Managing your team in a virtual world

Jenny is sat on her sofa with her Cockapoo lying next to her, Raj is sat at his dining table with the dishes still in the sink behind him, Mahesh has his own office with a standing desk (fancy!), Paul likes to be amongst the hustle and bustle of the household and Alice is sat at her desk in her bedroom at her parents house. A team divided by geography but a team, nonetheless. Jenny, Raj, Mahesh, Paul and Alice aren’t normally home workers. They have a very lovely office on the outskirts of Nottingham but for now they need to stay at home.

After a scramble to get all the right tech set up,  Emma their Line Manager has to figure out how to get the work done, make sure everyone is OK and maintain the team without the usual chats, meetings, lunches and coffees within the office. A challenge a lot of managers and business owners are facing right now.

So how can we manage our virtual teams?

As humans we all have a need for belonging, identifying with a group, pursuing purposeful goals and objectives, and developing a sense of bonding. These are important to overcome social isolation, alienation and disconnection. So, working remotely sets us a challenge to be able to maintain that sense of belonging and purpose.

Nurture relationships

Our relationships with our colleagues changes when we work remotely. We naturally miss out on the water cooler and coffee chats. We don’t get to find out what takeaway Jenny had last night or that Paul had an argument with his partner. We only seem to communicate about work. A key responsibility of the team manager is to maintain and nurture those existing relationships.

  • Be accessible and not just for meetings. Call people just to catch up!
  • Connect on a personal level.
  • Get to know what each team member wants from you and their team – everyone is different. Some prefer calls and video chats whilst others are happy with emails.
  • Use team building activities. I will talk about these in more detail later.
  • Consider the emotional bank account you have with each team member. This is the Stephen Covey idea of us making deposits by helping, supporting, keeping promises and checking in with people and then making withdrawals by breaking trust, letting people down, not staying in contact etc. Build the deposits!
  • Make use of technology by video calling so you can actually see one another.


Technology is key to making sure you can communicate in the best way possible when working remotely. By now you should already have figured out your video conferencing platform of choice and have the equipment all in place.

  • Talk, video, email – communicate lots!
  • Make sure you factor in some 1-on-1 time with each team member. Check in with them regularly.
  • Remember to continue to give feedback – praise a job well done but also make comment when expectations aren’t met.
  • Ask what your team need from the communications.
  • Agree some guidelines for how you communicate. With extra email traffic ensure subject lines are clear and unambiguous, consider the frequency, who you are CCing, the length, the expected response time and the number of attachments.
  • Decide when to switch from emails to virtual meetings or calls. If the email traffic gets too busy you may want to just pick up the phone.
  • Use an internal messaging service such as Slack to capture the quick questions, queries and comments. It cuts down on the email traffic. It is also great for the office banter!

Getting the task done

Whilst all this talk of maintaining the team and keeping up with our informal chats is great, as managers you still need to ensure you get the actual job done.

  • Set clear objectives and expectations.
  • Give ownership of tasks to team members. This should be much easier now with home working as you have to trust that your team member is going to get it done without you overseeing it all.
  • Decide how to report on progress. Active or passive. Active: information is pushed to the recipient via emails or calls. Passive: information is retrieved by the recipient via shared access. Trello is a great tool for task management.
  • Make sure that everyone has access to the data that they need to get the job done.
  • Whilst giving people the freedom to develop their own schedules it is wise to ensure that some hours overlap so that any ‘real’ time communications can take place.

Virtual team building activities

I mentioned these earlier and wanted to give you a few examples of things that you can try.

  • Lunch and Learn: Here at Loates we have always done regular Lunch and Learn’s. One of the team, or a guest, will deliver a short presentation on an interesting topic whilst we all grab lunch. So why not do this over video conferencing? Decide on a speaker and the topic, rotate this around the team, agree a time, everyone grabs some lunch and shares together. The topics can be work related or you can choose to go a bit off piste and talk about your hobby of geocaching for example.
  • Coffee Catchups: Spend time on a one-to-one with your colleagues. This isn’t just about manager and team member; this is about everyone. Paul and Mahesh can catch up, then Emma and Jenny, and Dave and Raj etc. Rotate so that everyone gets a chance to spend 10 or 15 minutes just having a chat. No work talk necessary!
  • Four Fascinating Facts – The 4 F’s: At the end of each week have everyone come together to discuss 4 things that they have done, seen, heard, thought about, watched etc that week. This could be anything from planting some lavender in the garden, finally getting around to watching that webinar on Six Sigma, writing your first blog or making a stonking beef madras. It’s just a bit of fun!
  • Desk Display: Everyone to share a photo or video of their desks to show everyone how they are working. Some weeks it’s a tidy desk, tidy mind kind of week others its everything I own sprawled across it.

Ultimately managing your team from afar is a lot about trust. Trust in your team that they will get the job done and not get distracted by taking videos of their cat! Trust that you as a manager will do everything that you can to support them. As we have seen from the above, communication is the thing that holds it all together – the team, the task, the relationships. If you can get those right, then you are well on your way to keeping your team working together even when they are miles apart.

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