to use different tools (eg. Slack, chat, calls, email, video), it’s also helpful to do a round robin and hear individual preferences. Some people do their best work when they can go heads-down and got to communication on their own time (eg. Slack or email); others will feel totally disconnected if they can’t chat someone in real time. Identify where there may be some preference clashes and talk through them upfront. Also: video is your friend for meetings, so try to shift calls to video meetings when possible. People are more engaged (because you’re looking at each other!) and there’s less opportunity to misinterpret someone because you can read their non-verbal body language.

3. Establish a regular huddle to keep everyone aligned. For teams that are used to working closely, that might be a quick kick-off each morning. For my remote teams, we met via video at the start of each week to share our top priorities and progress toward major milestones. It helped us stay aligned around our goals and give everyone a sense of what the rest of the team was working on so we could collaborate and share our knowledge.

4. Create a virtual water cooler. Many people struggle with the lack of social connection when they work from home. That will probably be doubly true if we reach a state of quarantine and have to limit how much we can leave our homes. Consider dedicating a specific block of time for social chatter each week.  –– I KNOW! When my team first told me that they had created an hour-long “Amigas Call” to catch up on their weekends, my head almost exploded. But then I realized three things: 1) Co-workers who care about each other are happier, 2) Happy people are more productive, and 3) It’s actually probably more efficient to have one intentional call each week than have chit-chat creeping into every individual interaction.

5. Manage to results. When you can’t see someone and they aren’t immediately responsive, you might be tempted to imagine them running errands or hitting a yoga class at lunch when they should be on the clock. And actually, those are things that you might have been fine with when you worked together in an office, so don’t change your standards now. One of the easiest ways I found to stop worrying about people milking the system: establish clear goals/result and let that be your barometer for productivity, NOT how many hours you saw the person available on Slack. If everyone is able to deliver on their work, do you  really care if they step away from their laptop to talk a walk and recharge their batteries?

Finally, if the reason you’re shifting to remote work is in response to the coronavirus: be generous. This is unprecedented and it’s causing a lot of anxiety. People won’t be able to rely on some of their regular support systems for things like childcare or elder care. You might not know which of your employees are immunocompromised, or have family members who are. You may need to flex on things that you normally wouldn’t. Be compassionate. We’re all in this together.

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