Advice for Managing Virtual Teams as Coronavirus Changes Business As Usual

Tue, Mar 10, 20 . Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin and Gabrielle Reed, Leadership Essentials Editor

Executive Summary

As coronavirus threatens the world economy, it’s also affecting the lives of employees and their managers.

  • Large and small companies are forcing or allowing employees to work from home in the wake of a new virus that experts have yet to gain a full grasp on.
  • Executive responses to the virus are impacting managers, many of whom are responsible for managing virtual teams for the first time.
  • Keep five simple practices in mind to unify team members who work from different spaces whether it’s a result of circumstances beyond your control or a matter of company benefits and policy.

Editor's Note: With confirmed cases in 104 countries (as of March 10, 2020), including those with the top 10 largest economies in the world, the pandemic threat will likely impact the business world indefinitely. For example, the global spread of coronavirus is thrusting many managers into unfamiliar territory: managing virtual teams.

In the past week, companies have either enacted sweeping work-from-home policies or offered the option to its employees, especially in condensed cities in states like New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

The headquarters of the world’s largest tech companies are empty. Workers across the glass fields of Silicon Valley and inside the bayside town of Seattle are almost exclusively operating from their home bases, as Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Square, and more have ordered their employees to stay home.

After a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) employee exhibited symptoms of coronavirus yesterday, the federal government agency became the first to ask its workers to stay indoors and out of the office.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t seem to think the virus is cause for concern, but companies and organizations of all sizes are taking proactive measures to ensure their employees aren’t putting themselves in unnecessary and compromising situations by sharing an office with potentially infected coworkers.  

Work-from-Home Policies Impact Managers, Too 

Working from home presents challenges for employees, ranging from technology issues to constant interruptions from children since many schools are closing in response to local cases. But working from home also puts managers in a tough spot.

Most managers don’t receive formal training for leading employees in the traditional workplace. In these unprecedented conditions, managers are now required to learn how to manage virtual teams as they go. Talk about on-the-job training.

So, what should managers with a newly-formed virtual team focus on as they try to conduct business and meet goals that haven’t dispersed while their employees have?


5 Tips to Manage Virtual Teams

It’s time to work together—even though you’re apart. Aside from the current climate which is making remote work essential instead of optional, managing remote employees is starting to be the norm. Currently, nearly 50% of U.S. employees work from home at least one day a week.

As companies apply long-term work-from-home solutions to the coronavirus spread, U.S. managers will have to coalesce groups of employees who are apart for the foreseeable future. A manager’s goal should be to maintain normalcy and enhance communication so that relationships remain intact despite a lack of face time.

When managing a remote team, there are a few specific things to consider.

  1. Set crystal clear expectations. Work with your employee to determine work hours, communication schedules, boundaries, conference call and feedback protocols, and more. To set the partnership up for success, be as direct and clear as possible. Don’t assume anything. Develop an operating agreement for your team to serve as a guideline for how everyone can work together successfully even though you’re not all in the same location.
  2. Resist the urge to micromanage. This is especially true for any Type A personalities, who find it unsettling to not actually see the progress or work getting done. Distance may tempt you to check in more often, but your employees will actually value and grow from their independence. Telecommuter Jayme Muenz said: “I communicate with my manager mostly via e-mail and have biweekly one-on-one meetings over the phone. My hands-off manager allows me to be autonomous and confident in what I do.”
  3. Be creative with recognition and appreciation. You already know how important recognition and appreciation are to building an engaged team. To show appreciation for a job well done, pick up the phone to call for no other reason but to say thank you and chit-chat for a few minutes about how your employee is doing. When working remotely, receiving something tangible can go a long way. Send a handwritten thank you note or put together a small package of some of their favorite things (York peppermint patties, Starbucks card, and Purdue football bobble head) as a token of your appreciation. As a fun way to help a remote employee feel connected and recognized, send video messages to say thanks or to celebrate fun occasions. Send a “Happy Birthday” video from the team. If you have several remote employees, make a “traveling award” that is mailed each week to an employee who has gone above and beyond. These seemingly silly gestures will help the team feel connected, and it will promote a culture of engagement.
  4. Give and receive regular feedback. Making time for feedback can be especially difficult when you are managing remotely. Feedback still can be a daily occurrence, but it doesn’t have to be formal. If a coworker did a great job on a sales call, let her know right after the call and point out specific instances that were impressive. If there was a mistake in the weekly report, let her know immediately. Call or video conference her; you never want to give constructive feedback over email. Ideally, you can deliver the individual’s formal reviews in person.
  5. Make some face time. At least once a month, organize a conference call with the entire team. If possible, use video conferencing. If fiscally possible, get the whole team together at least once a year. Use this time to focus on team building and getting to know one another in addition to discussing business matters. This will go a long way in working together successfully even though you’re apart.

Coronavirus is testing the limits of work-from-home policy across corporations and small businesses nationwide. How these businesses and their various departments set up the remote working process now will inform their policy in the future.

Even after the coronavirus threat subsides, managers in the workplace today will need to understand the best ways to keep teams united under a common goal even when they aren’t in the same office or building space. As younger generations call for greater flexibility in their work life, they'll continue to advocate for work remote options. If your company doesn't provide them, they'll sign with another one that does.

Use this time amid coronavirus fears as an opportunity to test your management style with virtual teams. Remember: Work together even when you’re apart. Be creative with engaging employees you don’t get to see face-to-face.

Adapted with permission from Manager 3.0 by Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin, copyright Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin.

Bring It Home

For a little over a year, I worked remotely as a freelance copywriter. Although I managed myself, maintaining connections with clients I didn’t work under the same roof with required constant communication and clear guidelines. Some of the measures I put in place included initial project kick-off calls and bi-weekly update meetings to analyze progress and ensure goals were being met by both parties.

What does management look like for you if you regularly work from home? How are you adapting or have you adapted to managing virtual teams? Comment with your stories on this article. ~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Brad Karsh

Brad Karsh is President and Founder of JB Training Solutions. An accomplished public speaker and author, Brad has been featured on CNN, CNBC, and Dr. Phil, and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, and many others.

Courtney Templin

Courtney is Chief Operating Officer at JB Training Solutions. An accomplished author and workplace expert, Courtney brings over eight years of experience in the training and development field to her role as Chief Operating Officer at JB Training Solutions.

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