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How to Avoid Problems Managing Virtual Employees

Posted on October 6, 2014
Amy GulatiWritten by Amy Gulati | Email author

Few of us could have imagined 25 years ago how much the internet would change the way we work.  Today’s globally connected labor force works whenever and wherever thanks to technology that has all but made the corporate office obsolete in certain fields. Yet, the challenges with telework and virtual teams are real and require managers to think strategically and creatively.

4 Steps to Best Manage Teleworkers, Remote Employees and Virtual Teams:

  1. Pick the Right Team Members: Sounds straight forward, right? The reality is though, not every position or every employee is suited for remote work. It’s important to note that remote work in the context of a virtual team could actually be performed in a company office, just one that isn’t collocated with colleagues.  In general, the less tactile the work is, the more likely that it can be accomplished remotely or virtually.  But it’s important to honestly evaluate team members before giving them a telework arrangement.  As a manager, you need a high degree of trust that the employee is enough of a self-starter to create their own structure and complete work in an efficient manner.  Further, they should have demonstrated strong communication skills, which are absolutely critical when work is not conducted fact-to-face.
  2. Set Expectations: One of the biggest challenges with a successful teleworking arrangement is differing perceptions related to productivity. Hours of individual availability need to be clearly established and regularly communicated.  In fact, most companies require employees to sign telework agreements to formalize these expectations. As the manager, you should also establish team meetings with enough frequency to keep everyone connected to the extent possible.  If in person meetings are not feasible due to geographic distance, then technology should be used to allow employees to connect via Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Lync, etc.  These interactions cultivate trust among team members, which is critical in facilitating any group of employees and even more important for those working virtually.  Some research has shown that trust between virtual teams who have no personal contact can evaporate in as little as three months.
  3. Facilitate Collaboration and Create Accountability: Ensure that your team has a means of sharing work easily and establish an expectation of transparency through your own actions. Just as technology enables remote work, it can also help with the collaboration.  Many companies use SharePoint or cloud services to post internal work products, but Google Drive has similar functionality for little to no cost.  If you set the example of sharing work by posting your project timelines or staffing matrixes, team members will follow your lead.
  4. Monitor Trust and Morale Closely: As I’ve already mentioned, trust is perhaps the most critical element of a successful telework or virtual work arrangement. When trust has been lost, morale and productivity will quickly drop.  As a manager, you play a critical part in monitoring the pulse of the group via one to one communications, group meetings and employee engagement.

The percentage of virtual workers has risen steadily over the past decade and despite some high profile policy reversals from companies like Best Buy and Yahoo!, this trend is sure to continue.  When managed properly, telework can provide meaningful flexibility that helps motivate and retain good employees.

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