Six Tips for Managing a Virtual Workforce

  • March 17, 2020
  • by Michael Reardon

If you are like me, the COVID-19/coronavirus experience has taught you a new term: social distancing, which refers to actions that limit interactions with others in order to slow down the spread of a virus (the CDC refers to these as community mitigation strategies). Many of us have already experienced such strategies, with cancelled conferences, virtual school for the kids, travel restrictions, or work from home (WFH) suggestions or mandates in our workplaces.

For some organizations, working from home is a common practice and a normal part of daily routines. For others, though, the current situation may be the first time that the team has tried to accomplish their work when they are not sharing a common space (or time). Because of that, I want to share some tips to navigating this new experience. I first became interested in virtual work over 20 years ago when I completed my dissertation work on the topic and have kept up my interest since then—and am now a proud member of a virtual team myself!

To start, let me offer two quick background notes to help set the stage from a research background. First, organizational identification is a term that refers to the feeling of “oneness” we often get from our workplaces—a common goal, or an esprit de corps. If a member identifies with their workplace, they are more likely to make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization, stay longer, and work harder. Employees in the social good space often identify very strongly with their organizations, which is a very positive thing for the organization and the employee themselves. But co-sharing a space and related visual cues play a very big role in creating an environment or culture that is attractive to employees. If we’re all working from home, we lose those cues. That doesn’t mean it can’t be accomplished (especially if there is already a strong culture of identification established), but it just takes a bit more work. More on that below.

The second background point is on Daft and Lengel’s Media Richness Theory (1986) which explains that different communication media have different levels of richness, and that we should chose the richest media for the most complex messages. The richest of all media, of course, is face-to-face communication, which allows for different cues (visual, aural, feedback loops) as opposed to very lean media, which might be a bland memo, or a poster, or something like that. You likely wouldn’t give a promotion or let somebody go via an email or memo—those messages are too complex for that lean media.

Given that background, what are some quick tips to help navigate this remote/virtual world?

  1. Use the “richest” media you can

    The challenge in the virtual space is that we are force to used leaner media than normal—so the answer is to try to do all you can to make it as rich as possible. If available, use cameras in meetings to replicate visual cues. If that’s not available, use the phone or other voice media so sarcasm, surprise, and other non-word cues can be discerned by the other person. Emails/IM and other very lean media don’t allow for as much context. Finally, try to have all members use the same media—if you ask folks to be on camera for team meetings, then all should be on camera, bad hair day or not.

  2. Reinforce the organization’s vision and collective goals

    If your team is scattered all over the city/country/globe, make sure to reiterate the shared vision for the group—and repeat often. As all organizations are navigating exceptionally new waters right now, it is important for our teams to hear what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are working together (a very important thing to hear while sitting alone at your dining room table!).

  3. Thoughtfully create more shared experiences

    Do your best to continue routines you had in the office and create new ones. If your team had an 8:30 standup every morning, keep it up. If they didn’t—start one. Get the day off to a common start and reinforce the priorities of the day. Doing so reminds the team they are still working and there is still a schedule. But don’t forget to have some fun, too. Many of us get a good deal of our social interaction from our workplace, so encourage folks to chit chat via IM, have virtual coffee breaks, begin a shared game or contest and similar team building and social activities. They are even more important when not physically connected.

  4. Assume positive intent

    Lean media opens itself up to a LOT of misinterpretations, as we’ve all likely experienced before in our work or social media lives. The best thing to do is to assume your colleagues meant the best, especially if the tone or meaning of a message is not 100% clear. They probably did mean the best!

  5. Set expectations for availability

    Yes, it is fair for you to expect your colleagues to be present during the workday when working remote. But that does not necessarily mean being attached to your IM software every minute of the day. If you can’t get a hold of a colleague, remember they may be on the phone. Finishing up an email. Using the restroom. In other words, give some slack just as you would if you wandered to their desk in the office and they weren’t right there. Be sure to let you teams know what you expect, but also remember to understand that being virtual does not mean MORE availability.

  6. Set expectations for the workday

    This is related to availability of course, but it is important to reinforce what is expected in terms of start/stop times for the workday. As a virtual worker it is important to set boundaries, lest employees feel they need to answer emails and phone calls 24/7, and leadership should reinforce this. Folk will burn out quickly if they feel they must be “on” all day—make sure it is clear they don’t have to be.

Transitioning from in-person work to virtual work is sometimes more challenging than we think. On the one hand, we should do our best to recreate a shared world, but on the other, it simply is not the same experience to video chat as it is to be in the same room. Whether you are already a virtual employee or have been forced to become one recently, these tips will help bridge the gap and keep us productive and human during these increasingly weird times.