No longer just for hipster start-ups, even prominent companies – think IBM, American Express and 3M — now abound with virtual workers. In fact, nearly one-quarter of American workers currently telecommute at least part of the time, according to Global Workplace Analytics.
That means that whether you’re a new or seasoned manager, you probably manage someone remotely or will do so in the near future.
Working remotely comes with all kinds of benefits, both for employees and employers. But it also brings up new management challenges that we’re still figuring out. If you manage a virtual team, here are three key opportunities to build strong and successful relationships with employees based out of the office:
When they crave face time
FaceTime will never equal “face time,” but you have to use whatever technology you can to make sure that each employee feels equal in your attention, feedback and coaching, regardless of where he or she sits.
Be clear about how your team can reach you if they can’t just pop into your office. Your “open door policy” could become an open IM policy, for example. Or, if you normally have “office hours” from 9 to 10 each morning, let your offsite employees know that’s the ideal time to text or call you.
The key is to ensure that remote employees feel like they have access to you. Be mindful of how much informal feedback and coaching you give in person and seek out similar opportunities with your virtual employees.
Make sure your remote employees get just as much feedback & coaching as in-person employees.
In addition to when, you’ll want to discuss how to contact you. In my book Becoming the Boss, I suggest having a “style conversation” to understand each person’s communication preferences and to communicate your own. Managing virtual workers is a situation where this understanding is imperative: Skype, for example, would seem to be a no-brainer but you can’t assume it’s a channel that every employee loves.
p.s. Just because you’re the manager doesn’t mean you automatically get to dictate how you and your virtual employees will communicate. The goal is ultimately to get the most out of your team, so make sure you’re taking into account their preferred modes of communication as well.
When you’re having a conference call
We’ve all been on those calls where we’re straining to hear the person who’s calling in from afar, or we’ve been the person calling in from the road and heard everyone in the room laugh at something we didn’t hear.
Conference calls can be brutal when you’re not in the room. So, if you’re the one leading the conference call or meeting, encourage participation from everyone, especially the people on the phone. You’ll also want to limit the side conversations happening in the room and either curtail them or summarize them for the virtual worker(s).
Finally, a note about logistics: Make sure everybody’s tech works to avoid that initial scramble of “Can you hear me now?” And, be mindful of time zones so that you’re not always making one region stay up late or get up early. The in-person office team shouldn’t always get to score the perfect time if you want everyone to feel truly equal in importance.
When the team is getting together
Lunchtime trainings. Team dinners. Birthday celebrations. Impromptu happy hours. Think of all the times that your team gets together in person, and how those informal functions foster camaraderie and team spirit – ties that virtual workers can miss out on.
I know budgets are tight for many offices, and sometimes all you can manage is one annual company meeting. However, I encourage you to think about what other chances there may be to bring in virtual team members to physically be with the group. While the big events are important, much of the bonding and coaching happens when you convene informally, and the team will be more cohesive if they see each other occasionally.
I have a unique perspective, since I’m often in the position of facilitating speeches or training that people have flown in to attend, and I see the power of people meeting and collaborating face to face. No matter how much technology we add to our lives, there is still something special about those moments.
Bottom line: It’s crucial to make sure everyone knows they’re an integral part of the team, whether they are sitting with you or not. Whether they are working virtually or in an office, people of all generations crave the social aspects and relationship-building opportunities that the office environment offers; it’s the reason co-working spaces have taken off so successfully. (I personally work in one!) That’s why smart managers are always cognizant of their virtual workers and make sure they feel like part of the team.