It’s 8 AM and I’m on a plane—and while I’d like to use next few hours to catch up on my sleep, as soon as we reach 10,000 feet, I reboot my computer and dive into the day’s work. I can’t afford to waste any time when my team of at-home workers, road warriors, and remote office dwellers is geographically dispersed across 100 markets and two countries. With my virtual team relying on me for approvals, input, and guidance, it doesn’t matter that we’re separated by thousands of miles—I’ve learned to adapt my management style to ensure our goals are met.
No, it’s not easy leading a team this dispersed, but over time, I’ve found a few solutions that work. And if you’re managing a virtual workforce of your own, here are a few practical tips for making it a success.
1. Promote Personal Connections
When you accept a leadership position, you also take on the role of motivator and connector. So, even when your staff is geographically dispersed, it’s important to cultivate a team environment where your employees feel connected to you—and to each other. A culture of teamwork promotes accountability, responsibility, and a sense of support, rather than a disjointed “every man for himself” attitude.
To foster this sense of teamwork, I start by encouraging my employees to communicate with each other via social media. For example, I suggest they tweet an article that a colleague was quoted in, post a holiday greeting to a co-worker’s Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. I encourage people to take continuing education classes as a team. And to top it off, I absolutely never miss a birthday.
2. Communicate Constantly
Since you can’t just swing by your employee’s desk to talk about an upcoming project, it’s important to keep all other lines of communication open. Maintaining a constant dialogue via phone, IM, email, and other technologies helps minimize miscommunication—which can often lead to unmet expectations and failure to deliver quality results.
For important conversations about strategy or specific projects, I always opt for phone calls. In fact, I have standing weekly calls with each of my direct reports to discuss any issues he or she may be having. For team meetings, I rely on video conference calls (we have both weekly and quarterly Skype meetings), so my team gets face time with one another.
Of course, coordinating meetings and conferences calls introduces another challenge entirely: time zones. To minimize confusion, choose one universal time zone. We use our Dallas headquarters’ Central time zone so that whenever a timeframe is referenced, no one is left wondering, “Is that 4 PM your time or my time?”
3. Provide Feedback and Recognition
When a big chunk of your communication is done through email, it’s easy to let messages sit in your inbox, under the guise that you’ll “get to them later.” This can be frustrating to employees, since by the time they hear back from you, they may have already received an answer or moved on to the next part of their project. So to avoid this backup, I strive to provide immediate feedback as the work is delivered.
Along similar lines, I make sure to always acknowledge good work and provide constructive criticism in real time, not days or months later. When you’re not regularly face-to-face, it can be easy to let things slide, but to ensure positive progress, you need to provide this consistent communication.
And this recognition shouldn’t end with you. To ensure my team’s good work is recognized all the way up the leadership chain, I have a “highlights callout” on my agenda where I showcase recent accomplishments to our executive team. Even though my employees aren’t present in the office, this ensures that their work is still visible.
4. Embrace Creativity and Flexibility
With no teammates around to chat with during the day, remote employees tend to feel isolated. And it turns out, those “water cooler” discussions with colleagues are actually pretty useful—they double as impromptu brainstorming sessions that often result in valuable and innovative ideas for the company. And when working from home, distractions—like the barking dog next door or the noise from the dishwasher—can seriously hinder an employee’s ability to produce quality work.
So to encourage efficiency and creative ideas, consider providing your employees with an alternative office solution, like a co-working space or a Regus Business Center. This will give them access to a professional work environment and a place for spontaneous networking—both of which can make a huge difference in productivity.
This type of workspace is especially useful for employees who spend a lot of their time on the road. If you employ these “road warriors,” it’s important to provide access to professional services like private meeting space, reliable WiFi, printers, and coffee, so they have all the tools they need to do the job no matter what city or country they’re visiting.
And definitely urge your employees to collaborate and network with others while working from these alternative office spaces. They’ll feel more like a part of a team, they can bounce ideas off of others, and they may even learn about new business opportunities.
The key to managing the modern, mobile workforce is to focus on cultivating teamwork, creativity, and, ultimately, productivity. With constant (and meaningful) communication and the right resources, you can successfully lead your virtual team to success. And let’s face it—this type of mobile leadership is something more of us will need to embrace, faster than you might think.