In previous articles on our blog, we have discussed the benefits of a remote workforce and how to make virtual meetings work. While we typically facilitate learning for our clients to support them in establishing a thriving team culture in a virtual environment, we at Aperian Global have learned many of the lessons about virtual teams in our own day-to-day work. At this point, there is not a single functional team at Aperian Global that does not have at least one virtual employee. Often, our internal teams are dispersed across at least two continents and multiple time zones. This gives us a great opportunity to ask our managers of virtual teams about their best practices for establishing a virtual team culture.
The managers we interviewed were Anthony Greco, Director, Learning Design & Delivery, Sarah Cincotta, Director, Global Marketing, Simone-Eva Redrupp, Managing Director, Customized Learning Solutions, Addie Johnson, Director, Global Talent Management, Amanda Paulson, Director, Product Development, and Jesse Rowell, Global Director of Client Relations and Market Development.
As the manager of a virtual team at Aperian Global, what have been your biggest hurdles to establishing a thriving (virtual) team culture?
Anthony: One of the biggest challenges is time zones. I have some team members whose days overlap with mine for a period of time, and some who do not at all. I try to make myself available whenever needed, but the level of support you can provide to someone during their actual workday as they are going through tasks is so important. The second challenge is a lack of face-to-face opportunities. I manage individuals whom I’ve never met, and many of the team members have never met one another. This may be more common in our organization than in others, but is nonetheless a difficulty in building rapport with more relationship-oriented individuals.
Sarah: I’ve found one of the biggest challenges is that there are fewer opportunities for informal, non-work-related conversation. Although we tend to spend the first few minutes of a call catching up (“How was your weekend?”, “How was your day so far?”), at times it can still feel a bit too structured or forced. If an employee is going through something particularly challenging at work or even outside of work, it can be hard to know what’s really going on beneath the surface. These conversations happen naturally in an office environment but are few and far between on virtual teams.
Another challenge I’ve found is creating a sense of “team” or organizational togetherness when some of your virtual team members are not in offices with other colleagues. It can be hard to stay invested and engaged if you’re not surrounded by people that are part of your company — or by people at all! I think everyone has a desire to understand how we fit in and contribute to the bigger picture. In a virtual team, it takes more of a concerted effort on behalf of the employee and the manager.
Addie: I often find it challenging to give constructive feedback, as I am usually not able to observe my virtual team’s work first-hand. If there are issues or concerns, I hear about it from a third party and it is hard to deliver feedback if you don’t have all the context. Rarely am I able to give “real time” feedback, so I feel like I am missing out on learning opportunities for my team.
Another challenge is developing trust. I can’t “see” when someone is coming into an office or when they leave, and if they are on a phone all day texting, or if they are working extra long hours and are really stressed. Can I trust that a team member is working at full capacity, and if not, will they let me know? Conversely, will I not know if they are completely overworked and burned out until it’s too late?
Simone-Eva: Body language is 80% of communication, yet not all virtual team members turn on their cameras. The best team engagements are those in which we agree to use our cameras systematically, even if it’s only at the start to say a brief “hello.” Seeing somebody’s facial expressions or office surroundings helps gauge his or her level of engagement. It also prevents multi-tasking and can lead to additional small talk, which is important for building trust. Of course, there must be exceptions: the team needs to be tolerant and accepting that colleagues in very early morning or late evening time zones don’t always necessarily want to “be seen.” And that’s okay too, but should be only occasional.
Amanda: With my team, some team members are co-located, while some are virtual. This poses an interesting challenge to make sure the virtual team members have an equal say and participation in team activities. Often, I’ve found that the co-located team members can quickly have discussions and make decisions while forgetting to make sure input is gathered from virtual employees. This issue gets compounded when virtual team members are in different time zones. It’s already hard to make the time to celebrate wins and milestones with a co-located team, but with virtual employees, it’s even harder to find something the entire team can enjoy.
Jesse: My default position in any virtual meeting — whether it is one on one or a group call — is to make time, in the beginning, to catch up informally. This happens naturally in a co-located office, but, as Sarah mentioned, it needs to happen in a virtual setting or else the meetings feel too task-focused. At the risk of making the meeting longer, or not getting to every task, I find it very important to have the informal conversation each time if possible. People need to feel connected with their peers, and not everyone wants to be on a web camera; therefore, the casual conversation is crucially important. Making that time available in a day filled with other calls or meetings is a hurdle, but it is worth it.
In managing virtual teams, what success strategies have you learned along the way that are specific to establishing a functioning team culture? Which steps do you regularly take to maintain the culture your virtual team has established?
Addie: I’ve found it really helpful to partner with a local colleague to help support my virtual team members. By setting up a local mentor and/or HR contact, I know my team will be able to get real-time help as needed. This also helps build a stronger sense of team with local colleagues and may expose them to more learning opportunities. Of course, open and frequent communication between the manager, employee, and local contact is key.
Anthony: It is important to establish a rhythm with each individual team member and find out what works for them. I meet with some of my employees during their evening, and others during my evening. Some of these meetings are weekly and an hour long, and others are only 30 minutes, or even less with some other frequency. I also make sure that we have a recurring time to come together as an entire group (in our case, every other month) and have a freeform meeting. This focuses on general updates, status checks, and ideas for the future.
Sarah: One of my success strategies for managing virtual teams is to get creative with team bonding. Since I hold one-on-ones regularly with all team members, I typically have more of a sense of what may be going on outside of work — or even other projects team members are working on outside of our team. I make it a point to highlight these in group calls, where appropriate. I am also big on sending small, personalized group gifts or cards to team members to celebrate special days or successes.
