Keys to successful virtual teams
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Keys to successful virtual teams

As more employees work remotely, companies face risks in communicating with and evaluating far-flung staff.

By Dan Griffiths, CPA, CGMA, and Neil Amato

More and more, interaction with direct reports, peers, or entire work teams is of the virtual variety. Perhaps each worker lives in a different city or country than the home office. Perhaps the business doesn't have a home office, and workers are linked only by a tech tool such as Skype and the occasional face-to-face meeting. Or perhaps an organisation is hiring contract workers from around the world who have few ties to the organisation beyond a solitary task.

The movement to a more open workforce creates opportunities as well as risks. High-performing companies are using the open workforce to gain a competitive advantage, according to the CGMA report New Ways of Working: Managing the Open Workforce, and many organisations expect the shift in using external talent in favour of full-time employees to accelerate.

One challenge of managing decentralised workers is giving them a sense of inclusion. Their in-person interaction is limited, and even face-to-face virtual meetings are not the same as sitting down together for lunch or coffee. But there are ways to make remote staff feel like part of the team.

Get to know your staff as people. Managers learn about the lives of in-person workers through impromptu interactions, but they lack those opportunities with remote workers. Peter Chiu, a senior manager of FP&A at credit reporting agency Experian based in California, recommended intentional steps to make a remote worker feel welcome.

Chiu manages two employees who work in an Experian office in Santiago, Chile, and one of his strategies is communicating with the workers about non-work topics. Through the messaging tool WhatsApp, Chiu and the two employees exchange messages and share photos. He even went on holiday to Chile, spending time with his staff while there. "They send me family photos, and I've met their kids," he said. "They've met my fiancée."

In all-staff meetings, strengthen the bonds of familiarity with casual talk at the start of videoconferences or phone calls. "Everyone's expected to talk, but it always starts casual," Chiu said. "We build a conversation." Then comes the work part of the agenda, which is driven by Chiu.

Set clear expectations for work. Because remote staff are not down the hall, it can be more difficult for them to ask follow-up questions on work assignments. Managers of remote workers should clearly describe the duties for a report or project.

"If there's some intricacy in the work, I'll set up the structure myself so they have an idea what the output is supposed to look like," Chiu said. "Sometimes, it requires more hand-holding and more preparation before I let them know what I need them to do."

Time zone differences are another reason to set clear expectations. First, a worker with a question might not be able to reach you if you're sleeping while they're working. Second, Chiu said, sometimes his workers received email and logged back into the system at midnight to complete assignments. Chiu added an Outlook calendar set to Chilean time to be sensitive to his employees' schedule, and he specifies when a task is urgent or can be addressed the next day.

Recognise remote workers' contributions. It's easy to type out "nice work" when praising an employee, and while positive reinforcement is a good thing, it's also necessary to provide specific, regular feedback to a remote worker. The employee you might see at the coffee machine will get more feedback than the one you never see, so be intentional in reaching out to the far-flung worker.

Chiu, who in a previous job managed a team of workers from India, said turnover can be high among remote teams when those workers don't feel appreciated. He makes a point to give credit to the unseen team members for their accomplishments.

He hopes that praise will help his direct reports in Chile become more empowered to offer opinions in meetings and to be better self-advocates. "They're humble about their achievements," Chiu said. That emphasis on empowerment also helps grow the trust between remote staff and home-office managers.

Arrange visits, both ways. Organisations should budget for and schedule time for in-person interaction with decentralised workers. Remote employees should visit the main office, and supervisors should visit remote workers. This helps remote workers strengthen relationships with peers, catch up on company news, and meet new employees they knew previously only from phone calls. Additionally, the in-person visit gives remote workers a chance to discuss serious concerns with their supervisor that they might have hesitated to bring up in a virtual meeting.

BMMI, a retail, distribution, and contract supply group based in Bahrain, has employees in multiple countries in the Middle East and Africa. Staff from various departments at the company's headquarters visit remote workers, according to CFO Ammar Alhassan, FCMA, CGMA. The presence of peers — instead of visits only by top management, trips that can feel like inspections to the remote staff — helps increase communication in remote offices. "We have different levels of communication flowing through the organisation, from different perspectives," Alhassan said.

Why virtual meetings matter

To be effective, communication must be intentionally thoughtful and warm. Just as professionals have to learn to show up and greet someone in a physical meeting, they also need to practise establishing presence in a virtual meeting.

Here are five ways to have better virtual meetings:

Set and enforce clear expectations. Face-to-face meeting norms and etiquette are well-established at many organisations. We have seen meeting leaders stop a meeting when a mobile phone is picked up, to make it clear that everyone in the room needs to be fully present or excuse themselves until they can be. The same sort of rigour should be applied to the expectations for a virtual meeting.

