Here are some best practices for managing a virtual team.
So you want a great team.
But as you know, one of the most difficult aspects of leadership is leading your team well. It’s emotional. It’s never predictable. And it involves real people with real feelings, emotions and a will of their own.
I’ve been building and leading teams for two decades, and being an Enneagram 8 doesn’t make that any easier.
Add to that the fact that the workplace is changing rapidly with the rise of technology, remote work, virtual teams and the rise of the gig economy, and you’ve got a whole new world emerging for leaders.
If you think things are getting more complicated, you’re right. Within a few years, 50 percent of all jobs will be found in the gig economy. Add to that the fact that 73 percent of Gen Z say they want to work freelance.
Whether you’re a start-up or an established organization that’s growing, more and more leaders are going with virtual teams or hybrid teams that are a mix of in-person staff and virtual team members.
I’ve led both in-person teams, and now more recently, an entirely virtual team, and along the way, I’ve learned some best practices that work for both settings.
BELAY, a virtual staffing company, has been an indispensable part of the journey. BELAY has provided multiple staff at different times as they have for hundreds of businesses and churches.
Fun fact: BELAY itself is an entirely virtual company that provides everything from virtual assistants to virtual bookkeeping to virtual copywriting and web support.
If you haven’t already engaged virtual team members, chances are very high that it’s in your near future. That’s just where everything’s heading.
Before we jump into best practices, here are three quick reasons virtual teams make a great option for leaders.
WHY VIRTUAL AND HYBRID TEAMS ARE SURGING
Completely virtual teams are becoming more common, but so are what you might call hybrid teams—teams with members in the office and others who work remote or completely virtual.
So why is virtual work surging?
First, entirely virtual teams enable you to better invest in people and your mission because you’re saving money on office space, rent, maintenance and upkeep. In my case, every one of my team members works from home.
Second, you can invest in quality experiences that shape your team. Recently, I did a retreat in Nashville with my team. We flew people in from across the U.S. and Canada and met at a great hotel, had a lot of fun together and worked on long term plans. Those kinds of shared experiences become easier because you’re not spending money on rent and overhead week after week.
Third, you can find the best people fast. One of the reasons I love BELAY is they do all the interviewing, vetting and hard work of finding great talent for you. People apply to them before they apply to you. Only about 2 percent of applicants for BELAY end up making it through their process. So, by the time you get a candidate, you’re getting the best of the best.
Anyone who has ever hired for anyone knows how hard it can be to find the right person, how painful it can be if you hire the wrong person (for everyone) and how much time and money get wasted in the process. BELAY has found me team members in a fraction of the time it would take me to find them on my own.
So, if you’re building a virtual team (or a hybrid team of virtual and non-virtual staff), how do you ensure it’s a great team?
Here are seven things I’ve learned about making virtual teams great teams.
1. Think Mission, Not Task.
Creating a powerful sense of mission is essential regardless of the kind of team you have, but when you have a virtual team, it’s non-negotiable.
What this means though is that your mission is more important than ever.
The two traps you can have with virtual teams are to think of your remote workers as people who do tasks or simply as people who work for you.
Well, nobody really wakes up in the morning and thinks, Great, I have tasks to do. And I am increasingly convinced nobody wants to work for me and nobody wants to work for you.
You need a cause that’s bigger than you. If the mission isn’t bigger than you, you need a new mission.
So, create a clear and compelling mission that rallies people to a cause bigger than everyone. That’s motivating.
The mission will unite your team, so be clear about your mission.
2. Over-Communicate and Over-Clarify.
What do you do with the distance aspect of virtual teams?
For sure, it’s harder to communicate when you’re not in the same room.
Because you don’t have the ability to knock on an office door or stop by a cubicle or read body language, you have to work harder on communication.
I always tell my team to never hesitate to ask a question and never hesitate to clarify. I’d rather answer a dozen questions than discover someone has sunk 10 hours into a project only to realize they misunderstood the instructions because I wasn’t clear.
And let’s be honest, bosses, we’re not always clear.
Over-communicate. Over-clarify. It will only help.
Want a great communication rule? When it doubt, over-communicate. Then communicate again.
3. Do a Daily And/Or Weekly Check-In.
I think I know what you’re thinking. So in the effort to over-communicate and over-clarify, does this mean my inbox is going to blow up or my phone is going to buzz non-stop?
