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11 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Managing a Virtual Team

Read on to learn the most common mistakes managers make when managing remote or distributed teams — and, more importantly, how to avoid them.

By Fellow.app  •   June 12, 2022  •   11 min read

According to a recent study, 71 percent of remote workers say they’re happy in their current job. 

Being able to work remotely is a must-have for a lot of people. But just offering the option to work remotely isn’t enough to keep your team happy and retain top talent in the long term. If you want to build thriving virtual teams, you need to manage them effectively. 

But how, exactly, do you do that? What are some of the most common challenges of managing virtual employees—and some of the most common mistakes managers make along the way?

Mistake #1: Not creating space for conversations

When you share a physical workspace with your team, your day is filled with opportunities for spontaneous conversation. You can stop by someone’s cubicle to ask about their weekend, quickly pop your head into a team member’s office to get clarification on a project issue, or catch up on your day over lunch.

These casual conversations might seem trivial, but the truth is, they’re part of what brings your team together. Unfortunately, these opportunities for spontaneous, casual conversations aren’t so readily available for remote or distributed teams (it’s not like you can pop your head into someone’s office when they’re working hundreds of miles away).

But just because those conversations don’t happen as naturally in remote teams doesn’t mean they’re not just as important—and so part of effectively leading remote teams is creating space for those conversations to happen.

“Employee communication is ongoing and, while mostly informal, is essential to keep needed information and direction flowing smoothly,” says strategic consultant Jeff Skipper. “Remote employees are cut off from many critical details. They need the interruptions and serendipitous conversations as much as anyone else.” 

As a manager, it’s up to you to create an environment that fosters conversation with and within your virtual team. Check in with your virtual team members at the beginning of every one-on-one meeting and ask how things are going, both professionally and personally. Schedule an end of the week “virtual happy hour” where the only agenda item is to hop on video and catch up with your team. Create opportunities for your team to connect and converse throughout the day (for example, on an informal Slack channel).

The point is, these casual “water cooler” conversations bring teams together. And because remote teams don’t have a physical water cooler, it’s up to whoever is managing remote direct reports to create the space for those conversations to happen. 

Mistake #2: Keeping communication strictly digital

When you’re managing virtual teams, it can be easy to keep all of your communication digital. But while digital communication tools can certainly make connecting with your team more convenient, keeping things strictly digital doesn’t necessarily make your communications more effective.

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article on how to collaborate effectively with remote teams, Erica Dhawan, CEO of global consulting firm Cotential, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, write:

“What’s missing from our texts, emails, conference calls, and other digital communications? Body language. Even when we’re co-located, the tone of a text or the formality of an email is left wide open to interpretation, to the point that even our closest friends get confused. These misinterpretations create an anxiety that can become costly, affecting morale, engagement, productivity, and innovation.”

If you want your virtual team to succeed, you need to be able to communicate freely and effectively. And while digital channels can certainly be part of that communication, they can’t be the entire equation.

In addition to emails, Slack, and other digital communication, make sure to schedule regular face time with your virtual team, either on video or in person. This kind of face-to-face communication is not only more personal, but it’s also easier to get a read on what’s really happening with your virtual team members—and to make sure they have everything they need to be successful.

Mistake #3: Not giving clear directions and setting clear expectations

When you give your team a task, you know exactly what you want from them. But just because you’re clear on what you need doesn’t mean your team has the same level of clarity. 

It’s always important to give detailed directions and set clear expectations with your team. But it’s especially important when you’re working around the communication challenges that come with managing virtual or distributed teams.

In a 2017 article in Forbes, Marcela De Vivo, CEO of Gryffin, writes:

“If you fail to communicate your expectations effectively, you are doing a big disservice to your remote team. The productivity, efficiency, and deadlines of your remote workforce can only be successful if you have clear, concise instructions in place.”

Whenever you give your remote team a task, “it’s important to be extremely clear, and prompt the employee to repeat instructions in their own words,” says Skipper. Once you’re sure your team understands exactly what you’re looking for, set clear expectations on how you expect the task to be completed (for example, when you expect the task to be completed and what channels your team should use to submit their deliverables).

Mistake #4: Rushing through meetings (and not giving remote team members a chance to contribute)

When you’re having an in-person meeting, it’s a lot easier to run things like a conversation; people can easily chime in when they have something to share in real time.

Virtual meetings can be a bit more challenging. Because they’re not actually in the room, virtual team members might not feel comfortable “interrupting” the speaker to give their input. If you’re rushing through the meeting, your remote team might never see an opportunity to speak up and contribute in a real way—and, as a manager, you’ll lose out on their thoughts, contributions, and input.

“If you ask ‘does anyone have anything to contribute?’ then immediately move on, you have likely shut down someone on your team,” says Jennifer Stine, PhD, a consultant and instructor of organizational behavior, leadership, and teamwork at Harvard Extension School. “We don’t [always] see body language [during virtual meetings]—someone looking up, getting ready to speak—so you have to provide additional ‘blank airspace’ to make sure people have enough time to gather their thoughts and contribute.”

If your remote team isn’t contributing as much to your virtual meetings as you’d like, it could be because you’re not giving them the time and space to do so. Make sure to pause regularly during your meetings to give your remote team the floor.

“During team meetings, call on everyone who should be providing input,” says Skipper. “Don’t accept silence as assent.”

Mistake #5: Not setting the standard for your team

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make when managing virtual teams? Talking the talk without walking the walk.

Do you tell your team showing up to virtual meetings on time is a must—but then show up 10 minutes late? Do you say that it’s important for everyone to respect the team’s work/life balance—but then shoot off emails to your team all weekend? If you want your remote team to thrive, sending those kinds of mixed messages just isn’t going to fly.

