Guidance for Managers of Virtual Teams

The challenges presented by COVID-19 are unprecedented and continue to evolve. In order to cope with these challenges, many organizations are exploring ways to help their employees work productively from home. However, the shift from face time management to virtual management is not straightforward or simple. Virtual teams are fundamentally different from regular work teams. They cross boundaries related to geography, time, and organization and use technological means to communicate and collaborate. These differences can be overcome with planning and intentional management. This resource is designed to help you navigate this shift while maintaining productivity, trust, and communication.

First, know that all employees, managers and non-managers are experiencing these changes at the same time. While policy and procedure mandate a change, the process that individuals will go through is a transition. Individual people will move through the transition in different ways. While you may have some team members who are ready to implement a fully virtual work environment, some are still in the process of acknowledging that these changes are even necessary. Some of this difference is due to individual styles for approaching change while some is a result of information and beliefs.

As a leader, you can gauge where an individual team member might be on this spectrum of change by talking with them about their feelings, concerns, and answering questions. Pay attention to whether the employee is focusing on the future or the past and listen to their reactions in a non-judgmental mode.

For more information on the transition process and to learn more about helping your employees navigate change, join us for;

Guidance for Managing Work Remotely

Virtual drop-in sessions for managers and supervisors on how to remotely manage work and employees in a supportive and inclusive way.

The following are general considerations that will help you, the manager, prepare to implement and support virtual work arrangements.

  • Clarity:  Given the current context, you need to talk to your team; what communication technology can you all use to communicate?  What access do folks need to do their job? What are expectations in this new context? What does your staff have technology to?  Set expectations for completing projects or performing ongoing duties. Put the details in writing to the degree possible. Define work systems and timelines. Establish a regular meeting schedule so everyone knows the cycle of when work should be completed. Send an agenda for the meeting so people have time to prepare. Have clear deliverables.
     
  • Check in regularly using virtual communication tools. Make sure each person knows what tools should be used for communicating different types of information and the right contacts. For example: what system will you be using for conference calls vs. one on one check-ins? Are there channels available for informal conversations (remember that people will be missing the information that comes from passing in the hallway)? How will you communicate information that is time-sensitive or emergencies?

The following suggestions are more specific to management processes that you will want to maintain during the time of virtual work. Most of these are fundamental management skills that you already use every day, with special focus on the new skills required for virtual leadership.  

  • Trust is essential. If employees trust you and their team to be working toward common goals and a shared vision, they naturally collaborate and engage more with each other. Reiterate your mission and vision regularly, especially as it changes based on current context and work needs of your department. Establish shared goals and connect the work of individuals and sub-teams to those goals.
     
  • Make sure that everyone is on the same systems. For example, if there are shared projects and communications, Outlook, Box, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or others.  Be sure that there are guidelines for how documents will be stored and edited. If you have one team member editing a document in a separate platform, information will get lost in translation. Use project management tools and practices and document what you can about work that gets done. If you are not comfortable with this technology yourself, know where to get tech support. Consider doing some individual and team training with the tools you need/want to use.
     
  • Discuss professional work environments. For example, where will your team members sit during video conferences or virtual meetings. Prepare to get a window into the lives of your team members and don’t be judgmental. Not every colleague has a home office. Some may be sitting on a couch surrounded by kids’ toys. In this situation, many may not have been planning for a virtual work environment. Discuss appropriate attire to wear during a video call (unless you’re comfortable with someone logging in wearing their pajamas).
     
  • Discuss work hours to be sure they overlap. While a traditional 8:30am-5pm schedule may not work for your entire team given potential family care challenges, make sure employees are working at least 3-4 hours of the same time so problems can be addressed in real-time. If employees are taking time off, this needs to be marked on how your team records time.
     
  • Be intentional. Physical distance and communicating through a screen make it easier for miscommunication to happen and make it harder to listen. You may also face accessibility concerns for employees. Use active listening techniques, ask people to repeat what you’ve said/check for understanding, and build action plans so everyone is on the same page. Follow-up with emails/action plan in writing.
     