Tell meeting participants that, for one important videoconference each week, it is expected that everyone will be in front of their webcam. Ask them to close their email applications and turn off any distracting devices during the meeting. We expect presence and attention for in-person meetings. For virtual meetings, why are we willing to tolerate a host of distractions?

At an in-person meeting, we don't let people play games on their phones, so why would we expect them to be fully engaged for a virtual meeting while, say, dodging traffic?

Never begin a meeting without an agenda. Some of us have fallen into the bad habit of improvising for our meetings. In person, it can sometimes be possible to salvage a meeting without an agenda, but when a meeting is virtual, it's quite the feat. Place time estimates on the agenda and stick to them as often as possible. When everyone knows how much time is set aside for each item, they will help you stay on track, and they're also more likely to remain engaged in the meeting.

Schedule one-on-one video check-ins. For team members that you rarely, if ever, interact with in person, schedule brief, regular, one-on-one check-ins. These check-ins are vital to maintaining good working relationships even when our offices are in the same building. They become essential when we don't work in close physical proximity. Be sure to schedule these check-ins at times when both of you will be in front of a webcam, free of distractions. This is especially important when delivering feedback that may be hard to hear, where a casual phone call or email might cause things to be taken out of context. Stick to that schedule, and commit to starting on time, distraction-free. Saying, "I'm here to talk, but I need to send a few emails before we start," isn't sticking to the schedule.

Exaggerate like an actor. Smiling makes a difference. On some videoconferencing platforms, all you see is someone's face, and even that is sometimes blurry. So, if your face is thumbnail size and out of focus, you may have to exaggerate the smile to better convey your emotions. Smiling not only makes the person on the other end of a video screen more comfortable, it also will help in a phone conversation. If there's a scowl on your face, it usually gets translated into the tone of voice that goes through the phone line.

Stand up! Your voice will project better and your tone will improve if you stand up or at least sit up straight when having a conversation on the phone or via videoconference. Slouching might give off an air of indifference. Coach your team and yourself on trying to have a 10- or 15-minute call standing up.

The challenge of evaluating remote workers

It's fairly simple to deliver positive feedback electronically. Send a text message to communicate "job well done" privately. Or you can send email to a group to praise someone, and the employee is publicly recognised for good work.

How do you deliver criticism electronically? Not as easily, and it's even more difficult to give negative feedback to an employee who works in a different location. Hiring remote workers has many advantages, but there are also risks. One is how those workers are evaluated and how that evaluation is communicated to them.

In an in-person interaction, it's easier to convey warmth at the start of what can be a difficult conversation. A manager walks into a direct report's office, asks about the worker's weekend, and says, "I have some feedback I want to share with you about this last project. This particular piece of the project didn't go well, and here's what I'm concerned about. What are your thoughts on how it went?" The message is delivered, and the discussion continues.

That same message can't be delivered in an email. There's no warmth that goes along with it, and workers could get offended or defensive and be prone to tapping back a reply that they might regret. That's why managers overseeing remote workers must set aside regular opportunities for feedback to occur and must establish a rhythm to those conversations.

One way is the 3-3-1 model: The manager and direct report meet monthly, and the manager shares three things that went well, three things that could be improved, and one goal for the next 30 days. Or the same meeting could be held weekly. The meetings are development- and performance-focused and should not include progress updates. To avoid getting off track, keep them short — no more than 15 minutes. Ideally, progress updates should occur on an ad hoc basis or in another scheduled meeting.

Alhassan, the CFO at BMMI in Bahrain, said the company is cognisant of the need to deliver regular feedback to its remote workers, for the sake of the workers and the company. "It's a constant challenge to keep everyone aligned to the overall business objectives," he said.

Three years ago, BMMI switched to performance management software called SuccessFactors to better communicate with and evaluate employees at home and abroad and to establish more transparent goal-setting. The company ties an employee's performance ratings in the system to the employee's remuneration. The introduction of the software started with what Alhassan called "a big road show."

"We were keen not to have this be perceived as having more software," he said. "We wanted to use it as an opportunity to change behaviour and change the mindset. We went around to various countries, meeting with everyone, introducing them to this process, and setting expectations."

The objectives for teams and individuals are more clearly spelt out, and regular reviews and unstructured contact keep managers up to date on remote workers' progress.

"We have regular reviews during the year, either face to face, on Skype, or on the telephone," Alhassan said. "We go through the objectives one by one and take stock. We know fairly early on if something's not going to be done as promised. Things never go exactly to plan, but as far as executive management and the board are concerned, we have [fewer] surprises. We sleep better at night."

Dan Griffiths is director of strategy and leadership at Tanner LLC in Utah. Neil Amato (namato@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.