5 Mistakes Managers Make with Virtual Teams (and How to Avoid Them)
Management and Remote Work: A Necessary Partnership
As of early 2022, nearly half (45%) of U.S. employees are working remotely some or all of the time, according to recent figures from advisory and analytics firm Gallup. Among white-collar workers, the percentage is higher – about two-thirds. And employees like that arrangement, citing greater flexibility, better work/life balance, and heightened well-being as leading reasons why they want to continue to perform their jobs virtually.
Remote work is good for business, too. Many companies report greater productivity, better employee engagement, and stronger bottom-line results with the heightened use of remote work since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, some teams of remote (or hybrid – remote and on-site) workers aren’t performing to their top potential.
Researchers reported in 2021 that 27% of virtual teams were underperforming. In August of that year, "MIT Sloan Management Review" revealed that a study on global business teams working virtually discovered that 82% failed to reach their goals and “only 18% considered their performance ‘highly successful.’”
Managers Are Key to Team Success
What’s the leading stumbling block for struggling virtual or hybrid teams? As is the case with any team, whether co-located, dispersed, or both, effective leadership is the critical factor that drives success.
of virtual teams underperform
of virtual teams fail to achieve their goals
Writing on virtual team issues, author Rick Lepsinger says, “Organizations should select team leaders who not only have the necessary technical skills but also have the team-building and interpersonal skills required to effectively lead in a virtual environment.”
Unfortunately, too many managers lack the training and capabilities they need to provide strong and effective leadership for their dispersed teams. Failure to meet team goals, delays in completing projects, ineffective relationships among team members, turnover of team members, and lack of understanding and focus on team purpose and objectives are a few indicators that virtual teams are suffering from mismanagement.
5 Mistakes Managers Make with Virtual and Hybrid Teams
Five of the most-frequently noted mistakes managers make with their remote or hybrid teams should signal organizations that training is needed. Those managers:
1. Apply poor communication skills and practices
Dispersed team work models demand excellent and frequent communication by managers. Care must be taken to listen actively, ensure understanding and interpret non-verbal cues (such as body language and facial expressions) accurately as they are more difficult to read in virtual interactions. Managers must be effective users of available communication channels (video conferencing, telephone, email, etc.), proactively engage in group and individual communications, and consistently encourage team members to communicate purposefully as well.
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Team Impact: During virtual meetings—or one-to-one conversations with workers—managers who don’t focus on effective communication may multitask, read or respond to emails or messages, or take phone calls rather than give their full attention. (Managers who work remotely, too, may be distracted by doorbells, family members, or other interruptions.) Inattentive leaders leave employees feeling ignored and unvalued.
Critical skills: verbal and non-verbal communication, written communication, active listening, presentation, influence, empathy, and relationship-building.
2. Fail to maintain frequent contact with employees
Out of sight, out of mind is a trap that trips up many managers who are used to interacting with team members they see in person every day. Constant contact with remote employees (individually and with full teams) is necessary to build and maintain trust, effectively monitor and support performance, provide guidance and development, and perpetuate organizational and team cultures.
Team Impact: If managers don’t commit to regular and meaningful contact with team members, trust, engagement, and productivity can erode quickly. Further, when employees work remotely, virtual interactions may take on a casual feel. Flexibility is important, but virtual team meetings and one-to-one manager/employee interactions require an appropriate degree of structure and formality. This is especially true for performance management and coaching conversations.
Critical skills: Organization, collaboration, flexibility, planning, goal-setting, coaching, accountability, and performance management.
3. Show lack of respect for work/life boundaries
The ability to work from home is a top draw for employees, but the flexibility of the remote environment is not without its challenges. In fact, many employees working from home still struggle to keep work and private lives separated successfully. For their part, managers unused to leading remote teams often need guidance in establishing and respecting workers’ boundaries. Creating organizational and team norms can provide a framework by specifying hours of employee availability, appropriate times during which meetings may be scheduled, non-meeting hours, and other parameters that enable respectful interaction and work/life balance.
Team Impact: Remote work flexibility makes it possible for employees to address family or personal issues more freely. However, managers must respect the work/life division their team members create, and employees must ensure that work objectives are accomplished and that trust is not abused. Norms provide the structure some workers need in the home setting while also ensuring that work/life balance is respected by specifying core hours of employee availability for collaboration/meetings; when emails, phone calls, and other contacts may occur; conduct in virtual settings (appearance on camera when required, engagement in discussions, etc.); and other factors.
Critical skills: Respect, empathy, emotional intelligence, courtesy, team leadership, problem-solving, conflict management, time management, and creativity.
4. Fail to manage virtual meetings and use remote work technologies effectively
Just as people/soft skills are vital for managers overseeing remote or hybrid teams, so are the technical capabilities required to leverage virtual work technologies and structure and conduct effective virtual meetings. Managers should receive instruction in all applicable organizational technologies that enable team and individual communications, scheduling and execution of virtual meetings, and any other tools necessary to successful management of productive remote and/or hybrid teams.
Team Impact: While organizational IT functions must ensure appropriate technological capabilities (to avoid freezing screens, low bandwidth, poor audio/video quality, etc.), mishaps with screen sharing, breakout rooms, chat capabilities, and other features signal managers (and employees) who don’t know how to use virtual communication and meeting tools (Zoom, Slack, Teams, etc.) correctly. Beyond technical aspects of virtual meetings, managers who don’t know how to set agendas, define goals, coordinate inclusion of all attendees (whether remote, on-site, or both), and use meeting time well, risk wasted time, employees who feel excluded, unmet objectives, and under-performing teams.
Critical skills: Use of virtual communication technologies, stress management, presentation capabilities, confidence, meeting leadership/management, and resilience.
5. Disregard development and advancement of remote team members
Ongoing and rapid changes in organizations and in the world at large make continuous learning a must for individuals and workforces. In turn, that calls on managers to be constant champions of development opportunities for their teams. Ensuring internal mobility for remote team members is important as well. Too often, organizational leaders responsible for succession and workforce planning overlook employees who are not visible in physical workplaces. Managers must be vocal advocates for both remote and on-site team members, and internal mobility practices should be reviewed and updated to avoid bias against remote workers.
Team Impact: Workers who are removed from physical workplaces may miss out on learning opportunities if managers don’t make team development a top-of-mind priority. Training programs must be suitable for on-site and/or remote work settings, and employee/manager conversations leveraged for development purposes when appropriate. Remote employees also are at risk of being overlooked (or discriminated against) for advancement or internal mobility—a form of unconscious bias that untrained managers may perpetuate.
Critical skills: Talent development (individual and teams), teaching/coaching/mentoring, performance management, self-directed learning, career planning, and goal setting/achievement.
A Powerful Partner in Manager Skill-Building
Organizations seeking the content and training resources needed to upskill managers for success in leading remote and hybrid work teams find a powerful collaborator in Media Partners. With its strong foundation in soft skills training, award-winning and engaging program design and content, and ability to tailor learning experiences to fit the demanding schedules of organizational managers, Media Partners is the ideal choice for effective training to optimize management in a distributed work world.
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