20 Years Managing a Virtual Team. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

Make priorities crystal clear ... and don't fret if they don’t pick up the phone.

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When I was a young lawyer, the office of the partner I worked for was two doors down the hall and I regularly ambled into his office to discuss this or that. One day, I walked in and dropped a pile of folders on his desk. “It’s not possible for me to get this all done within the deadlines you and the courts have set,” I said. “You choose.” 

Because he was actually a reasonable guy and a wonderful boss (despite what most people believed), he said, “Let’s go through each case and see what we can move.” We sat down together and reviewed each folder. One case got reassigned and extensions were requested on two others. I walked out of his office able to breathe again.

Most of us no longer have that luxury of sitting down without warning, looking our colleagues in the eye and discussing issues, making plans, or fixing problems.

I left that firm 20 years ago and have been managing a virtual team ever since. Currently, we are 17 people, spread from one end of the country to the other. Here are five things I’ve learned.

Make Priorities, Goals, and Expectations Crystal Clear

It has never been as important to clearly communicate your priorities, goals, and expectations. For many, many companies, these have shifted a bit over the past several weeks and it is vital that your team knows exactly what’s expected of them. Put it in writing and check in frequently to be sure that the company’s current priorities are top of mind for your team.

Consider a 15-Minute Morning “Stand Up” Meeting

When you start every morning with a fifteen-minute “stand up meeting,” everyone knows the priorities for the day. And everyone knows that Beth is down with a cold and Stephen is swamped with a time-sensitive proposal for a major client. Just because you can’t stand up in the hallway doesn’t mean you should dispense with your morning stand up. 

A short meeting via a virtual conference platform such as Zoom is incredibly valuable to keep your team connected. Allow for a couple of minutes for chit chat (remember, these meetings are partly culture building) and then have everyone share: 

  • shoutouts to another team member;
  • any roadblocks they need help clearing; and 
  • their top two priorities for the day. 

We are a team of eight and our morning huddle usually lasts between 15 and 20 minutes. It is the most valuable thing we do to keep our team connected.

Find the Best Tools for Regular Communication

The tools available to help you manage a virtual team have perhaps outpaced the rise in remote work. You can quickly become overwhelmed with the options.

Keep it simple. Focus on just the tools you need and the tools that work for you and your team. We use Zoom for video chat, Google Docs for sharing documents, Slack for real time chat, and Less Annoying CRM for our shared, cloud-based CRM.

Cross-Pollinate Team Members

Late last year, we paired one Account Executive (who is responsible for selling new campaigns and sponsorships to clients) with one Campaign Manager (who is responsible for executing those campaigns and wowing our clients) to work on a project. The result? Improved relationships, a better understanding of the team structure, stronger team dynamics, and a raft of fresh ideas. 

Balance One-on-One Calls

Sometimes you just need to pick up the phone. I aim to check in with each team lead at least once or twice each week by phone. I can often tell within moments who is overwhelmed, who is having a bad day, and who is ready to take on another project.

An important caveat: do not fret if they don’t pick up the phone and do not ask where they were. They work virtually. That means, at least for most firms, if they need to run an errand in the middle of the day, or help a kid with her homework, or go for a run at 2:00, that is the beauty of working remotely. If they are doing their work and are a valued member of your team, don’t destroy some of the best parts of working remotely by asking “where were you?”

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