Management & Organization

Virtual management: The most important challenges and focus areas

“How hard can it be” you might say, when you are about to manage your first virtual team. “We may not see each other so often, but we’ll just use Skype or e-mail or chat when we need to plan and coordinate a project.”

But do not let yourself be fooled. To manage a virtual team is about more than just dividing and coordinating assignments.

Something that is often overlooked among new virtual managers is the importance of the relationships that must be present in a team if you want it to perform on a high level.

In a traditional team where members are located close to each other and where people can bump into each other by the coffee machine, it is easier to come up with a solution.

As manager of a virtual team this is much more difficult. First of all, random meetings like the ones by the coffee machine are impossible. You may be in different cities or maybe even different countries and every meeting must be planned ahead. The daily communication also proves to be a greater challenge. When most of your communication takes place by chat or e-mail, you have no physical signs such as body language, posture and tone of voice to lean against when trying to understand each other.

As such, for the virtual employee the freedom, silence, balance between work and personal time, which is often the reason for long-distance work, comes with a price. Besides preparing yourself for your coworkers, potentially, suspecting you of not working hard (enough), people who work alone, physically cut off from the rest of the organization often feel a sense of isolation. Research show that if an employee works at home more than two and a half days a week, there is an increased risk of, not just a sense of isolation, but also that the social relationships are weakened.

This research is supported by studies conducted by Danish organization Lederne who in 2015 asked 3.061 leaders, all in charge of virtual employees or managers, what sort of challenges they experience in relation to virtual management. In prioritized order they mentioned:

  • Creating a team culture across locations
  • Trust that employees solve their work assignments independently
  • Define clear goals, work assignments and areas of responsibility
  • Create trust around yourself as a leader
  • Ensure exact guidelines, distribute work assignments, clear-cut communication, reporting, documenting and control
  • Minimize risk of conflicts and managing in details

According to Henrik Holt Larsen, who discusses the study here (in Danish), these answers are very much aligned with the results provided by research within this area. It does, in fact, show that social isolation, a great need for mutual trust and virtual communication limitations are the biggest challenges of virtual management.

The study also explored which challenges the leaders from the study believed the employees who answer to them were experiencing, and here we see a repetition of the same themes.

  • They must take on greater independent responsibility and make more decisions on their own
  • They demand more trust from their leader
  • The leader is less accessible for sparring
  • It is more difficult for them to achieve recognition and to make the results of their work visible
  • They feel more insecure about work assignments and responsibility

Once again it is social relationships and communication that weighs the heaviest on their minds

There are great advantages to gain from virtual leadership, but at the same time it is a type of management that creates a lot of challenges for both leaders and employees. In the article Holt Larsen offers a checklist of specific focus areas a leader should be aware of and even be able to master:

  • Evaluate levelheadedly what work and which employees are most suited for virtual work and what/who does not.
  • Make standards and determine level of ambition/expectation regarding how much virtual communication there should be.
  • Determine specific rules and procedures for the virtual work and the communication that surrounds it: quality standards, deadlines, planning and reporting systems, evaluation etc.
  • Be a role model regarding the way communication within the team should be, including which “social psychological traffic rules” that apply.
  • Be aware of both intended and unintended means of virtual communication, for instance the tone of language in e-mail, tone of voice on the phone etc.
  • Consciously work on how you and your coworkers can be compensated for the inevitable loss of social network, contact and intimacy in virtual teams.
  • Show and demand trust – to/from you and your employees.
  • Establish a structure for physical meetings when it is possible and necessary to meet face-to-face.
  • Optimize how you lead as a consequence of the fact that virtual employees often want autonomy but at the same time both can and want to be included in the leadership processes.
  • Be aware of (even the most discrete and invisible) signs that employees aren't thriving or performing, but avoid suffocating them in an unfortunate cocktail of care and micromanagement/surveillance.