How to best manage a virtual team?
Managing a team is never easy. If you were an individual contributor and have been promoted to a (team) manager role, it’s even more difficult. You need to ensure you do your job. You also now have team members / direct reports to take care of.
As a manager, you need to ensure that each team member knows their roles and responsibilities. You need to put in place short, medium and long term goals for the team as a whole as well as for each team member. Providing regular eedback and having performance reviews in place are also part of your responsibilities. You also need to make sure your team members further develop themselves and that they stay motivated etc. etc.
But what do you do when the team you manage does not sit with you in the same room or office? What do you do when your team members are spread across the globe? You have to deal with different time zones. Your team members speak other languages (and therefore are not necessarily native English speakers). They come from different cultures, religions, background, age, etc.
Managing a virtual team definitely brings its set of challenges. However, there are ways to overcome them…
Have regular meetings, ideally via video conference
Like in any team, it is important to have regular meetings with your team members. Make sure you have weekly 1-on-1 with your direct reports. This is an opportunity for them to provide their highlights, lowlights/challenges and tell you their next focus. You can help them prioritize, give them guidance and provide them feedback on how they are doing.
Make sure you also have a regular team meeting (ideally weekly as well) with your direct reports. This is your chance to provide updates and ensure everyone is on the same page. These meetings give them the opportunity to discuss challenges they may face. Try to find a time that suits all time zones so that some of your employees do not have to be up in the middle of the night to attend your team meeting!
Don’t forget to have yearly performance reviews. This milestone is very important as it allows you to have a more in depth conversation with your team members. You provide constructive feedback on what went well and what can be improved. Together with your employee, you set up an action plan to ensure they have something to look forward to and can develop themselves further in the next year.
I am convinced that 90% of the problems we have in the world are due to mis-communication and mis-understanding. Communicating clearly is even more important when you have people who are not native English.
When you manage/lead a virtual team, make sure you communicate regularly. There is never too much communication! Make sure that you communicate clearly and concisely. If you use abbreviations, make sure you spell them out, especially if you have new team members on board. And if you have made a special announcement, make sure you send an email afterwards to everyone, so that people who may have not been able to attend, can be up-to-date with the latest developments.
Since your team is virtual, keep in mind that some people from other cultures may be hesitant to ask questions or provide feedback. It is therefore very important to give everybody some time to think, to react. Tell your team that it is ok to ask questions or provide feedback! This will not only show that you are willing to listen to them but also that you are open to suggestions, ideas, etc.
Humor is a tricky thing. It can be a great way to develop relationships however it can also break them if not done properly. What is funny for you may not be funny for someone else, especially if they do not master English, or do not have the same references as you. Remember that when dealing with people from different countries and cultures, you have to pay extra attention not to offend anyone. So use humor carefully.
Don’t try to make some ‘play on words’ or use some TV or historical reference, as people who do not live in your country will almost certainly not get it. If you really want to use some humor, best is to start with yourself.
Pay attention to some of your gestures if you are trying to put some humor! I remember once crossing my fingers to wish someone good luck, and some of my team members in Germany were a bit confused as in German they say – translating literally – ‘I press my thumbs for you’. My gesture looked like something completely different and if I had not noticed their facial expressions, my joke could have been offensive to them. Fortunately, I could paraphrase what I said and everybody laughed. but this taught me a valuable lesson at the beginning of my professional career.
If you can and budget allows, try to visit all your team members once a year. Meeting people face-to-face after dealing with them for weeks or months virtually is such a rewarding experience. They will not only make you feel at home, they will do their best to show you a piece of their country or culture and this will build the team even more.
By doing these ‘basic’ steps, you will have the opportunity to build a real team; a team where people will feel part of something, where they all are involved and can contribute, as if they were sitting right next to you.
As JT McCormick once wrote, your direct reports then become true direct supports!
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This article was also posted on Linkedin.
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