Your team is going to look to you to set the standard for what’s acceptable—and what’s not acceptable—within your organization. So it’s important to embody the values that you want to inspire within your team.

“As a remote manager, you set the team’s culture, both with your words and actions,” says Stine. “Make sure you say explicitly what you expect from others, and then live by this. Asking for and modeling communication, collaboration, meeting attendance, and on time delivery are key if you expect these from your team.”

Mistake #6: Not scheduling meetings during opportune times 

Your 9-to-5 workday might not be the same across your team, so make sure you’re aware of everyone’s time zones before scheduling a meeting or sending a Slack message. Virtual teams can be located in different parts of the world, making it difficult to schedule meetings with varying time zones in mind. Scheduling a call sporadically or during business hours may look different for each party, depending on the time zones.

Flexibility is important when working with remote teams all across the world. Having a scheduled meeting time that suits everyone will allow the meeting to run smoothly and not cause any issues later on. Using a tool like Fellow will enable teams to create meeting agendas and showcase times when all parties are available. Teams can also hold asynchronous meetings , keep track of all action items, and hold everyone accountable.   

“Trust comes from employees seeing in their employer, that our values are aligned. If I’m going to give an organization a number of years of my life, I want to see that the values and actions of my employer align with my own and if not, or if I can’t tell where my employer stands on important issues, trust doesn’t grow.”-  David Hanrahan, CHRO at Eventbrite

Mistake #7: Not creating team-building opportunities

Even though remote work is becoming more ubiquitous, it doesn’t mean that people who don’t work in the office don’t still enjoy and benefit from networking and team-building with their colleagues. For example, if the budget allows, fly remote team members to retreats and other team-building exercises to get the same fun bonding experiences as in-office team members.

Alternatively, having 30-minute coffee chats each week with people outside of your team and participating in online activities can also allow everyone in a company to network and create relationships with their colleagues. Use this Fellow template for your next virtual coffee chat

Mistake #8: Not giving consistent feedback

Often, managers don’t make consistent, clear, and constructive feedback a priority, significantly affecting team performance and confidence. When employees don’t know about past mistakes or how they can improve, it can be incredibly challenging to accomplish their work as expected.

As a result, managers need to create a system to provide both formal and informal feedback to employees. Moreover, the input should highlight the employees’ shortcomings, strengths, and areas of improvement. The idea is to keep your feedback as actionable and direct as possible so that remote employees can follow through on it easily. Fellow allows managers to provide regular feedback and track the progress of their team. 

“Clearly articulating and communicating your vision to excite, inspire and motivate people is the most important skill to have as a leader. And it’s not a one-and-done activity. A leader’s job is to do this day in and day out because people who are excited, inspired and motivated can move mountains.” Lloyed Lobo, Co-Founder of Boast.Ai

Mistake #9: Micromanaging the team

Micromanagement is often confused with essential follow-ups by most managers. Just because managers can’t see remote workers doesn’t mean they can contact them every hour or so for updates. Messaging or calling your team members too frequently can put them under unneeded stress, hinder their productivity, and inevitably lead to a toxic work environment. Managers should rather give their teams some autonomy when defining work schedules or deadlines, as long as they deliver high-quality work.

“There are two prominent types of managers: those who micromanage and those who delegate. The former finds leading teams in the virtual environment difficult more so than the latter. The art of delegation and trust in one’s workforce is vital when managing remotely. Leaders who employ a micromanagement style must add the subtle skill of delegation to their arsenal in order to effectively manage remote teams.”  Julian Everly Shervington Wright, Julian Everly Creative Ventures Inc

Mistake #10: Not prioritizing emotional well-being

After Covid, the relationship between remote teams shifted dramatically. Employees now find themselves contained in their pods due to the lack of unstructured time working in the same physical place. Managers must create opportunities for teams to interact online and for individual team members to check in with one another. Managers mistake focusing too much on managing the business and not enough on managing team members’ social and emotional well-being.

To better support your team, make a consistent effort to connect with them to understand their state of well-being better. Not everyone will openly share their feelings, but adopting an understanding mindset and creating psychological safety will create an environment where everyone feels comfortable identifying their needs, such as time-off or schedule flexibility.

“We don’t know how to manage when we’re in pain or discomfort. We tough it out or get judgmental or shameful about a very human experience of struggle. Shifting ourselves to a more tender, more gentle, kinder, compassionate style can help us move through.”- Jen Hope, Leadership Coach

Mistake #11: Not implementing accountability in teams

Remote management may be a permanent change, and a common mistake is failing to implement team accountability. At the same time, managers have a variety of systems to hold themselves accountable, but they often don’t work long term.

To implement accountability within remote teams the company’s culture needs to foster accountability within teams and ensure all areas have the right tools and information to succeed in an accountable environment. Try using a tool like Fellow to hold yourself accountable.

“The next time you mess up and fess up, you will have more trust and credibility with your team. I encourage leaders to start now because for me, once I started acknowledging that I don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, I need to be the person that’s gonna cultivate a great environment, bring the right people together, and fill the gaps. I don’t need to have all the answers.” – Heidi Hauver Vice President, People Experience at ShinyDocs

Avoid these mistakes and build a thriving virtual team

No matter how long you’ve been in business, there’s always going to be a learning curve when building remote and distributed teams. But now that you know some of the biggest mistakes managers make on the road to building productive and effective remote teams, you can avoid these common pitfalls—and get to your destination of remote team success faster, more easily, and more efficiently.

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