How to Manage a Workplace Gone Virtual

Remote working isn’t a new phenomenon. But during the coronavirus health crisis it’s suddenly become the exclusive mode of working for much of the world living under confinement measures.

Sebastian Reiche, a IESE professor of Managing People in Organizations who has been researching virtual work for years, likens the challenges facing virtual team leaders to those faced by scuba teams, especially depth perception. If you’re currently in the water, he explains, you’ve got a good sense of the ocean’s depth. But if you’re up on the boat waiting your turn, your perception is lacking.

During and after the current health crisis, it’s the responsibility of virtual team members to improve their depth perception.

Here’s how they can do that:

1. Remember the “Three Ds”

There are three types of distance virtual team managers have to overcome: geographic distance, time zone distance and operational distance.

These combine to create the need for increased cultural sensitivity (both to social and professional mores) and, more practically, respect for the time of each team member as virtual meetings bring them together at different points in their daily lives.

2. The virtual does not eliminate the personal 

When working from home, especially under abrupt and surprise circumstances like the current ones, team members are likely to juggle unique domestic and family dynamics that could complicate their work lives.

Team leaders should show patience, empathy and understanding in light of these situations.

3. Trust your team from afar 

It can be tempting for leaders to think that people aren’t putting in the same amount of effort while working outside the office. And though it’s understandably challenging not to know what’s happening in each coworker’s context, letting go of mistrust prevents making biased perceptions of performance.

4. Keep calm 

Research shows that emotions like hopelessness and anxiety are contagious. If a leader experiences these emotions during a vulnerable time like the coronavirus pandemic, his or her team members are likely to “catch” the same emotional colds.

So, managers must stay positive. One way to do this is to create uplifting narratives that keep your team hopeful.

5. Connect purposefully 

It’s important to establish structure, rules and virtual meeting times. But this should always be done with a concrete reason in mind. Setting a weekly call, for example, is helpful and appropriate.

On this note, keep in mind that despite the difficulty in making emotional connections through laptop or phone screens, investing in relationships is just as important as basic planning.

6. Integrate virtual work into the future “new normal” 

What will happen when this crisis ebbs?

“We change when we’re forced to,” says Reiche. “It’s hard to change otherwise. I think that’s a good thing. Even though we’ll be going back to the office, we’ll have expanded our repertoires. It would be a shame to lose that capacity.”

Want to learn more? Watch this special 50-minute session on Managing Virtual Teams with Prof. Reiche.

This post is also available in: Spanish

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