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How To Manage Virtual Teams

Mary Kearl Mary Kearl Last Updated:

Working remotely is no longer a distant future — it’s a reality for many all over the world. According to CNBC, 70% of people across the globe telecommute at least once a week and in the U.S. over 40% of employed individuals are working virtually. 

With this new work reality comes change, both for managers and the teams they’re responsible for. When coworkers are separated by time zones and computer screens, day-to-day routines—from how meetings are run to how performance reviews are given—need to shift and adapt. Otherwise, there’s the potential for manager-direct report relationships to break down and fail. 

Distance doesn’t have to  cause problems for you and your colleagues. Many smart leaders have come up with strategies that work. Here are some ideas to get you started. 

Remote Management Best Practices: 8 Ways to Help Virtual Teams Feel More Connected and Supported

Provide training and guidance on how to work remotely

Collaborating with others without being face-to-face is a skill that many employees may need to learn or become more comfortable with, yet Owl Lab’s 2019 report on the “State of Remote Work” found that 38% of remote employees and 15% of remote managers have received no training for doing their jobs as part of a virtual workforce. 

For those looking for resources, check out Toggl’s free eBook, Out of Office: A guide to establishing a successful remote culture, particularly chapter 6, “How to lead a great remote team: the importance of letting go,” which can help new remote managers adjust. 

Understand communication style and personality differences

Introverts and extraverts may be impacted by remote working environments in different ways. The former may not need a lot of connection, whereas the latter may need additional support. “Employees who are highly extraverted have a strong behavioral need to work with and through others, and when they don’t get daily facetime with their co-workers, they can struggle emotionally,” says Erin Balsa, content marketing manager at The Predictive Index, who has been managing full-time remote employees for five years. 

“As a manager, you can help these employees feel connected by investing in video conferencing technology and encouraging them to schedule monthly virtual ‘coffee dates’ with various people across the organization,” says Balsa. 

Establish team and company communication guidelines

When some individuals work together in an office and others are remote, communication gaps can happen. “So many decisions are made on the fly and in-person, and managers often forget to communicate those decisions to their remote team members,” says Balsa.

To address the issue, she suggests creating communication guidelines. For the virtual teams she manages, she spells out, for example, “what needs to be formally documented and shared via email and what’s okay to share via Slack.” At her company, formal announcements are live-streamed and minutes from executive team meetings are sent via email to the larger company.

Recognize the differences between on-site and offsite workers’ experiences—and seek to close the gap

 Owl Lab’s 2019 study found that “hybrid” meetings—where some people are on-site and others are offsite—can pose challenges for people on both sides of the experience, including with video quality (impacting 52% of remote workers and 41% of on-site workers) and other IT issues.

“When I started managing remote employees, I had no appreciation for the challenges they face: isolation, struggling to hear during team meetings, being left out of the loop,” says Balsa. “And I didn’t know enough to push for the budget for better meeting technology. If you’re managing remote employees and you don’t use video conferencing technology, that’s a huge mistake. That’s the bare minimum.”

Companies with virtual teams should recognize that IT issues are bound to happen, and should have a hotline or Slack channel set up for immediate help. To avoid connectivity issues, organizations should have a policy requiring employees to connect via private Wi-Fi and drop the video if the videoconferencing starts to lag.

Minimize interruptions and talking over other teammates

Another  unintended consequence of collaborating from different spaces? People may be more likely to interrupt or talk over each other during meetings, something anyone working as part of a remote team should be sensitive to and something managers can coach their teams on avoiding. 

Be considerate of employee working hours — and know what they are

“Instead of making assumptions about preferred working hours, take the time to ask your co-workers when they like to take meetings,” writes Veronica Gilrane, People Analytics Manager at Google, whose recommendations for companies with a distributed workforce are based on findings from a survey her team conducted of 5,000 Google employees working across time zones. 

Help others create non-working boundaries

One way to do this, suggests Gilrane and her team, is by defining when employees need to (and shouldn’t) answer emails or join meetings after hours.

Plan remote-friendly meetings

Consider how and when meetings are scheduled. While finding a time that is best for everyone may be challenging, managers can help by establishing a rotating schedule and by taking the time to acknowledge those who may be dialing in at inconvenient teams on a given day.

Ask that team members be present in every way possible (and lead by example)

Technology can cause some communication challenges, but it can also help enable the everyday cues of human behavior that help us communicate well. Google’s playbook recommends staff unmute their microphones during calls to chime in and give verbal and non-verbal validations, like nodding and saying “mhmm.” Only the notetaker should be typing, otherwise the focus should be on whomever is speaking, not on laptops or other devices. Other suggestions include:

  • Making sure everyone is clearly visible on screen via videoconferencing
  • Making eye contact
  • Expressing reactions so everyone can hear them or see them, and if they can’t be heard or seen, repeat back or clarify what’s happening to those not present in the room

Make room for small talk (human connection)

“Instead of jumping right into an agenda, allow some time at the top of the meeting for an open-ended question like, ‘What did you do this weekend?’” suggests Gilrane. “It’s an easy way to build remote connections and establish a rapport. We found managers leading by example and making an extra effort to get to know distributed team members can be extra impactful.”

Prioritize team bonding and building trust — in person and online

“If you are able to bring your remote employees to the office, do it,” says Balsa, who has taken things a step further by inviting colleagues to  lunch or dinner to get to know them better. “As a manager, it’s so critical to let your people know you care about them, and that you’re in their corner.” 

Creating that trust, she says, will make giving feedback and holding people accountable easier, which is all the more important for building rapport with remote workers.

Gilrane writes that at Google, she hosts virtual weekly lunches to “create space for casual conversations” for her team, and in the Google Distributed Work Playbooks, the company suggests teams consider “creating a group chat that is always ‘on’ for work-related questions or fun, social messages.”

For other creative ways to get to know your teammates, check out—and make plans to try—Toggl Track’s 39 Team Building Games That You Will Actually Enjoy.

Set explicit guidelines for travel

Because in-person bonding can be great for all involved, remote workers may ask about what’s allowed and what’s covered. Google’s guidelines suggest setting explicit guidelines and budgets for team-building travel. 

Check in and ask how things are going

It feels like almost every week there are new findings about the advantages (or disadvantages) of remote working. A 2017 study of 1,100 virtual workers found they felt shunned and left out, reports Harvard Business Review, while a 2018 Indeed survey of 500 individuals found that 75% of remote employees say working from home is a top benefit and has improved their work-life balance. In 2018, a survey reported on by Harvard Business Review found remote workers are more disengaged and more likely to quit. In 2019, a survey that Inc. covered says remote workers are happier and more likely to stay in their jobs longer. 

Rather than make assumptions about how being part of a partially or fully virtual team is affecting your direct reports, use your check-ins to see how being part of a distributed team is impacting their productivity, morale, and sense of belonging. And ask them for feedback on what is and isn’t working well for them, and what you can do differently to better manage them. You’ll uncover the most valuable insights from the people who work for you, and you’ll be able to adjust as needed. 

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