By Andrea Hill
If all you’ve ever had are cats, and then you get your first puppy, you quickly realize that all pets are not alike. Kittens and puppies are both destructive, but in different ways. They require different types of energy and supervision to get them from infancy to adolescence, and their ongoing care requirements are not the same either.
In a similar vein, managing teams in the office is very different from managing virtual teams. Even though it’s the same people, doing the same work, your management skills and tools change dramatically. So let’s talk about time, tools, and motivation, and how each of these elements take on new meaning in a virtual workplace.
Many managers struggle with managing the time of their employees. They micromanage time in order to feel confident they are getting their money’s worth. And this is when they can actually see what people are doing!
Once employees go virtual, the ability to micromanage nearly disappears—and that’s a good thing. You can set expectations for the number of hours your people will work each day, and the agreed-upon start and stop times. And you must set clear expectations for what work should be done, when, and at what quality levels. Then, monitor outcomes instead of work. The results will surprise you. In these conditions, most employees work harder and smarter, and they report higher satisfaction levels.
Interestingly, when employees go virtual, they tend to work more hours than in the office, not less. We frequently coachwork-at-home professionals to set consistent start, break, and stop times and to adhere to them because the most common tendency is to work endless hours and get burned out. But as entire teams migrated home over the course of one weekend in March, a new pattern emerged that had not been observed before. Managers and business owners also ended up at home, and they promptly forgot that employees had working hours.
When managing virtual employees and teams, you must respect the working hours. No calling, texting, or WhatsApping before or after. Resist the urge to constantly follow up on tasks. This kind of relentless communication causes employees to get overwhelmed, which reduces quality and productivity and leads to employee dissatisfaction.
Most of the management tools I’m about to describe should be part of your toolbox already, but they become even more important once teams go virtual. These tools improve good communication, reduce bad communication, and give you—and the entire team—greater visibility to the status of all work.
Team systems are digital, collaborative workspaces that help teams be more productive and achieve better results. They include features such as conversational threads, project and task management, web conferencing, screen sharing, file sharing, calendar sharing, work and process instructions, service level agreements (SLAs), central knowledge bases, and integration with programs such as spreadsheets, word processing, and company forms. The most well-known and fully featured team systems are Microsoft Teams and Slack.
When you implement a team system, you begin to collect all your company information in a centralized, fully searchable database. Gone are the days of managing via e-mail, which is terribly inefficient and opaque.
Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
Centralized, comprehensive customer in-formation is always important, and this is doubly true when people are working in separate physical locations. In the office, teams hear one another talking with and about customers, and without even realizing it, absorb details about customers. Virtual workers are often shocked by how much their information intake is reduced—information they didn’t even realize they were processing when they were in the office.
A good CRM system can capture all communications between customers and sales/support staff, customer transactions, and important notes about past, present, and future plans with customers. This puts meaningful information in reach of every team member. The result? Your customers will feel like every member of your team understands them.
Your goal should be to use e-mail as little as possible. You wouldn’t use the U.S. Post Office as a management tool, and you shouldn’t use e-mail that way either. Limit e-mail to only information-sharing activities. With team collaboration software and CRM, the need for e-mail almost disappears.
For intra-company communications, use the chat features in your team tools. The best thing about the chat features is that you can connect each conversational thread to a particular topic. Looking for input on your process maps? All the conversations, suggestions, and edits will be archived forever as part of the work.
E-mail can’t—and shouldn’t—be eliminated with your customers. We need to welcome communications from customers using whatever methods work best for them. But when your CRM system is integrated to your e-mail accounts, those conversations will also be archived forever and visible to the rest of the team.
Process Documentation and SLAs
Process accuracy and consistency is more important than ever when teams work remotely. Most manufacturing companies are conscious about process consistency in production, but don’t give as much attention to process consistency for producing an e-mail campaign, adding a new product to the website, setting up a new customer, post-order follow-up steps, or hiring and onboarding new employees. Once you’re remote, all administrative and sales processes must be as carefully controlled as production processes.
SLAs are also critical to remote workers. All service level expectations for intra-team hand-offs and customer support should be documented, agreed upon, and followed carefully. When meeting with your teams regularly, one of your review items should be SLA performance levels.
Part of your role as a manager is to help your people stay connected and motivated.In the office, this is accomplished through casual conversation about family members and activities, observing changes such as outfits and haircuts, and sharing breaks and lunches together. We don’t even think about these things; we just do them.
But once teams go virtual, it’s important to be proactive about scheduling team time, and to make the extra effort to check on individual team members and take time for casual conversation. This is a valuable use of your time and attention, and in the beginning, you may need to put it on your calendar so you don’t forget.
Right now, we are working virtually out of necessity. But when the crisis passes, it is likely that many companies will continue some form of virtual work. Virtual work can provide relief from long commutes, alleviate office over-crowding, facilitate better support for family emergencies, and give people vital concentration time that can be difficult to find in noisy offices. And of course, there’s always the added benefit of working with your puppy—or kitten—in your lap.