Notwithstanding Yahoo’s end to telecommuting, the global trend toward virtual workplaces is accelerating. Surveys vary widely on the percentage of companies with remote workers — from about 30 percent to SHRM’s 46 percent of all companies have at least some contractors, freelancers, or remote workers who rarely, if ever, come into the office. Another estimate predicts that in a year, 40 percent of the global workforce will be virtual.
Whatever is correct, it’s undeniable that more and more workers are working remotely. And this is creating a challenge for recruiters. But it’s not in finding and hiring workers. It’s in hiring and finding the managers with the special skills and talent it takes to successfully manage a virtual workforce.
Few are the companies that can identify the unique management challenges of a virtual team, beyond the obvious that a virtual manager may never come face-to-face with their direct reports. Equally rare are those companies that provide management training tailored to the needs of the virtual team manager.
What happens at most companies — from the Fortune 500 to the smallest development shop — is that managers are selected as they always have, and then expected to learn on the job.
Yet, as Chiko Noguchi, a best-practices advocate with Benchmark Email, observes, remote working “creates an interesting dynamic that changes just about everything.”
This would seem to be an area where human resource professionals should be taking a forward position, identifying the skills, traits, and characteristics for successfully managing a virtual team, and then implementing programs to train virtual managers and recruit new ones with those talents.
Instead, as a 2010 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found, HR is consumed with developing company policies and procedures and coordinating tech support for the virtual workforce. Only 26 percent of the respondents reported offering any kind of special training for virtual team managers.
The Economist, studying European companies, discovered, “One in three executives agrees that virtual teams are badly managed. This is probably a result of virtual working simply evolving into being rather than being planned in advance, but it is also to do with the difficulty of leading people from a distance.“
That might be excusable were it not for the fact, as Forbes observed, “Managing virtual teams has become a must-have leadership skill.”
But few recruiters know how to identify the special skills that differentiate virtual team managers. Fewer still are likely to be told that the job req they have is for a manager whose team may be spread across multiple time zones and continents.
Compounding these difficulties is that there are few places to turn for guidance in knowing what criteria to use in selecting a manager for a virtual team. There are broad guides; the Internet is full of sites with tips for managing a team and selecting members. Distilling the criteria from them and from the surveys and books on teleworking, yields some general guidance. In addition to the usual administrative and management skills (setting and meeting deadlines and goals, motivating team members), recruiters should look for:
- Good communication skills — using digital services and the phone — are a must.
- A strong teamwork ethos.
- Reliability. When the manager says they will do something, they do. This builds trust based on performance reliability, and trust has been described as the single-most-important component of virtual team management. Trust is the “glue of the global workforce.”
- Motivation and reward is even more important for virtual managers to ensure workers don’t feel overlooked or marginalized.
- Previous remote work experience. If they’ve ever been a remote worker themselves they’ll have an appreciation of the advantages as well as the downside to telework. That perspective can help them connect with their virtual team.
- Cultural sensitivity. This is an area especially critical for managers of teams with global representation. It’s also an area of little HR involvement, according to SHRM’s survey.
It’s not just good people skills that are needed, say the experts, but the ability to convey them digitally, building a rapport that will come from performance, more so than any personal bonding.
It’s that human dimension that makes leading a virtual team — or, more challenging still, a mixed team of remote and on-site workers — so difficult.
A survey of workers themselves, a majority of whom thought their team successful, identified the inability to read non-verbal cues as the biggest negative in working virtually. Other challenges, in the order of their importance to the 600 respondents, were: collegiality, difficulty establishing rapport and building trust, difficulty seeing the whole picture, reliance on email and telephone, and a sense of isolation.
So to the traditional administrative and managerial matters of schedules, budgets, performance, conflict and the like, virtual managers need to address issues head-on that in another setting aren’t issues at all.
For instance, the SHRM report, Successfully Transitioning to a Virtual Organization: Challenges, Impact and Technology, offers the example of on-site team members dominating meetings with their remote colleagues:
“Remote workers felt irrelevant and unable to significantly contribute,” says the report. Remedying that took a “conscientious effort” by the manager to have the remote workers speak first. And it helped that he sent Starbucks cards to the remote workers so they wouldn’t feel left out as their in-house colleagues enjoyed company provided coffee.
Social media guru and best-selling author Chris Brogan says if he were managing a virtual team he would encourage “having video cameras on and open while working so that you get that ‘random banter’ element that’s missing in virtual experiences.”
That may not be practical, especially for those who truly do work in their bathrobes, but astute managers will set aside part of their daily all-hands call — video or merely audio — for that random banter. It may mean managers have to provide the prompts until enough rapport has built that these water cooler exchanges occur spontaneously.
Getting individuals to talk to each other one-on-one is a tougher sell, yet an equally important part of managing. Without being contrived, good virtual managers may assign tasks or work in such a way that individuals naturally must consult with other members. Some go so far as to assign daily talk partners, which has the added advantage of having backups for those times when a team member is ill or needs help.
Technology that facilitates effective communication is an important ingredient. Instant messaging is a handy tool for a quick question. Skype and Google Hangouts are both valuable video conversation tools. Yammer is especially useful combining aspects of Facebook’s sociability with the ability to create groups for specialized communication.
Even those much maligned emoticons have their place. As Brogan observes, “I use them quite often to point out that my mood when saying something is good and cheery.” When the visual body cues are missing, emoticons work as a substitute.
As the number of virtual workers grows — and every indication is that we are seeing just the tip of the arrow — managing these teams will become the norm. Developing the expertise and know-how to do it well will, however, take training and a new approach to the age-old challenge of effective management. HR can take and should take the lead in addressing this issues.