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15 Proven Techniques for How to Manage a Virtual Team

Nathan and Connor, Outsource School’s founders, know just about all there is to know about how to manage a virtual team. They have been working with hundreds of virtual team members in several different countries for over a decade now. As they can attest to, managing remote hires can sometimes be quite frustrating. But it can also be your company’s greatest competitive strength. You can hire people from any location around the world, which makes it a lot easier to hire talented people.

With virtual teams, you may feel that control sometimes slips through your fingers. You may not always know what the team is doing. You may also experience team members flaking out on you after a while. They may even quit all of a sudden, and you don’t know why. 

In this article, we’ll give you 15 tips for how to manage a virtual team. This way, it can work seamlessly for you. The strategies here reflect years of experience. Nate and Connor spent loads of time figuring out what works best. They know just how to keep the teams coherent, productive and motivated. This experience is now laid out here for you to freely apply.

Tip #1:  Create a Standard Onboarding Process

Every new hire needs to be educated about your company. If you’re hiring remotely, then they are not going to get the same kind of on-hand learning opportunities that are popular in office environments. When one, some, or even all of the members of a team work separately, it’s very easy for them to get disconnected from the normal rhythms of work life. One way to prevent this is by creating and enforcing rhythms in virtual teamwork. This is how to manage a virtual team well from the get-go.

When you hire someone, make sure that you have a training program available for them to go over before they start work. Videos are great for educating new hires about your company and the way that you do things. Put effort into getting them up to speed and adjusted to your company and to learn how you expect them to perform in their role. 

Note that not every person applying for work as a freelancer is actually cut out for remote work. Additionally, not everyone who has the skills that you require will fit your team’s personality and your company culture. You need every new hire to fit in, so you need to make sure that they are the right fit. If you have hired someone you are not sure of in this area, it’s best to iron out this detail as soon as possible. Sometimes the best answer to how to manage a virtual team is to get the best people in place early on.

Tip #2:  Choose the Best Communication Tools

There are so many communication options out there today that you can use to make your virtual team more efficient. First, you need to choose a communication style that works best for you and the team. There are so many channels that you can choose from or use together (video, chat, email, etc.) The right combination will help you to stay in contact and collaborate effectively from remote locations. 

Collaborative technologies have also come a long way in the past decade. There are shared workspaces, multi-point video conferencing, and more that can make virtual teamwork easier. The newest or most feature-laden of these technologies is not automatically the best. Reliability and usability should be your main focus. The team should not struggle to get connected or waste time getting a tool to work. 

Establish multiple communication tools as well so that you have back-up channels and different channels to use for distinct purposes. This way, the team will always have a way to communicate urgent business to the right person immediately. It also unifies processes like what you will use for conference calls versus screen recordings, etc. This helps to create a feeling of togetherness even when everyone is working from a different location. The easiest tip for how to manage a virtual team is makiung sure that they can always find each other.

a computer screen showing the members of a group video call

Pro tip:  Have every team member commit to a communication charter. Communication on virtual teams is less rich than face-to-face interaction because there are fewer contextual cues and information about emotional states. The way that you can ensure its effectiveness is to always be extremely clear and disciplined in the way team members communicate. Establish norms of behavior for team members when they communicate virtually. For example, set standards for background noise, side conversations, listening attentively, and clear speech. 

Tip #3:  Consider Flexible Work Hours

Always endeavor to treat people in different time zones fairly. If your business is adapting a new virtual work plan, you need to remember the time zone differences among your hires. Working in different parts of the world means that not everyone you hire will be able to work the exact same hours. Don’t automatically expect someone in a different time zone to be available during the working hours that you are used to keeping. If you need them to attend meetings, make sure that you discuss this before you set the time and day for the meeting.

Be more flexible with remote work hours so that you can accommodate different time zones and help the team maintain a comfortable work/life balance. They’ll be happier, and this means they’ll also be more productive at work. Sometimes, the key to how to manage a virtual team is just being considerate.

To stay on top of this, you can develop a system of tracking when each individual team member likes to work and who is working on what at any moment. This will also show you who is currently available to take on a new task. Then you can see when the schedules overlap and be more easily able to set up real-time group activities (like meetings). You’ll also be able to measure productivity levels and see where bottlenecks happen and avoid time-wasting activities.

Pro tip:  No matter what time zones the team members are in, try as much as possible to have an overlap of at least a couple of hours a day when the team is online. Even in cases where team members won’t likely need each other to complete tasks, being online at the same time fosters closeness and provides you with the opportunity to meet with them and solve problems more efficiently.

Tip #4:  Define Work Systems

Freelancers will tend to develop their own ways of going about tasks. Setting standards will help them to integrate into a team better and faster. Defining repeatable work systems will also reduce the number of questions they will need to ask about tasks and give everyone a better idea of how long certain tasks should take. These tailored work systems will help the team achieve maximum effectiveness while allowing members the necessary freedom to complete tasks to the best of each one’s ability.

