Last updated on May 29th, 2020
With work from home being the norm of the day due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most businesses are struggling to manage and coordinate with virtual teams. They are yet to figure out how to establish a fruitful virtual communication amongst the employees. It is not an easy task since managing a virtual team is entirely different and has its own challenges. In this AMA post, you’ll learn the strategies for managing virtual teams and how to strengthen virtual communication for businesses.
The coronavirus pandemic continues to harm people and businesses in so many ways. It has already left its deep scars that will take months, maybe years to heal. The crisis has taught us lessons of life and business. It has thrown its own challenges. For businesses, as of now, the biggest challenge is how to manage virtual teams and motivate employees to work efficiently from home.
While businesses have access to advanced digital communication technologies, many of them are still going directionless. They lack ideas to explore the tools to their advantage and fail to bring their virtual teams together and make them realize the set goals.
To discuss the challenges and solutions, Designhill conducted an AMA with Laurel Farrer on managing virtual teams and strengthening virtual communication in businesses. Laurel is an international remote work expert. She is the founder and CEO of Distribute Consulting and has served as a consultant to the world’s top brands, government organization, and academic institutions.
During the AMA, Laurel gave valuable tips to businesses for meeting the challenges while working remotely. She discussed and offered her advice for the effective management of virtual teams.
Here Is The Video Of The AMA Session With Laurel Farrer
Here Are The Excerpts From The AMA Where Laurel Shared Her Experience And Gave Advice On Managing Virtual Teams And Communication
Designhill: How virtual team management can remove the aspect of micromanaging?
Laurel: Micromanagement is a big topic. Virtual team leadership covers a wide range of businesses of all scales from the corporations and fortune 500 companies to individual entrepreneurs. The big difference between leadership in a virtual environment and an office setting is the prioritization of autonomy. By autonomy, I mean people need to be able to work independently and be their own managers. In a traditional physical office, managers typically tell employees what to do while supervising to make them productive. However, in the virtual setting, workers need to self manage themselves to stay productive without any supervision of a manager.
But that does not necessarily mean that they work completely independently. Instead, there is a higher level of autonomy when working remotely. We need to be more self-disciplined, organized, and controlled in our work habits.
Entrepreneurs are painfully aware that they have to figure out how to make things work on their own. A remote worker has to go through it every single day. So, the manager needs to change all of their habits. They should empower freelancers, assistants, or your actual staff. Find out if the remote workers have become their type of entrepreneur, and they are in charge of their tasks totally on their own. It would help if you trusted them to produce work without your supervision.
Designhill: How can we induce a certain workplace warmth in a virtual team?
Laurel: This is a very tricky question. We’re talking about virtual leadership and how to make it more effective in the world of remote work. I think having a human to human connection and strong company culture has nothing to do with proximity. It has nothing to do with being in an office together. It is possible to be sitting in an office, five feet away from somebody, and suddenly, you feel lonely and disconnected.
Proximity is not an issue
What matters is talking to other people in a very empathetic and emotionally connected way. And when we focus on connecting with people, our proximity to them does not matter. It is possible to connect deeply with people through digital channels. It is all about how we communicate. Are we open and transparent, or are we vulnerable? Are we articulating our feelings and needs effectively? If we switch to that type of communication, connection, and networking, you will see phenomenal results, regardless of your office location.
Designhill: What kind of checklists should we have for onboarding?
Laurel: I love onboarding. Many companies are completely terrified about onboarding. Onboarding is a very complicated process when you are taking a newly hired persona on a virtual tour of your company. The new employee still feels welcome and connected as a mentor is answering the questions. Now, we don’t necessarily have to change those onboarding objectives. But we need to change the channels in which those objectives are delivered.
It is possible to make somebody feel welcome while giving a tour of the office and telling the company’s objectives. When we design onboarding processes for ourselves and other people, we deliver those objectives in different channels. We have a mentor for every single new hire.
Three basics of onboarding
We have a week-long onboarding process. But we make sure that every single day of onboarding includes three things. One is a kickoff call with a different person each day. In this way, a newly hired employee feels connected and meets a lot of people or at least a person, if not with an entire group or department.
