How Can You Keep It Real with a Virtual Team?

There’s no substitute for being in the same place as your employees. And that’s a good thing. Part of the joy of going to work is that you get to spend your day with people you respect, and we hope, enjoy being around. And while there are some good reasons to have people on your team who work remotely, you have to address the very real gap that’s present because they aren’t. As long as you start there, there are many things you can do—best practices and powerful tools—to close it.

Have you ever noticed how you treat remote team differently? Have you heard yourself make an excuse for why they haven’t gotten back to you for a few days, in a way you’d never do for someone in the office? Or do you casually delegate work to them without really talking to them about it first, as you would with someone down the hall? These are easy habits to pick up, a natural by-product of having a remote staff. It’s just harder to feel your impact on them and their impact on the team. To break the cycle, you have to work a bit extra to notice certain things that, in most cases, might be easy to ignore.

1. Make room to talk about nothing

You have to go out of your way to make ‘spaces’ for things to happen that would otherwise occur naturally: the hallway conversations, the chance to jump in and help on a project that isn’t in your employee’s normal scope of work. Put a standing appointment on your calendar with every remote employee who reports to you, and start with no agenda at all. Make it about them.

There are several tools you can easily implement to create a framework for a great long-term relationship. Not to control the employee—but to give both of you a window into what’s happening and what isn’t. All you really need is a calendar. Start by picking a regular time once a week to get together with them. Don’t make it about tasks and deadlines, but about them. How are they feeling relative to their work? Are they enjoying the work they’re doing? If not, what would they like to be working on? Do they feel like working for you is serving their long term personal goals? These are not questions to ask just once, they’re conversations to have forever. And there are a variety of tools you can use to start the conversation—we love 15Five.

2. Listen to them. They know things about your business that you don’t

Your remote staff has a window into your company that’s different than you have at the office. In some very real ways, they know what it’s like to be your customer more than anyone else on the team. They see how you actually treat people, not how you aspire to—down to the smallest details. They can see it because they’re not ‘in it’ all day. They see the customer that’s blown off by customer service, or someone on the team who’s feeling undervalued and nobody else is noticing. What they see, and what they think you should do about it, is a treasure trove of insight into your company culture that’s almost impossible to glean from the inside. Make it your business to find out.

3. Watch out for giving them special treatment without realizing it

One of the reasons you have remote employees is that they probably have a skillset that’s hard to find. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it makes it that much more likely that you’re going to treat them with kid gloves regarding things that somebody in-house would hear directly from you. In truth, you probably treat these kinds of people more like contractors than employees—regardless of what it says on their tax return. So, while they may be hard to replace, don’t let that get in the way of being a great mentor. It’s actually the thing they’ll stay for.

4. Watch for clues in how they relate with you and the team

You don’t get as many opportunities to see these employees ‘in action’, so you have to find other ways to tune in to how they’re doing and whether they’re really a fit for your brand. There’s no better—or more obvious—place to look than in how they actually relate to you and the team. If it takes them three days to respond to an email from you, what do you think is happening with your customers? Is there a running joke in the break room, even a playful one, about ‘Oh, that’s just Josh ...’? It’s not unfair to assume that how they are with you is a fair representation of how they are with your customers or whomever they’re dealing with.

5. Follow all the little niggles and frustrations

Ever have the feeling that one of your remote staff is looking for other work? That they’re just not ‘on it’ the way they used to be? Follow your feeling. It could of course be something else entirely, but watch out for the tendency to make subtle excuses for them. Just ask: “Hey, is there something going on?” And if they say no, be straight with them: “The reason I ask is I’ve been noticing ….” And just let the conversation go wherever it needs to go. You’re not being paranoid. You’re honoring something you felt. You may be off base, but I’ve never regretted asking a question like that. It always turns into a great conversation, especially when I was wrong about what was going on.

Get a second opinion or three. Make sure people outside the home office aren’t interacting with only you or any one person. We have different kinds of remote people in our company—some employees, some contractors and all of our coaches. And we do our best, for their sake and ours, to give them a chance to interact with different people and different parts of the organization, so that we get feedback from different sources. Watch out for the often reasonable, but sometimes wrong assumption that the local manager is right and the remote employee is the problem. Let the rest of your team—the company culture itself—give you a more complete picture of what’s going on. Everyone wins.

Topics: Managing Employees, Company Culture

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Jonathan Raymond

Written by Jonathan Raymond

Jonathan was a frequent contributor to the EMyth blog from 2011-2015. His articles focus on marketing, branding, and organizational culture.

See all of Jonathan's posts.