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Managing a Virtual Workforce

Apr 13, 2021

For more than a year, work teams have managed and often thrived in a remote setting. As many companies review their progress to decide when, how or if, they will work in person again, managers are developing new skills to successfully lead a workgroup from afar.

Technology solutions like OfficeSuite UC can keep a group connected, but it's up to managers to keep team members engaged and the creative and collaborative process intact.

Where once team members could share ideas or offer solutions live in the moment, the digital office doesn’t work as well on an impromptu basis. To say nothing of helping managers meet the traditional challenges of melding personalities, harnessing differences of skill and perspective and keeping everyone rowing in the same direction.

So how does today’s department manager knit a team together from a screen? The Reimagine Work Summit’s “New Ways to Lead” roundtable offered executive panelists’ takes on how managers can navigate the challenges of the digital workplace, as reported by Futureforum.com.

Changes in latitude = changes in attitude

Simply put, middle managers cannot think the way they did before 2020 when it comes to team performance. This doesn’t mean the old standbys of communication, accountability and leadership do not apply, but must be viewed from sometimes-radically different angles than before. For instance, spontaneous collaborations – those a-ha moments which happen all the time in the in-person environment – may require a set space and time to come out online.

Panelist Raj Choudhury, associate professor at Harvard Business School, suggests creating “planned randomized interactions” to draw this out of team members. Jenny Johnson, president and CEO of Franklin Templeton Investments agreed, suggesting this can also help show team members who are struggling with the WFH environment how others have adjusted their workflow.

Manager soft skills are essential

Now more than ever, managers must be highly attuned to elements of their team members’ lives not directly associated with work, but that greatly impacts the quality of that work. While there are plenty of studies that show remote workers are as or more productive than on-premises peers, being physically cut off from co-workers can lead to feeling of isolation and disengagement.

Many companies have recognized this on a macro level by investing in mental health EAPs and other mechanisms for workers, but middle managers’ efforts can provide an even more immediate impact in fostering workers’ sense of belonging. Provided, that is, if they know how.

“Globally, we conducted a ‘Manager Reset,’ focused on leading with empathy and understanding … and how to meet employees where they are.” said panelist Tracy Layney, senior vice president and chief HR officer with Levi Strauss & Co. “Most of what we’ve learned and done during the pandemic, we need to keep doing.”

Transparency is key

Panelist Darren Murph, head of Remote at Gitlab, pointed out a serious impediment to employee engagement is feeling like they don’t belong, and a major contributor to that is working in a vacuum. Managers who are “all in” on the remote work of the team can reduce these feelings by leveraging workflow tools that help people see where they fit into the overall success of a project.

Panelist Brian Elliott, Slack vice president, said this strategy offers managers another payoff. He said having access to online tools that track team collaboration, sets work timelines and shows progress online gives managers less to worry about insofar as what their teams are actually accomplishing.