How to manage a remote team

October 19, 2020

With remote working here to stay, people leaders will need to understand the nuances of managing virtual teams and remote workers.

Covid-19 propelled remote working to the top of the agenda for every business. Overnight, virtual meetings replaced face-to-face interaction and have become the primary way in which work is conducted. This temporary solution to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is tolerable because we are in such unusual circumstances.

However, some organisations such as Facebook and Twitter are now planning for permanent remote working. We are also likely to see remote working becoming more popular in non-technology businesses. For some people, and some businesses, remote working works. This means that the ability to manage remote teams effectively will be a key skill set in a post-Covid context.

What differentiates virtual teams from face-to-face teams? And what skills will managers need to ensure that remote working continues to work as we move beyond the current unusual circumstances?

Relationships

Sustaining relationships in virtual teams is always a challenge due to the solitary nature of remote work. Research tells us that members of virtual teams have different ways of engaging with the team; not every member will engage and disengage at the same time. Also, people are coping with different types of emotions. We have seen, during the pandemic, how anxiety has taken hold and people have found it difficult to think. Managers of virtual teams must be attuned to these variances and work hard to help virtual team members generate a sense of belonging which won’t naturally occur because members cannot meet in person or socially.

Trust

Trust is an important issue for remote workers. Can you trust somebody if you have never met them? Recent research by Breuer, Hüffmeier, Hibben and Hertel (2019) tells us that trust is more important for virtual teams than face-to-face teams. The research identifies the factors most relevant for building trust in virtual teams, they are; ‘ability, benevolence, predictability, integrity and transparency’. The authors offer some practical solutions to help with trust building such as; creating a database listing team member’s ‘expertise, providing more information about their ability, online profiles, information in email signatures as well as online feedback systems’ and other processes designed to increase trust and encourage closer cooperation between virtual colleagues.

Flexible working

Flexible working time arrangements are at the heart of remote working but this can be challenging for managers who have the job of coordination. Researchers Dyne, Kossek and Lobel in an article published in 2007, suggest that collaborative time management processes can be designed in from the start. Furthermore, employees can be asked to engage in ‘proactive availability’. This means, each employee is asked to take responsibility for identifying difficulties and notifying others on the team. For example, if a team member’s existing caring responsibility clashes with a meeting, they notify another team member and, send in questions/comments in advance to the meeting. In this way, time management and scheduling is organised within the team rather than by the manager.

The researchers also recommend ways in which we can bolster motivation. Instead of focussing on how often people are present and available (virtually present and on camera), they suggest nominating specific events that occur at pre-determined times. Focussing on these particular events creates more flexibility, particularly for part-time workers and re-orientates energy on outputs rather than on inputs. This in turn, is likely to increase motivation, keeping people focussed on the bigger picture, rather than on who is absent from virtual meetings.

Remote working is here to stay and businesses who offer this flexibility will need to have

managers who understand the nuances of managing virtual teams and remote workers. Managing people you’ve never met is enormous challenging, at the same time, there are huge rewards for business in accommodating the ways in which people now want to organise their work/life balance.

This article was first published in Accountancy Ireland

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