The second basic of onboarding is that the new employees have a presentation, and they go through it. So, in our company, screencast walks the new employees through different parts of our company. I screen share with them the type of resources they need, and so on.
The third thing is that the newly hired employees should have a checklist of the goals and objectives for the day. In the end, when this checklist is full, you’ll be done with this stage of onboarding. And so it is a lot less intuitive. You’re saying everything and showing everything. It’s much more tangible, but it’s equally as effective, if not more.
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Designhill: Do you believe that remote working is more productive than being in office?
Laurel: Yes, and research also backs it. According to research, the average productivity of remote workers in comparison to office workers increases by 40%. But working more from home becomes an addiction also, and you have to be careful. Remote workers think that they are very productive and keep doing work for long hours.
Maintain a work-life balance
The harder part is drawing the line where they should stop working. You, as a remote worker, should work hard to have a work-life balance still. You have hobbies and relationships. Therefore, you should only be working full-time hours and not too much. Because working for overtime can lead to mental health problems such as burnout.
There are huge benefits of working from home, such as environmental sustainability due to lower carbon emissions and saving a lot of money on traveling, clothes, gas, and meals out. The average amount of savings for remote workers is 7000 US dollars per year. It makes a big difference in our lives and to local economies.
Designhill: How to build a virtual team to bring the cultural integration aspect in mind?
Laurel: That is a very complicated question to answer. I have an entire consulting firm based on this question. But the brief answer is that to switch from physical to virtual in a short amount of time, make sure that your company has three things in place.
Have your remote work policy
First, you need to have a remote work policy for compliance and protection. Even an individual entrepreneur should have a remote work policy, such as– I agree to not work at midnight. If you run a company, then, have a remote policy for freelancers who help you. If you are hiring people on Upwork, you need to have them sign a nondisclosure agreement at the very minimum.
The policy should outline what your expectations of the employees are and what it is like to work with your company. It should also carefully articulate what the performance expectations are about daily, weekly, quarterly objectives, and key results. The policy should tell about performance indicators. That will tell you that you are productive. And if you don’t meet those criteria, then that is a ground for a warning.
Train your workforce
Secondly, get some training for the workforce and also the leadership about how to manage remote work. So make sure you have that policy. And while everyone today has a sort of remote working expert, If they do not specialize in organizational behavior, they are not an expert. So, be careful with who you hire for leadership training.
Have the tools
Thirdly, your company should make the necessary tools available for remote working. Many people get obsessed with the tools. They are worried about what video conferencing platform, project management tool, will be useful to have. And, here’s the cool new Slack bot, etc. they want to access. They get so obsessed with those tools, which are surely cool and help us in different ways.
However, nothing can substitute effective and consistent communication. Remember that remote work has been happening since the 1970s. We didn’t have Zoom and Slack back then. So, it is possible to work effectively with nothing but email. I am not saying you should, but I am just saying that that is the level of simplification that you should focus on more than having a great tool stack.
But make sure that all of your employees are on the same communication channel and everybody understands on which channel the work is happening. They should know that they can go to that channel, whether it be email or Slack, Asana, etc. They know that they can go there to find resources, information, files, and co-workers. So those are my three things– policy, training, and communication channel.
Designhill: What are the modes to measure the efficiency of employees, and can we think beyond just time tracking?
Laurel: Absolutely. Each company does this a little bit differently. Many remote work advocates say that time tracking is bad. They insist on having a result-based tracking. I think everybody needs to start with where they are at present. Yes, you can fully track employees’ performance based on the results. But such result-based tracking is not realistic. It is not easy to convert an entire workforce of 17,000 people to results based on tracking overnight. You should figure out what works best for your teams and tasks. For example, if you are an entrepreneur and billing per hour, you need to be tracking hours for your freelancers.