Although many virtual teams can’t necessarily afford regular face-to-face team gatherings, I do encourage team members to rotate to other offices to spend time with each other, when possible. Especially with cultures that are very relationship-oriented, even 1-2 days physically in an office with someone can make a significantly positive impact on working relationships.
Jesse: I believe that it is important to give a voice (visibility) to each member of the team in front of the rest of the team. In order to establish a sense of community and knowledge-sharing, I believe it is good when others can share stories or talk about projects they are working on. I encourage all of our team members to speak with one another as well. Some people are more vocal than others, either due to personality or culture, so if some are quiet, I try to find ways to comment about something they are doing and give a face to them in an informal way to prompt discussion.
Simone-Eva: Exploring the topics of interest that are common to all is one way to create “glue” for virtual teams. Members of the Customized Learning Solutions, for example, are “learners” and seek intellectual stimulation; therefore exploring topics of interest, sending some information as pre-reading (following the flipped learning philosophy) and then discussing it “live” on calls, leads to stimulating exchanges and sharing.
Amanda: I spend a lot of effort helping the team members understand how each person is contributing to the team’s broader goals. When we have a big deadline or deliverable approaching, I like to make sure that we collectively understand what role each team member is playing and how the roles fit together. Rather than assign tasks individually in one-on-one meetings, we create a project plan with tasks spread across all team members. This avoids the perception that someone isn’t pulling their weight and facilitates an atmosphere of respect for each other and each other’s work. In one-on-one meetings, I also like to update team members on the others’ progress, so everyone knows the entire team is moving in the same direction. Also, in addition to check-in meetings, we are continually striving to find technology solutions to track issues and threads of conversations, to make sharing information and gathering input more of an open process.
Some of you have previously managed teams and were able to draw from that experience while others became virtual team managers without prior management experience. As a new manager without prior management experience, how did you tackle the challenge of not having all your direct reports close by?
Sarah: I actually used being a new manager to my advantage. When I took on managing a team of four virtual, globally-dispersed employees (with no prior management experience), I was very upfront with the team about being new to people management, and for this reason, I was very open to feedback on what they felt was working and what wasn’t. I assured them that being an effective manager of our team was a high priority and regularly asked them directly for feedback, and I asked my manager to solicit anonymous feedback from them as well.
What really helped me set new virtual employees up for success was implementing a very thorough onboarding system. It’s difficult to onboard new employees from afar, so it was helpful for me to create a calendar for them where I blocked off time at different parts of the day and provided suggested tasks or things to read up on. I gave them a lot of flexibility and let the calendar serve as a guide for what to spend their time on. It can be very frustrating as a new employee to start a job and not know what to do with all the downtime, with a manager that maybe 1,000 miles away and not even in your time zone. By providing that guidance up front, it made new employees feel supported and set up for success on their new virtual team.
As a virtual manager with previous management experience, what are the major differences between managing a remote workforce and a local team?
Anthony: In the past, I have managed co-located employees. I gained some great insight from those experiences in terms of balancing my level of involvement in individuals’ work and learning to treat each individual differently. One of the biggest advantages was that I could check in for a couple minutes, several times throughout the day if needed, to respond to questions or give feedback. With virtual employees, the process is a little less organic and more structured. Depending on time zone, you also deal with different holidays and often feel like you have a shorter week with them if their weekend has already started when your Friday is just beginning. Another difference is that with virtual employees, you lose some context about the work environment. That is, you don’t see them throughout the day, or see how they are interacting (or not) with others in the office, etc. It was much easier to know when my co-located employees were extremely busy or working at a more relaxed pace.
Amanda: As Anthony mentioned, without the casual day-to-day interactions, it usually just takes a lot more effort to build a rapport and trust with a virtual employee. You can’t stop by their desk to take a temperature of how their day might be going, and it’s harder to gauge preferred work styles and what motivates an individual. Committing to and sticking with meeting times, especially if time zones are dramatically different, can be a real challenge when it involves picking up the phone, setting up a screen share, or feeling comfortable on a video conference.
That said, once trust is established and the team gets a stride, it’s rewarding to have a high-functioning team with members from different cultures around the world. And during periods when the team is working at a high capacity, it can be a real benefit to having team members working in opposite time zones, almost like getting twice the work week. It’s a great feeling to discover an issue at the end of a workday and have it resolved by the next morning.
Addie: It is easy to have your remote workforce feel out-of-sight, out-of-mind compared to having other team members onsite. It takes real discipline to carve out time to spend with virtual employees and to build a relationship with them. Not to mention a bit more creativity as to how and when you can interact!
Creating informal contact moments for casual exchanges that, in a face-to-face situation, would happen without planning, needs to be carefully planned in a remote work environment. Much more effort must be made during the “BEFORE” phase of a virtual team meeting in the creation of the support document(s), than in the “DURING” and “AFTER” phases. In a face-to-face setting, the emphasis is more on the “DURING” than the “BEFORE” and “AFTER”.
Jesse: I have always managed people from a distance, as a virtual, remote worker myself. I tend to create more informal connections than a co-located leader might, using instant messaging to check in or just say hi. When you can balance the regularly scheduled meetings with the informal check-ins, it helps. But it will never replace the face-to-face interactions that happen naturally in an office environment.
If you have remote workers on your team and could use more than our success strategies in managing virtual teams, reach out to learn more about our learning solutions and customized offers. Or, get started exploring our Team Effectiveness solutions.