Systems are always important to ensure that a business does not easily fall apart. This is particularly true for businesses run by virtual teams because they don’t have the same level of opportunity to talk to each other and look over each other’s shoulders to learn. On virtual teams, each person is usually in their own world unless you draw them together and help them with processes and procedures that mesh together. A documented, standardized way of working that you’re constantly refining will be a great help in effectively managing a virtual team.

Tip #5:  Define Tasks and Processes

a pair of glasses on a document

Don’t just clarify goals and roles when you hire a virtual team member. Telling a hire to do something is not a good way to manage a virtual team. Don’t go overboard either and start micro-managing. A great middle-ground is to give detailed descriptions of each task along with examples of what you want the final result to look like. Then give the team the freedom to execute it – after all, that’s what you hired them to do. Defining tasks and processes gives hires guidelines to follow so there are no misunderstandings, yet allows them the freedom to do what they do best. 

Get everyone aligned on goals, roles and responsibilities, tasks, and processes during onboarding. Then, keep them coordinated on the details of task design and the processes that you want them to use to complete those tasks. Keep the work as simple as you can so that tasks can be assigned without creating confusion. Doing reviews as tasks are completed is also a great idea, especially for new hires. This gives you a chance to evaluate how things are going and see if there are any adjustments to be made and where additional training might be needed.

Tip #6:  Track Team Productivity

You should always have a grasp of the hours being worked, team attendance, and other basic measures of individual and team productivity. For this, you need to define what the key indicators of success are for each role. Then you can see within a couple of weeks whether a team member is being productive or not. 

Metrics are important, particularly when you are tracking remote work success. This is what will help you to keep everyone on task and track the timing, quality, and success of everyone’s work output. Without tracking, you will not be able to easily see who is coming in each day and understand exactly what is going on.

The best hires, of course, are extremely disciplined and will show up on time, stay on task, and deliver as expected.  Most of the time, however, people need accountability to keep them on track. If you need software to help you with tracking, there are a number of tools available like Clockify, Asana, Hubstaff and Time Doctor.

Tip #7:  Reward Virtual Team Members

Just as important as tracking productivity is monitoring performance and developing the incentives to match. Rewarding virtual teams is so important for successful management. Remember, freelancers don’t enjoy the usual pats on the back that workers in an office environment enjoy. Virtual team members need to feel that they have the same opportunities as the people who work with you in-office.

The two most effective ways to reward team members are giving incentives for deliverables or for set hours worked. Either way, it’s vital to align these incentives so that they make management and monitoring easier, rather than causing confusion around expectations. As the manager, you should also be careful to avoid giving preference to the people you can meet in person. It’s easy to overlook the fact that human contact can very easily make you like someone more than another person you never shook hands with.

Tip #8:  Create a Team Social Space

a man on a videocall with a woman

Virtual teams are often spread out so widely that they are not likely to have the chance for social interaction and human contact. A solution to this is to encourage a space where they can hold informal conversations. On Slack, for example, you can create a channel dedicated to non-work chat. You can also schedule regular times for team members to get together for team-building activities like playing games.

When your virtual team members see that you have made the effort to give them the chance to share non-work related information and reinforce social bonds, they will appreciate you more. You can even integrate a little bit of this more informal social interaction in your regular meetings. This way, team meetings won’t become overly dry and task-focused, which can cause team members to avoid sharing some important information. Encouraging team members to be more social will also strengthen team cohesion. 

Tip #9:  Do Some Virtual Teams Training

Not everyone is a born manager. If you want to know how to manage a virtual team effectively, the best thing you can do is to undergo training for it. There’s more than one way how to manage a virtual team, so make sure that your style aligns with the training course that you choose.

Basically, there are three types of training available:  technology training, group processing training, and cross-cultural training. Technology training covers which virtual team management tools to use and when, including how to choose the tools that fit your needs and how to handle team tech issues.

Group processing training involves tackling various project-related challenges. It covers how to set goals properly, problem-solving, building trust among remote team members, and collaboration exercises to foster stronger work relationships

Cross-cultural training – which is vital for most remote teams – deals with understanding how to function well in a cross-cultural team. It involves anticipating and overcoming cultural differences, working according to cultural customs and work routines, and overcoming prejudices and ignoring stereotypes.

Tip #10:  Hold Regular Meetings

Schedule meetings to be held at the same time on the same day to create a routine for your virtual team. This provides the team with something to get familiar and comfortable with. This way, they will be at ease and feel less stress during meetings. We recommend using video calls for these meetings to maximize efficiency through recreating the routine office feeling that they don’t usually get.