Well, it shouldn’t.
One of the best practices I’ve learned in managing a team is to save non-urgent issues for regular check-ins.
For example, instead of sending 10 emails over the day asking many questions that don’t require immediate answers, have your team save up the questions and do either a daily or weekly check-in. Daily makes sense during a busy season of intense business but weekly can work too. Bottom line: Create a running list and deal with it in a phone call or video chat.
Two things will happen. Some of the issues will actually disappear before the check-in. Time saved for everyone. And second, you’ll be able to ask a few minutes worth of back and forth questions on an issue, which otherwise would have been 10 back and forth emails and the extra time to deal with.
So whether your check-in is 15 minutes a day or a few hours each week, make sure it happens. It will save you from death by a thousand emails.
4. Be Strategic About the Tools You Use to Communicate. Email Is the Worst.
If I had to rank ways to communicate with a virtual team, here’s how I’d rank them from best to worst. Notice the top of the list is dominated by face-to-face, voice-to-voice communication. We’re all still people.
1. Video calls. Video calls are the next best thing to being there. Because so much of communication is visual, you pick up facial expressions and nuances that just don’t come across other channels. Again, a daily check-in or weekly check-in by video is amazing. We use Zoom and it works great, but there are many other ways to connect as well.
2. Phone calls. Phone calls are great because communication happens quickly and you can go back and forth in a way you don’t when you use text. There’s almost always banter (Hey, how are you doing?). Often you joke around a bit and you connect far better than you do through email. Working together is better if you actually build a relationship and enjoy the journey.
3. Text. When you’re working with your inner circle, texting can be incredibly helpful because it’s immediate. It has more back and forth than email. And you can ask questions more easily. Texting should not be abused, just used. But still, it’s efficient.
4. Apps. There are hundreds of amazing alternative platforms for communication like Slack, Asana or Basecamp that cut down on email. Explore them.
5. Email. I put email dead last because, well, it’s email. Nobody inherently likes email. Yes, you can convey more information in an email than you can in a text. And as much as I try to minimize email, I still send or receive dozens a day (I refuse to be one of those people who sends and receives hundreds—a complete waste of time and of your life).
5. When You’re Not Sure, Assume the Best.
No matter how much you communicate or what formats you use, there are going to be gaps in communication and mistakes.
So what do you do when you’re not sure what happened?
Resist your natural urge, and assume the best, not the worst.
It’s so easy (even automatic) to plunge into worst-case scenarios, thinking someone didn’t care, wasn’t paying attention or meant to mess it up.
Don’t go there.
Catch yourself. Stop. Take a breath. And then assume the best.
Maybe you weren’t clear. Or maybe your teammate had a tough day. Or maybe your teammate did the right thing and a third party messed it up.
Want a catch-all phrase for gaps in information? Just say to yourself: I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation.
Carry that line into the follow-up conversation with your teammate.
Beginning the conversation with “Hey, the flight didn’t get booked. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation. Can you help me understand?” is about 10,000 times better than opening with “What part of book my flight did you not understand?!”
Come to think of it, that’s pretty good marriage and life advice too.
When you believe the best about your team, you tend to get the best from your team.
6. Celebrate Wins.
If you want your virtual team to function as a team, share the highs with each other as any good team would.
Any leader can fall into the rut of taking their team for granted, especially if you don’t see them in person every day.
So be intentional about celebrating wins. We read emails and cards from readers and listeners at our weekly staff meetings. We celebrate when the podcast hits a new milestone, when the blog hits new records or when we launch products.
I send my team Christmas and birthday gifts just to let them know they’re valued.
I know those are little things, but they’re big things when you’re far apart.
Creating that kind of culture and connection has been amazing. And when team members meet in person for the first time, people connect like they have known each other for a long time because, well … they have.
7. Define Your Cultural Values.
Every team has a culture, and if you aren’t aware of what your culture is, it’s probably a bad one.
That’s because no culture is a good culture unless you set out to make it so.
If you’ve ever hated a job you held, it’s probably for one of two reasons: You had a terrible boss or the workplace culture was bad.
Bad culture allows things like gossip, laziness, mediocrity, a lack of accountability or even a harsh merciless tone to define your experience.
Creating a better culture means finding values you all share and want to elevate, and then living by them.
This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com.