When virtual managers describe the most difficult aspect of transitioning to a virtual workplace, they often report that they have no idea what their people are doing — they wonder whether they are actually working when they work from home. Without the ability to casually walk by a cubicle, pass someone in the hall or see team members face to face in a meeting, remote leaders may feel that they have lost the ability to easily monitor people’s activities. Visual cues, such as observing someone squinting at a computer monitor or actively leading a meeting in a conference room, are gone.
Unfortunately, this lack of visual cues may lead the frustrated remote manager to begin frequent, unnecessary check-in calls or, worse, a request for daily status updates via email or text. Virtual team members often describe micromanaging as the most demotivating aspect of working from a remote location.
Some virtual managers, however, fall into the opposite trap of rarely checking in with their remote team members, trusting that they are doing the work but providing little direction or support. Virtual team members of these types of managers describe feeling abandoned and disconnected, which is surely as demotivating as being micromanaged.
The virtual workplace often highlights the weaknesses of average or poor managers who must now lead geographically dispersed teams. There are five common mistakes that unskilled virtual team leaders make when transitioning to the digital work environment:
1. Out of Sight, out of Mind
The experience of being virtually distant when teams are geographically dispersed is common on new virtual teams. Managers may focus on their own priorities without checking in to see how their virtual employees are doing. They may continue to hold regular meetings over a telephone bridge rather than bringing people together through video conferencing. The sense of virtual distance may cause each team member to feel “out of sight, out of mind.”
The remedy for feeling separate is to consciously create virtual presence in one-on-one meetings and team meetings. Virtual leaders should request that all team members attend meetings on camera for at least a portion of the meeting. Research reveals that people tend to pay greater attention and decrease multitasking if the team uses web cameras. In addition, seeing body language and facial expressions in alignment with vocal input decreases miscommunication and conflict.
2. Listen up! I’m Talking
What makes virtual meetings so boring and ineffective is the tendency for the virtual leader to take the microphone and “talk at” people. It’s as if the virtual manager is saying, “Listen up! I’m talking.” Presenting information without asking for input or participation is a recipe for low engagement — and when working virtually, high engagement is critical for team cohesion and collaboration. There are 11 million meetings held every day, many of them now virtual, and over 60% of these meetings do not have an agenda.
The remedy for low engagement is for virtual managers to create an agenda specifying how they want their team to actively participate. Most web and video conferencing platforms include interaction tools such as chat, polling, whiteboards, annotation and status icons. Skillful planning to include a variety of interaction methods can change a low-engagement meeting to a high-engagement meeting. Managers can pose juicy questions to stimulate thinking and have attendees respond in chat; create interesting polls for people to compare their opinions and make decisions; use a whiteboard to brainstorm solutions for a problem, with one team member annotating attendees’ responses so everyone can see them; and put people into breakout rooms for small group discussions or problem-solving. There is no excuse for boring, ineffective virtual meetings, where people simply present information for 45 minutes and then open the session for questions at the end.
3. Read My Mind
If you have ever worked for an uncommunicative boss, then you know what it feels like to attempt to read your boss’ mind to anticipate what he or she is expecting you to accomplish. On a virtual team, the result is constant confusion about goals and expectations, combined with ambiguous feedback about how to get back on track when someone fails to meet the virtual leader’s muddy goals.
The remedy for this mistake is for managers to intentionally calibrate the work of the virtual team. Alignment begins by setting clear goals and expectations for the team as a whole and individually. Managers should make sure that everyone on the team knows what his or her teammates have committed to doing, provide a collaboration space for regular status updates, and schedule frequent virtual meetings for quick check-ins. Some virtual teams hold a daily or weekly 15-minute huddle where each team member states his or her immediate priorities and requests assistance, when needed. Virtual leaders should use these regular check-in meetings to connect their feedback (positive and constructive) to the communicated goals and expectations.
4. What the Heck Are They up To?
It can feel isolating for both the virtual leader and the virtual team when everyone is working from home. Virtual leaders may wonder what team members are doing — whether they are contributing or slacking. Without solid virtual leadership practices, they may make the mistake of either micromanaging people or leaving them to flounder.
The remedy for isolation and separation is collaboration. The literal meaning of the word “collaboration” is “to labor together.” How can virtual leaders create the conditions for working together as a virtual team? A virtual team can only collaborate well if they are aware of five collaborative factors: activity, availability, process, perspective and environment. Team members must have a window to the activity of each person on the team, and they must know when people are available for meetings and conversations. They must have identified clear processes so people can work together easily online, and they must have a shared perspective of the history, vision, team norms and cultural values of the team. Finally, they must understand the external environment (laws, policies and contingency plans) that govern their work together.
Moving from “What the heck are they up to?” to “We’re all in this together” requires conscious attention to creating a collaborative, virtual work environment.
5. No New Is Good News
The distant manager who appears on the virtual scene only when a problem arises or when someone needs to be blamed undermines trust on a virtual team. Virtual managers who make this mistake tend to be hands-off leaders. They may even tell their virtual teams with pride, “No news is good news. You’ll hear from me if there’s a problem.” As a result, virtual team members may feel invisible or as if their work has little relevance or importance. Working virtually can seem like the end of their career as they labor unseen, unrecognized and alone at home.
The remedy for invisibility requires the virtual leader to create a culture of celebration and appreciation. Ideally, remote managers make it a point to include praise and recognition in one-on-one conversations. They create opportunities for virtual colleagues to celebrate project and team success, and they might include time for kudos at the end of weekly or monthly meetings, share letters of appreciation from customers, and praise virtual team members in status updates to senior leaders.
These five common mistakes correlate with the negative impact of working for an unskilled virtual leader: virtual distance, low engagement, confusion, isolation and invisibility. Fortunately, remote managers can transform these negative impacts to positive outcomes by consciously attending to their opposites: virtual presence, high engagement, calibration, collaboration and celebration. With training and practice, leaders can succeed in the virtual workplace.