10 ways to effectively manage virtual teams.

Bob Bobala, Content Designer

At Tangible, we’ve embraced a remote working culture from the beginning. While we do maintain an office in San Francisco, our virtual team of designers, writers, strategists, UX researchers, and design thinkers are spread out across North America and beyond. We work collaboratively with each other and with our clients 99% of the time.

There are plenty of good reasons for this.

For starters, we’ve always wanted to cast the widest net to hire the best people possible. There are tons of talented people in the Bay Area, but there are talented people everywhere. We never wanted geography to limit us in finding the right fit for our team. We get to hire the best person for the job and don’t have to worry if they can relocate.

Studies also show that remote workers are more productive. Gallup has reported that the job flexibility afforded to remote employees increases engagement, which in turn drives higher performance. On average, virtual employees even work longer – 1.4 more days per month than office workers. There are no commutes, less distractions from coworkers, and minimal office politics. Remote workers can make their own schedules, take breaks when they need to, and set up their work environment exactly how they want to. We do not discourage or endorse making a desk out of your surfboard or creating your home office in your bathtub. You do you. Our team has worked very successfully from Malta, Europe, India, and beyond, traveling around the country in an Airstream, and while couch surfing. As long as they deliver high-quality service and creative to our clients, it works for us.

While we do have a physical office, it’s much smaller than we would need if all our employees worked in the same place. That helps us lower costs, and frankly it reduces our environmental footprint. One study estimated that working remotely saved $1,900 per employee on furniture and office space; another showed that virtual workers saved $4,523 on fuel annually. We are glad our folks don’t have to gas up and endure an hour commute each way just to see our smiling faces.

Plus, numerous studies have shown that remote workers are less stressed, healthier, and happier. Now, the question you may be asking is: Are they more effective?

Our answer is a resounding YES. We’ve had some practice in building successful virtual teams. With the coronavirus pandemic, businesses are finding it essential to work from home. As things change, you may consider keeping your workforce virtual. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey is on record saying that some of his staff may continue to work from home home forever. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that in the next five to 10 years, 50% of Facebook’s workforce could be working remotely. It’s a new reality we all have to consider. Here are some best practices to make it happen.

1. Hire the right people

This sounds like Management 101 for any business, but it’s even more critical when you’re leading virtual teams. Not everyone becomes a successful remote employee. Good remote workers tend to be self-starters. They may have entrepreneurial personalities. At the very least, they are able to easily adapt to change and work independently. You don’t want to hire someone who, when left to their own devices, spends their days bingeing Tiger King or succumbing to the Xbox 12 hours at a time. And lastly, social skills are probably even more important with virtual teams. You need people who will openly and effectively communicate across the board.

2. Don’t forget to on-board team members

In a traditional office environment, any new employee goes through a considerable on-boarding process. They check in with HR, they may be assigned a buddy or mentor who helps show them the ropes, their manager welcomes them and maybe takes them and some team members out to lunch. You have to create the same sort of thing virtually, to help a new employee get oriented and understand how you do business.

3. Embrace Zoom culture

By this, we mean embrace videoconferencing – no matter which app you choose. We’ve used almost all of them. They all have their pros and cons, but the one thing they do is give you virtual face-to-face interaction. There’s no substitute for that – other than actual face-to-face interaction. Sure, we send our share of emails and Slack messages, but when we need to level-set or hash something out, we get on a video call. We also run workshops and have built new tools and templates to facilitate our innovation programs remotely. We even do virtual scavenger hunts as icebreakers to build human connections. Fun things like that actually lead to higher productivity.

4. Build your virtual tool chest

From Google Drive to Basecamp to Zoom to Slack, to a whole host of project management software, you have to find the tools that keep your virtual team sharing information and collaborating effectively. We’ve discovered what works for us by trial and error like our new favorite tool Milanote. Our best advice is not to overcomplicate things. The more time you have to spend training your employees on how to use a piece of software, the less time they are actually working.

5. Set the “what” but not necessarily the “how”

Any type of remote team needs process. But don’t over-process. Our employees are self-motivated self-starters who get things done to the satisfaction of us and our clients. We give them some guardrails to operate within. We tell them “what” they need to execute on, but then we let them choose “how” to execute. We find this particularly works well for designers and writers. They are the creative talent who are the engine of our business. We like to give them room to roll.

6. Get together in person occasionally

You can absolutely establish great relationships working remotely without ever meeting someone on the other side of a Zoom call. Our team does it all the time. But, there is no substitute for meeting in person once in a while. Before COVID-19 struck, we set up a few dinners in some strategically located areas in the U.S. that made it easy for most of our team to meet. Our leadership jumped on planes and attended them all. They were informal gatherings just to spend time with one another. Sure, we talked about work, but we talked about a lot of other things, too. Even if you just have one annual meeting to gather people in the same place, it helps.

7. Get together virtually often

Again, video calls where you can see everyone on your team in a grid has made this possible. If you need to have an all-hands meeting to establish goals and strategy, do it. We even have virtual team happy hours that are a lot of fun. It gives us a chance to let loose and talk about whatever we feel like. One of the downsides of working from home is that it can be socially isolating – particularly in the era of the coronavirus – so virtual team meetings give us a chance to share, interact, and keep our sanity. And don’t forget to have your one-on-ones just as frequently as you would if you were in the office.

8. Set up a virtual water cooler

When you’re working remotely, you do miss the breakroom, cafeteria, gym, or wherever employees use to congregate and interact. To combat that, we’ve established a virtual water cooler. It essentially comes down to this: We start every meeting with a check-in. Nothing formal. We just ask how people are doing, how their weekend was, how their golf game is going, or how the giant replica of Devil’s Tower they are building in their living room is coming along. It works wonders for morale and helps create bonds within our team. It also helps us gauge where people are at any given time. Sometimes life is difficult and people need a break.

9. Measure productivity

People are always wondering about productivity when they go virtual. Will they be able to get this same amount of work done? Will they be able to serve clients just as well? Our answer to that is yes, and more. We prove it every day. We know our team gets more creative work done in a shorter period of time. It’s something our clients love about us. But don’t take our word for it. Measure productivity the same way you would in a traditional office environment. Is the work getting done or not? Is it of the same quality and excellence that you would expect if your staff were located just down the hall from you? If so, you have your answer.

10. Let everyone work remotely, if they want

Obviously, this last one is not possible for every business. But there are just so many advantages to having your entire team work virtually. Prior to COVID-19, working remotely was sometimes seen as a privilege rather than a necessity. People who didn’t get to work from home were probably jealous of those who did. Managers had to make decisions – that sometimes seemed arbitrary – over who worked from home, how often, and when. Office politics got involved. You needed workstations even for people who weren’t there all the time. Group dynamics are sometimes strained when half the people in a meeting are in the office and half are located elsewhere. When your whole team has the option to work remotely, you don’t have any of these problems, and you can truly reap the advantages of having a virtual team.

These are our top 10 tips for leading a virtual workforce. We believe it can totally be done with the right mindset, hiring, preparation, and tools. Have questions or more suggestions for how to manage virtual teams? Let us have them!