What Great Managers do to Lead Healthy Virtual Teams

If you’re like most managers, you’re trying to figure out how to keep people productive and engaged while working remotely.

And you may swing between two positions. 

On the one hand…

You don’t want to bug people if they’re working contentedly and productively at home. Why create unnecessary meetings? Worse, maybe they’ll feel like you’re checking up on them too much. As if you don’t trust them to really get work done.

On the other hand…

You don’t want them to feel like they’re out there on their own. This COVID thing is isolating enough as it is. And, well, you DO want to be sure the work is getting done.

So how do you set the pace, cultivate team culture, and monitor progress when everyone is working remotely?

Acknowledge the ambiguity. Then create structure.

We’re in a vacuum right now and that feels strange. One of the best things you can do as a leader is to acknowledge that, and then create structure inside the vacuum. Structure provides clarity and a sense of rhythm that people need now more than ever.

What does that look like?

Establish a cadence of virtual team check-ins. 

Short daily team check-ins are best. Two to three times a week may be ideal for some. Weekly is the absolute minimum.

Be sure your team members know the intent of check-ins is to provide clarity and support, not to clamp down. This is a time to err on the side of over communicating, creating many touch points, and building trust. 

It’s a good idea to set a cadence of one-on-one check-ins with your direct reports also.

Keep people present and engaged. 

We all know how challenging virtual meetings can be. And while we’ve gotten better at the technology, and more sympathetic to home office dynamics, (cue the diaper-clad toddler with the tambourine), there are a few things we can do to help our team members be fully present.

  • Require (to a reasonable extent) video cameras be turned on. You want to see facial expressions and create more of a sense of being physically present with one another.
  • Get team members engaged right away. While everyone is coming into the meeting, have a question in the chat box for them to answer. This draws everyone’s attention early and fills the awkward time when you’re waiting for people to dial in. The question can be anything that helps you get to know one another a little more.  What did you have for breakfast? will do. What did you want to be when you were in elementary school? is even better. If you can conjure a laugh, or a glimpse into team members’ lives, it’ll set a positive tone for the meeting.
  • Be intentional about having a dialogue rather than a monologue. Ask questions and be comfortable with waiting for answers. Ask follow up questions for deeper understanding. Resist the urge to finish the call as expeditiously as possible. People need to connect now more than ever, and as the leader, you can provide that.
  • Actively solicit participation from quieter team members. It’s easy for socially vibrant team members to unintentionally take over. Create space for the more reluctant, and invite them into it. This might sound like, “Lauren, you have a unique perspective. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.”

Leverage creative ways to build relationships.

Research shows a key ingredient of employee engagement is employees having friends at work. This improves performance, engagement, and overall happiness in a job. Not everyone is going to become buddies. But as a manager, you can foster friendships at work, even with remote workers.

Remote employees seem more relatable when we have context for them. Here are some ways to use virtual meetings to build relationships.

  • Add extra time in the beginning for social connection. Ask for personal updates. We aren’t having the kind of spontaneous conversations in the hallway right now that often build trust, collegiality and friendship. You have to find ways to build this in. It’s not as natural as you’d like, but run with it. It’s better than disregarding it.
  • Let members give quick tours of their home offices. Meet the pets and the kids. See their surroundings.
  • Declare an office show-and-tell. Have one team member per meeting show one thing in their home office and tell a quick story about it. Recently I was on a Zoom call with someone who had a gorgeous painting behind her. I asked if there was a story associated with the painting. She brightened immediately and told me years ago her husband bought the painting from a well-known artist as an anniversary gift. They knew the artist, so her husband arranged a visit to his home as a surprise to pick it up. It brought her joy to share that memory and it gave me insight into her life and the things she loves.  The interaction probably took less than two minutes, but had an invaluable connecting effect for both of us. 

How to do heavy lifting in a virtual meeting.

Not all of our virtual meetings are check-ins. Some of our meetings require heavy lifting. Strategy-refining and decision-making kind of stuff.

 How do you keep people engaged in those longer, heavier meetings? 

  • In larger groups a percentage of people will coast (or worse, multi-task). When we’re in smaller groups, each member actively contributes. If you have a team of six or more, put people into breakout rooms to brainstorm about specific agenda items. Give them enough time to hold quality conversation and create a document they’ll share when you bring them back to the main room. Ask people to rotate the Scribe and Spokesperson roles so everyone stays involved.
  • If you must meet for longer than 90 minutes, give at least a 15-minute break in the middle. People need to check on their kids, take care of their own needs, even walk around and stretch. A colleague of mine ran an all-day virtual training session where the group met for one hour and then held half-hour breaks all through the day. This helped people stay refreshed, and on breaks they caught up on emails and small tasks.
  • If you’re making team decisions, have each person articulate their commitment. Go “around the horn” and have each team member verbalize his or her level of agreement and commitment. It’s too easy, especially in a virtual environment, for people to passively agree to something to which they’re not truly committed. 

Make productivity visible.

If you don’t use a tool already to make timelines and deliverables visible to the whole team, now’s the time to onboard one.

  • Consider documenting meeting outcomes or recording the meeting. This can accommodate team members who weren’t able to make a meeting, allowing you to be more flexible with your team.  
  • Schedule routine office hours on video conferences where people can come in with questions, or even to just have the sense they’re working together in a shared office space. 

Finally, realize the power you have as a leader to set the emotional climate for your team. Unfortunately, anxiety is contagious. As the leader you can combat this by creating a sense of normalcy with routine virtual check-ins. Provide tools and expectations for productivity. And create opportunities for relationship building. We need that right now!

Want more expert tips for building the right solutions to create a healthy workforce culture? Download our free eBook: Six Leader Mistakes that Kill Team Culture… and How to Fix Them.