Pressure to cut costs and an increased emphasis on flexible working has led to a rise in the number of employees working remotely.  Many managers, however, still have a tendency to see virtual working as ‘second best’ and struggle to manage the performance of people they rarely see.

Part of the problem is that those at the helm often fail to adapt their approach – believing the tools and techniques they use in an office environment will work equally well with remote teams.  The reality, however, is that managing effectively in an on-line world calls for new approaches to motivating people, building trust and facilitating communication.  In particular, there needs to be much more emphasis on relationships and less on tasks.

So how can you maximise the potential of virtual working in your SME and get the best out of remotely located teams?

Set the scene

Getting the groundwork right is an important first step.  Virtual teams – like any other teams – need to be clear about their overall purpose and goals.  Individuals within the team need to understand how they fit into the bigger picture and what specific contribution they need to make.  Making sure team members are clear about exactly what’s expected of them and how success will be measured is critical in any environment, but even more so in a scenario where there are less opportunities for daily face-to-face interaction and checking in.  The most successful remote teams also put time in up front to discuss the practicalities of how they will work together virtually and to identify how they will overcome any barriers that may get in the way.

Exploit technology

A wealth of technology is now available to help remote teams work together successfully.  Some of the latest social platforms provide employees with a virtual space where they can share documents, post information, discuss ideas and collaborate on projects. Many of these platforms – like the one included as part of Cezanne OnDemand’s HR software  – are within reach of even the smallest business.   It’s important to recognise, however, that not everyone will necessarily be comfortable using these technologies straight away.  Generation Y employees are digital natives and are used to communicating openly in the virtual space.  Some employees, however, may need more time to get used to the new ways of working and often need support in how best to interact with colleagues and get the most out of the technology.

Build and nurture relationships

Relationships are the pillars of successful virtual working – so it’s essential that managers place a priority on building and nurturing them.  If a virtual team is to fulfil its potential, the manager or team leader can’t just provide the technology and expect people to get on with it.  It’s still important to spend time on a one-to-one basis with each member of the team, perhaps phoning them to follow up on a point raised in a virtual meeting or checking in to see what support they may need to meet a particular target.  Team members also need time to build informal relationships with each other.  Some companies have experimented successfully with concepts like ‘virtual coffee corners’ – meetings with no set agenda, where people are invited to phone or log in and simply socialise or talk with colleagues about whatever is on their mind.

Plan for successful virtual meetings

The technology to support virtual meetings has been available for some time, but it’s not enough just to set a time for everyone to log in and expect that the meeting will run smoothly by itself.  A bit of time invested in forward planning can pay enormous dividends.  Its good practice, for example to send out an agenda in advance, outlining key steps and timings, and to ask for feedback from those who will be taking part.  If possible, background reading should be sent out ahead of time to avoid the manager having to launch into a long monologue at the beginning (people generally switch off if someone is speaking for more than 4 minutes and you will definitely have lost them after 10).  People should be encouraged to log in at least 10 minutes before the start of a meeting, so that any technical difficulties can be resolved – and it’s important to create a level playing field (i.e. not a mix of some people being able to see each other and others only able to hear).  Careful thought should also be given to any presentation slides that will be used in the meeting.  A certain amount of ‘content’ slides will probably be needed, but ‘process’ slides, with questions that encourage people to engage with the issues and each other, will also help to make the meeting more productive.

Learn to listen differently

Most managers have been trained to be alert to body language and to pick up visual cues when in meetings or speaking one-to-one with members of their teams.  To work effectively in the virtual space, however, managers need to learn how to listen more attentively and to use their intuition to pick up how people are thinking and feeling.  Many people find silence uncomfortable when they are on the phone or taking part in a virtual session.  They try to fill the void by repeating information or asking people why they are being quiet.  It’s important to recognise, however, that the communication process is about more than just speaking.  Being silent doesn’t mean people have switched off and have half an eye on the TV.  It often means they are considering their response and they need to be given the time to formulate their thoughts and not feel under pressure to give an immediate response.

Information courtesy of ‘Virtual Leadership: Learning to Lead Differently’ published  by Ashridge Associate Ghislaine Caulat, Libri Publishing 2012.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.