Originally published in the Boston Business Journal: https://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2020/05/14/leadership-challenges-in-a-virtual-world.html
For a multitude of reasons, more companies than ever are taking their operations out of the office and shifting to a virtual work environment. FlexJobs noted a 159% increase in remote work since 2005 — and that was before the pandemic. Having run a virtual organization for 18 years, I’m often called on by key decision-makers who are curious about the benefits of a remote workplace and whether it might be compatible with their own leadership style.
In this article, I’ve outlined some of the challenges we’ve experienced, as well as top tips for keeping employees productive and happy.
As a leader in a virtual office environment, it’s important to fully embrace the flexibility that comes along with it. Some find it difficult to accept that their employees might work nontraditional hours or fail to trust they will accomplish their work.
And it’s true, there are some factors that can significantly impact a company’s bottom line. Those include time wasted on inefficient modes of communication, such as chat platforms instead of video calls, and ineffective processes that create more questions than they answer.
Tips for successfully managing a virtual workplace
1. Keep transparency at the forefront.
Be explicit in expressing company goals, plans and values, and make sure each interaction you have is reflective of those values. As co-principals, my business partner and I provide our employees with monthly updates on the state of the business, where we are in relation to our goals and a look at what is coming.
Not only does this information keep virtual teams connected to leadership, but it also unites employees with one another and provides a sense of purpose surrounding their role in reaching those goals. With transparency comes trust, which is the most important aspect of managing a virtual workplace.
2. Know which forms of communication to set up for your virtual team.
It might seem difficult to replicate the organic “watercooler” conversations that take place in an office setting, but you’d be surprised by how seamlessly these aspects of company culture can be carried over in channels designated for sharing stories, memes, uplifting messages, recipes, you name it.
3. Know when to use them.
If your work benefits from the nonverbal cues that come through on voice and video but are misinterpreted through other formats, emphasize the value of voice and video calls over chat and email. Within each format, use techniques that take your employees’ strengths and differences into account.
For example, if extroverts tend to drown out introverts on videoconferences, place the responsibility on managers to create spaces for questions, or delegate roles on conference calls ahead of time. Determine which processes can be made more efficient by documenting and delivering them in a step-by-step written format, i.e. onboarding documents for new employees who don’t have the benefit of asking one-off questions to an officemate or stopping by the HR department for the next step.
And of course, some messages are always best delivered in person, such as the companywide updates I mentioned above. If possible, organize in-person team building activities and brainstorms, and schedule days to all work together or for small groups to work together.
4. Set aside designated time for employee listening.
Communication is a two-way street; while it’s great to provide your staff with regular updates, there’s a lot more to keeping your finger on the pulse than top-down management. Schedule regular check-ins with each team member outside of the ad hoc check-ins that come up naturally over the course of the workweek. Conduct Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys if applicable to your business, and ask employees for their highs and lows each month.
Celebrate wins that would normally be recognized in passing by giving “shoutouts” to employees in companywide emails or staff meetings. Most importantly, don’t just seek out feedback; act on the feedback as soon as you can, and take measures to ensure each employee knows they are heard.
5. While you may primarily interact with your virtual employees through a screen, don’t forget they’re people, not machines.
In a traditional office environment, workdays start and end on a natural rhythm. Unfortunately, the convenience and accessibility that improve work-life balance in a virtual office environment can lead to just the opposite for the employees who find themselves having a difficult time “logging off” for the day.
Leaders should encourage employees to draw a separation between work life and home life by creating interruptions in their day or adopting a transition activity, such as a workout or an alarm, and to respect these boundaries at every turn.
Sometimes, I’m asked about this topic from the opposite perspective when people question how I know whether my employees are “doing their jobs.” The answer is simple: trust your employees. If you’re holding up your end of the bargain in leading your virtual team, you’ll be aware of your employees’ individual goals and how their work is impacting your bottom line. It all comes full circle when your employees trust you in return.
While remote work has its strengths, it’s important that leaders take the right steps to make the transition in a way that maintains sound leadership and culture. The fundamentals of being a good leader don’t change in a virtual environment; rather, it is the manner in which they are employed. Trust your instincts.