  • Check in with employees more often. Remote workers are more likely to feel alienated or disconnected, especially if there are members of the team who are not working virtually. Ask these team members about their work, but also talk with them about how they are feeling (physically and emotionally) as they cope with the changing rhythm of their life. Choose video channels over email and phone whenever possible.
     
  • Keep an eye out for new stressors. Because of social distancing measures, introverted team members may be forced to spend more time around their families with less quiet time to themselves. Parents whose children are home due to school closings may be trying to balance keeping children occupied with getting productive work done. Extroverts may feel trapped and isolated and may need a different type of social interaction. Help people name their feelings and identify their stressors. Know the resources available to help team members cope with these changes.
     
  • Be clear about your availability. While everyone may be working virtually, that does not mean you, (or your staff), must be accessible every moment of the day. Use tools like Outlook calendars to mark out lunch times, time off, etc.  Let your team know when they should call you with questions. Be sure to let people know how you prefer to be contacted after hours and how they should contact you in case of an emergency.
  • Skills of Effective Virtual Team Leaders:

    • Encourage team members to lean into their strengths and pair them with members whose strengths are complementary to theirs.
    • Promote a feeling of inclusion.
    • Provide information in a timely fashion.
    • Promote trust and collaboration.
    • Be Inclusive.
    • Encourage discussion and remain open-minded.
    • Manage conflict.
    • Communicate through multiple channels.
    • Demonstrate sensitivity.
    • Develop processes that encourage accountability and commitment.
    • Provide adequate resources and support.

Additional Resources for Managers

UMass Resources:

UMass Response to COVID-19

Disruption Resilience: Remote Work Resources for Staff and Faculty

Stay Connected: Communication & Collaboration Tools

Email Support Articles and Tools

Zoom at UMass

HR Phone and Email for Questions: Central HR at  413-687-2283 or COVID19HR@umass.edu

Resource Articles:

 Leaders: 9 Things to Watch for When Your Team Goes Remote (& A Checklist of Things to Get Your Team)

How to Manage Remote Teams Effectively

Challenges Managing Remote Team and How to Overcome Them

Remote Working Best Practices

Online Learning:

New to Working Remotely? These Resources Can Help

Workplace Learning & Development:

Guidance for Managing Remotely Drop-in sessions via Zoom

Workshops that are being offered via Zoom  Will be noted on list of workshops

Self-Guided Learning (encourage staff to use some of this time for professional development)
Adapted from work by Emily Wilson, HR Appalachian State University, 2020

References:

Baldassare, R. (2015). 10 Ways to Successfully Manage Virtual Teams. Entrepreneur.com. Retrieved from web: entrepreneur.com/article/244197

Duarte, D. L., & Snyder, N. T. (2006). Mastering virtual teams: Strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed. San Francisco: JosseyBass.

Gibson, C. B., & Cohen, S. G. (Eds.). (2003). Virtual teams that work: Creating conditions for virtual team effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harvard (2020). Challenges to Managing Virtual Teams and How to Overcome Them. Harvard Extension School. Retrieved from web: extension.harvard.edu/professional-development/blog/challenges-managing-virtual-teams-and-how-overcome-them

Seiden, J. (2020). Leaders: 9 Things to Watch for When Your Team Goes Remote (& A Checklist of Things to Get Your Team). LinkedIn.com. Retreieved from web: linkedin.com/pulse/leaders-9-things-watch-when-your-team-goes-remote-checklist-seiden/.

Wingard, J. (2020). Leading Remote Workers: The Coronavirus’ Impact On Crisis Management. Forbes.com. Retrieved from web: forbes.com/sites/jasonwingard/2020/03/13/team-working-at-home-because-of-coronavirus-heres-how-to-lead-them-effectively/#2fccca6f3162