Apart from these regular scheduled meetings, add a quarterly review with each team member to check in on them and see how they are coping, and share updates that concern them specifically. This gives them a feeling of importance in the ranks and closeness to you as their manager. Both are vital to increased and sustained productivity.

Tip #11:  Agree on a Shared “Language”

a happy man and woman high-fiving in front of a laptop

Even cultures that speak the same language – such as English – can come up against language barriers. Just think about the communication difficulties that the Americans and the British face. Virtual teams, being cross-cultural teams, will have even more pronounced communication challenges. Many times, they will think that they are speaking the same language – like English – but are actually not understanding each other well. 

The challenge of sustaining shared understanding across cultures does not have to be a pain. The key lies in getting on the same page about what language style will be customary for work functions. Also, encouraging team members to always ask for clarification when they are not 100% sure is super effective. This helps everyone to avoid different interpretations that can cause larger issues down the line. Take the time to be explicit, especially with regard to important words and phrases that are regularly used in the shared workspace.

Tip #12:  Use a Project Management System 

Project management software makes changes in work processes easier to cope with. It helps keep teams on the same page so work doesn’t slip through the cracks. Of the many platforms out there, you can be sure to find the one that works best for your company and team.

A project management system most importantly helps the team to keep track of deadlines. It will send alerts for assignments and reminders for deadlines, along with a quick overview of what needs to be done today, this week, and this month. You can also easily track when things need to happen, and who is in charge of them. You can also use tools in combination, like Trello and Google Docs, along with any time tracking software that you want to use.

If your team is smaller, you might be tempted to continue using email or chat for task management. This is really not a good idea, especially over the long run. Project management systems are there to help you organize documents and conversations in one place, under each project, so that it is easier to find everything later. 

Tip #13:  Foster Shared Leadership

Team members are most likely to stay focused and be motivated to stay productive when they have defined deliverables and a system to track commitments. What you want to add to this is a system that attracts them – rather than just pushes them – to perform better. Shared leadership means finding ways to involve team members in leading the team. 

Assigning team members specific responsibilities for special projects. You can start with simple ones like sharing best practices with new hires, coaching assistants in their areas of expertise, mentoring to help with onboarding; or running virtual team-building exercises. Share leadership responsibilities to increase engagement with and among team members while taking some of the burden off your shoulders at the same time.

Tip #14:  Prepare Ahead

Many companies already know how much they save on costs when they go with a fully remote workforce. The initial, basic computation does not even include the opportunity for talent pool diversification. If you are building a fully remote workforce for the long run, you will also be implementing a flexible work policy. 

a man at a whiteboard describing a system

You need to have systems in place that are scalable so that you can support a growing remote workforce. Do not gloss over things like onboarding materials and standard operating procedures. You will be using these over and over, and should put in good effort to make them effective and easy to update. This will help things to flow smoothly whatever internal changes you implement.

Tip #15:  Pay Virtual Hires Well

Especially these days, a lot of people want to work virtually. Many professionals with a ton of experience are even willing to take a pay cut to have the opportunity to work from home. This means that companies like yours can find lower-cost team members virtually. However, you must understand the long-term cost of lowballing applicants. 

Expecting great performance for low rates is a recipe for disaster. Someone who is desperate may grab hold of the opportunity, but is likely to drop you as soon as a better opportunity comes along. Someone who feels underpaid will also tend to do as little work as possible out of frustration, or simply to justify the low rate. They will also not feel motivated to share their best ideas because they don’t feel valued. These are just three of the most common pitfalls of paying low rates.

On the other hand, if you pay virtual team members well, you can earn their respect and trust, and ensure that the team works hard and sticks with you even when things get tough.

Final Thoughts on How to Manage a Virtual Team

When managing virtual teams, you need to make team building a conscious effort. Virtual teams don’t enjoy the natural benefits of team socialization and trust-building. Any virtual team manager must therefore provide them with ways to build rapport and bond to compensate for the physical distance.

Actively communicate direction to your virtual team and ensure that each member knows what they need to know. Ensure as well that they feel supported and appreciated. Remember that virtual team members do not have the benefits of the casual “water cooler” chat. As a manager, you need to organize these opportunities for them to foster team spirit regularly. This is how to manage a virtual team so that you get them best results.

 

Would you like to know how to be certain who your next hire should be? Or maybe you are having a hard time deciding what parts of your business can be outsourced with virtual assistants, right now. We can help you answer these questions, and help you to discover what new systems you should add to scale your business faster. Set up a free hiring consultation with us at Outsource School today – simply book here!

 

By Julia Valdez

Julia is a career freelancer and agency owner turned coach for those seeking abundance and victorious living. A professional teacher and decades-long lover of the art of words on paper and the stage, she loves sharing actionable advice on life-changing topics. When she’s not helping freelancers and other small business owners grow, you can find her sharing lots of laughs over little crazy things.

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