By Richard Walton
Managing a team is a complex task at the best of times, but managing a virtual team that spans 150 staff in over 13 different countries is a completely different challenge. At AVirtual, we have expanded quickly and found what works for us and our virtual personal assistants. Effectively managing virtual teams is a unique task. Here are my top tips to help you achieve success in a distributed environment.
What is a Virtual Team?
Firstly, what do I mean when I refer to a virtual team? It’s a relatively new phenomenon made possible through the development of the internet. Facilitated by fantastic tools, such as Skype, Zoom, and Facetime, conversations can take place at the click of the button despite the two people being in different countries across the world. With the development of this key supporting software, we are able to work remotely without needing to physically be in the same space. For our business, this has been revolutionary. It’s such a radical diversion from traditional ‘office culture,’ where you can easily meet with employees in person, catch up over a coffee or meet for a wind-down drink after work. But, I believe this disruption is one that allows a new level of productivity.
That being said, running and managing a remote team poses unique challenges for both employer and employee. These are the challenges faced by freelancers since the phenomenon emerged alongside the technology revolution.
In an ideal work environment, we are all self-motivated, accountable, and alert without any overseeing supervision, but we are only human. It’s easy to get complacent and procrastinate. In building an atmosphere of mutual trust, employees will understand their purpose in the bigger picture. I trust them to do their job and they trust me to do mine.
Let’s take a closer look at how this can be a mutually beneficial arrangement for remote workers and managers.
Remote Work Benefits
Employers may enjoy financial benefits from managing a virtual team. Outgoing costs of commuting and owning or leasing office space are eliminated. For employees who require ample flexibility and freedom from the rigidity of the 9-5 set up, working in their own space or in the vast array of coffee shops and cafes keeps things fresh and helps them avoid the stagnation trap of an office building. They also gain empty and non-profitable commuting time back to spend as they choose.
All this freedom stems from trust: from both sides of the table. As a leader, I need to trust that the person is going to do their job, but I also need to make sure the employee feels valued and not neglected. My top tip for maintaining this level of trust is to schedule regular check-ins. I like to use Facetime via Zoom or Skype to ensure that body language is read properly and nothing gets lost due to a poor audio connection. I normally ratio these one-to-ones as 80% business related and 20% personal catch-ups. Humanizing people in management roles is key to ensuring all team members feel valued. It’s important to manage a profitable company, but just as important is creating a community where people feel connected and in touch with the bigger picture. As with most business, communication cannot be undervalued.
One of the main obstacles that comes with managing remote teams is how to build a team work ethic when you’re not present. It’s in our nature to crave community and connection. So practically speaking, we recommend having at least three or four working hours that overlap for employees. This is so they can support each other and gain a sense of community through shared experience.
Another advantage of working with remote teams of people is the eradication of geographical drawbacks. This allows us to build teams of people based purely on their merit and create the best team possible. Recruiting people for the individual competencies and forming groups based strengths and cohesion means the business can thrive - rather than wane - under the strain of convenient team formation. Imagine you are able to pull each of your strongest employees (no matter where they are geographically located) and bring them together into a virtual team – it’s a scenario only co-located employers can dream of.
Our strategy for building teams is simple. Looking at South Africa for example, there is no way all of our employees could work in one space everyday. Instead, with the money we save from hiring an office space, we create communities by region. We spend money to help them get together and support each other. We have found that 30 people per community is the ideal number. It’s big enough that they feel as though they belong to something important, but small enough that they know everyone’s names and can maintain genuine connections.
Through foundational teams of virtual employees, we can instill a sense of company culture. Culture is a hugely important managerial tool for me. We spend lots of time and money on developing ideas and ways to keep employees on board with company culture. The long-term success of strategic implementation hinges on all employees understanding and implementing strategy from the ground up. Day-to-day work and decisions must operate with the overarching company strategy in mind – otherwise it collapses internally.
Through consistent communication and team building, the implementation of company culture is possible. It takes time and dedication, but it is achievable. Streamlining the strategy throughout the culture makes employees more aware that they are part of the bigger picture and that in turn increases accountability and productivity.
Building a culture of trust and accountability is key. In trusting people to do their job well from the onset through an understanding of reciprocal respect, productivity levels are at their highest. Eliminating mundane excuses for not getting on with work, individuals find that all their needs are met, and they are given the freedom to be their most productive.
While people will still lose focus and perhaps slack off, ultimately this is reflected in the production and quality of their work and can be easily addressed when shortcomings arise. We use annual get togethers, which are sometimes a logistical nightmare when you have employees from all over the globe. But keeping in mind the bigger picture, we strive to instill a sense of inclusion for all employees. They are the team, and without their hard work and commitment when no one is watching, the business wouldn’t be a success.
While it is easy to discuss the areas of our company that are established and developed, here’s how we arrived at this point and how we maintain it. Over time, we have developed team operating agreements. These are a set of structural guidelines which pinpoint how to work together daily, including topics like resolving issues, assigning work, how to deal with holidays etc. It’s important to have a solid structure in place to allow for the smooth running of daily business. Without them, remote employees are unsure what is expected of them.
To integrate these guidelines, we run an ‘onboarding’ process. This entails attending training sessions with various managers and team members over the course of a few days. We address basic job skills, how to work in teams, proactivity and delegation. We also discuss how to implement these in real-life scenarios, so they are prepared to tackle anything a potential client could send them. They receive a team leader in this training week to refer to for support.
Ongoing training is also important. It’s a good idea to set up an internal search engine which employees can look to for videos, how to guides and answers to frequently asked questions.
Effectively managing teams of remote VAs poses many challenges, but we feel as though we have found what works for us. While virtual teams can be cost-effective, plan to spend more resources on HR, company culture, and staff events to keep all members of every team engaged. Staff should be at the heart of every company.
Richard Walton is the founder of AVirtual. AVirtual helps UK SME's scale up their businesses from their headquarters in Cape Town, South Africa where they supply world-class professional business services. As an entrepreneur, finding work-life balance was something he struggled with. However, after finding out he could outsource the work he didn't need to do himself, this made his life easier. Over the years, Richard has learned a lot about running a business, and tries to impart as much of this as possible.