However, as an entrepreneur paying and billing at a flat rate gives you more wiggle room to hire freelancers to get a task done. You can say that you will pay this much whether the freelancer does that work in six days or hours. So it’s really up to you. There are pros and cons to both results tracking, time tracking, and location tracking. The key is to identify what’s the best strategy for you. A consultant and remote work expert can help you in this regard.
Designhill: Do you recommend having a remote work policy template?
Laurel: There are a lot of simple remote work policy templates available to businesses. But these templates cannot prevent problems in productivity, tracking, and monitoring. Most such templates do not talk about a lot of essential things in detail. But the remote work policy template of Distribute Consulting is extensive. It has six pages and talks about different policy-related conditions.
Our template has many questions for the remote workers that we want to hire. These questions include do you require a quiet environment? What hours do you need to be available for phone calls? How will you prove that you’ve been successful and productive at the end of the day or week?
Designhill: How to figure out what tone of communication would be best for managing teams?
Laurel: This is a great analogy that I heard at Evernote a few years ago about how to manage virtual teams and the CEO. The analogy was that you would never send an email to the fire department if your house was on fire. And that is exactly the problem that exists in a lot of teams. We do have a lot of different channels such as Slack, Google comments, emails, Marco Polo, Twitter to connect.
And, because communication is all happening on a screen, it is hard to prioritize. For instance, it is hard to decide where and what type of conversation should be happening? Therefore, when working on your remote work policy, know what type of conversation and communication you can have with your team and which channel you should use. For example, in our team at Distribute Consulting, we have interpersonal communication. This is about team bonding personal conversations, where a member says that I’m going to show you what I’m eating.
However, if we ever need to have an emotionally charged conversation, or some brainstorming together, then we move into synchronous, to make it happen at the same time. That is when we schedule a video call with each other. So, we get on to zoom to have more meaningful and emotion-based conversations where we can really think and feel together.
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Designhill: How to build exercise for employee engagement and motivation?
Laurel: Yeah, this is a fun question. Many companies think that they are not going to have a cereal bar and a ping pong table in the office because that is the place to work. But it is ridiculous to think in those terms. This is where it comes back to connecting with people.
When you want to meet a new hire in the office, all you need to do is to say hello and invite the guy over a cup of coffee. It would be best if you did the same in a virtual environment. Just reach out to them on Slack, send them a direct message and say, hey, I haven’t met you yet. Do you want to jump on a video call sometime tomorrow for 15 minutes to get to know each other? You don’t need to think too hard about how to engage with people because that’s what you’re doing in a different channel.
So in terms of group activities and group bonding, spend more time with each other and give everybody an equal voice. If you are doing an activity, make sure that everybody is participating. You can use Mural, which is virtual whiteboarding, to move things around and draw things together simultaneously. We use this tool for a lot of decision making together.
Know their culture
And another thing is to take turns. So if one person is doing a lot of talking, then take turns with each meeting. We are starting a new culture education course in our company because we are an international team. Each one of us lives on a different continent and there and we’re an international consultancy. We deal with clients from all over the world.
So, each of us is taking a turn with one of our group calls in teaching about the culture that we come from. We talk about the food that we eat in Spain. And, by the way, in Spain, you do not need to be on time, everyone is about two hours late, right? But then there’s the guy from Japan who says everything is absolutely on time here, and here’s the food that we eat.
Be creative with activities
It is great to know each other. But it’s also a fun way to spend time. Also, it is a professional development lesson for us as well so that we can know clients from those regions. Just be creative with the activities that you plan as a team and give everybody equal opportunity on a screen as an equalizer. It should not be like somebody on the stage, and everybody’s sitting. It is like all in the same space with an equal voice.
So, these are the crucial tips that Laurel Farrer shared with the business owners. They should implement the advice to make remote working a fruitful experience.
Businesses are confronting a new challenge of managing their virtual teams and establishing effective communication amongst themselves. Laurel Farrer advises that businesses should let remote workers self-manage their work, and there should be minimum supervision. They must have a clear remote work policy. The virtual onboarding process should be full of warmth for the newly hired employees. A cultural integration amongst virtual employees from various countries must also be ensured for an amicable work environment.