Managing a team is a complex task at the best of times. But managing a virtual team that spans 150 staff in over 13 different countries is a completely different challenge. Here at AVirtual, we have expanded quickly and found what works for us and our Virtual PA’s. Effectively managing virtual teams is a unique task so I have broken down my top tips learnt along the journey to help you achieve success on your venture.
What is a Virtual Team?
Firstly, what do I mean when I refer to a ‘virtual team.’ It’s a relatively new phenomenon that has been made possible through the development of the internet. Facilitated by fantastic tools such as skype and Facetime, conversations can take place at the click of the button despite the two people being in different countries across the world. With the development of this key supporting software, our Virtual PAs are able work remotely without needing to physically be in the same space, and this for our business, has been revolutionary. It’s such a radical diversion from traditional ‘office culture,’ where you can easily meet with employees in person, catch up over a coffee or meet for a wind-down drink after work. But I believe this disruption is one that allows a new avenue of productivity.
That being said, running and managing a remote team poses unique challenges for both employer and employee. These are the challenges that have been faced by freelancers since the phenomenon emerged alongside the technology revolution. While in an ideal world, we are all extremely self-motivated, accountable and alert without any overseeing supervision- we are only human. We can get complacent and face walls of procrastination. But we hope that, in building an atmosphere of mutual trust, our employees understand their purpose in the bigger picture. I trust them to do their job and they trust me to do mine. Let’s take a closer look at how this can be a mutually beneficial setup.
A Mutually Beneficial Set Up?
It’s easy to specify the financial benefits that you can gain as an employer through managing a virtual team. Outgoing costs of commuting and lodging are eliminated which opens a realm of untapped time. Not only that, but the budget for owning or leasing an office space is also eliminated. From my experience, this is one of the main benefits for employees who require ample flexibility and freedom from the rigidity of the 9-5 set up. Working in their own space, or in the vast array of coffee shops and cafes keeps things fresh and avoids the stagnation trap that an office building can impose.
But as aforementioned, with this freedom must come a huge amount of trust: from both sides of the table. I need to trust that the person is going to do their job but I also need to make sure the employee feels valued and not forgotten about. My top tip for maintaining this level of trust is to schedule regular check-ins. I like to use facetime via zoom or skype to ensure that body language is read properly and nothing gets lost in a crackled phone line. I normally ratio these one to ones as 80% business related and 20% personal catch ups. Humanising people in management roles is key to ensuring all members of staff feel valued as a member of the wider team. It’s important to manage a company successful, but also create a community in which people feel connected and in touch with the bigger picture. As with most business, communication cannot be undervalued.
While there are advantages for the employer, there are also ample benefits for each employee. Empty and non-profitable commuting time is gained back. This is time that employers gratefully use to spend time with loved ones instead of sitting on a train or in traffic.
One of the main obstacles that comes with managing remote teams is how to build a team ethic when you’re not present. It’s in our human nature to crave community and connection. So practically speaking, we recommend having at least three or four working hours that overlap for employees. This is so they can support each other and gain a sense of community through shared experience.
Another advantage of working with remote teams of people is the eradication of geographical drawbacks. This allows us to build teams of people based purely on their merit and create the best team possible. Recruiting people for the individual competencies and forming groups based strengths and cohesion means the business can thrive- rather than wane – under the strain of convenient team formation. Imagine you were able to pull each of your strongest employees and bring them together into a virtual team – it’s a scenario only some employers can dream of.
Our strategy for building teams is simple. Looking at South Africa for example, there is no way all of our employees could work in one space everyday. So instead, with the money we save from hiring an office space, we create communities by region. We spend money to help them to get together and support each other. We have found that 30 people per community is the ideal number. It’s big enough that you feel as though you belong to something important, but small enough that you know everyone’s names and can maintain genuine connections.
Through these foundational teams of virtual employees, we can instil a sense of company culture. Culture is a hugely important managerial tool for me. We spend lots of time and money on developing ideas and way to keep employees on board with company culture Creating a sense of belonging whereby employees can buy into the vision company culture and strategy is hugely important. The long term success of strategic implementation hinges on all employees understanding and implementing strategy from the ground up. Day to day work and decisions must operate with the overarching company strategy in mind – otherwise, it collapses internally.
We have found that through consistent communication and team building the implementation of company culture is possible. It takes time and dedication, but it is definitely achievable. Streamlining the strategy throughout the culture makes employees more aware that they are part of the bigger picture and that in turn increases accountability and productivity. Building a culture of trust and accountability is key. In trusting people to do their job well from the onset through an understanding of reciprocal respect, we have found that productivity levels are at their highest. Eliminating mundane excuses for not getting on with work, we hope that individuals find that all their needs are met, and that through this they are given the freedom to be their most productive.
While people will still lose focus and perhaps slack off, ultimately this is reflected in the production and quality of their work and can be easily addressed when shortcomings arise. Ensuring company culture is a driving force to ensure productivity and employee happiness. We utilise annual get-togethers which are sometimes a logistical nightmare when you have employees from all over the globe. But keeping in mind the bigger picture, we strive to instil a sense of inclusion for all employees. They are the team, and without their hard work and commitment when no one is watching, the business wouldn’t be a success.
While it is easy to discuss the areas of our company that are established and developed, it is necessary to discuss how we arrived at this point and how we maintain it. Over time we have developed team operating agreements. Effectively these are a set of structural guidelines which pinpoint how to work together daily. Be it resolving issues, assigning work, how to deal with holidays etc., it’s important to have a solid structure in place to allow for the smooth running of daily business. Without them, employees are left in the dark and mistakes can get made.
To infiltrate these guidelines, we run an ‘onboarding’ process. This entails attending training sessions with various managers and team members over the course of a few days. We look at basic job skills as well as how to work in teams, proactivity and delegation and implement them into client-to-staff scenarios so they feel as though they can tackle anything a potential client could throw at them. They receive a team leader in this training week to refer to for support. Further to this, noting the need for ongoing training to stay at the forefront of the ever-digitalising world, we are in the process of setting up an internal search engine which employees can look to for videos, how to guides and answers to frequently asked questions.
Effectively managing teams of remote VAs, of course, poses many challenges. But at AVirtual we feel as though we have, through trial and error found what works for us. While virtual teams can bring big cost saving, you should spend more on HR, company culture and staff events to keep all members of every team engaged. Our staff are at the heart of our company.