How to Build a Healthy, Happy Virtual Workforce

Trust. Integrity. Accountability. It’s all part of what makes a healthy virtual team.

Since 2009, I’ve been a virtual manager. I’ve managed writers and editors scattered throughout North America to produce upwards of 100 SEO articles monthly. I’ve led marketing for an India-based technology company where my teams were in Bangalore, London, and New York. And for the past three years, I’ve been a virtual VP for a marketing agency based in Hong Kong. Our clients reside in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco, and Singapore; the company’s leaders are in Hong Kong, New York, and Thailand.

Some days, my life feels like a game of whack-a-mole when I’m trying to schedule a conference call with participants spanning four continents (and others traveling, so we’re never quite sure whether 7 a.m. Rome time means they’re on the ground, in the air, or stuck in baggage claim).

I’ve seen companies that thrived with virtual workforces and others that abandoned the idea when it became clear it wasn’t serving their needs or their clients. In every single instance where virtual management worked well, I could pinpoint five essentials that enabled teams to thrive. If any of these five essentials disappeared, the system collapsed.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Clarity

Here’s what’s expected of you, and what you can expect of us.

Virtual teams thrive with clarity — clarity of roles, expectations, reporting lines, and purpose. Each person on a virtual team must understand his or her position. What are the expectations? What purpose does their work serve towards the greater goals of the company?

Clear roles and responsibilities ensure that everyone on a virtual team knows who to go to for what type of assistance. One healthy virtual marketing team that I led had a social media group with very clear roles and responsibilities. My position as client strategist meant that I spoke with our clients every Monday. During that call, I obtained information about product updates and any news they wished conveyed. Next, I communicated this to our copywriter, who crafted brilliant, pithy social media statements. He passed this on to the graphic designer, who used his brilliance and excellence to create outstanding social media messages. Back to me, and I’d run everything by the client for approval. Once approved, I passed them to the social media manager, who posted, monitored, and reported metrics back to the team.

Each of us was quite clear on our purpose within the team. We specialized in our roles so our unique brilliance could shine. Clients knew who did what work for them, and could also clearly convey feedback through an identified, reliable contact person. Each step, each role, and each person had a clearly defined purpose, mission, and objective. We knew what we had to do when we had to do it, what tools and templates to use to complete our tasks, and what metrics would be used to measure our success.

This is the essence of a healthy virtual team. When roles become murky, and people become a jack of all trades, the work suffers. Passing the ball — the work — to the next person slows, because no one is sure who is the next person in the chain of tasks. Clients lose faith because it appears to them that the company doesn’t know what it’s doing. The work collapses in on itself.

Clarity forms the cornerstone around which strong virtual teams thrive.

Communications

Let the message get through any time, anywhere.

The second element that supports healthy virtual teams is communications. Among the group, clear, considerate, and timely communications offers the lifeline that connects people working in different time zones, offices, and environments.

Today’s workforce connects through mobile phones, laptops, tablets, desktops, and yes, landlines (I still have one). Among the technologies that we use, we have a plethora of services to facilitate communications: Slack, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, and countless other programs that offer voice, video, and messaging.

Project management software also facilitates clear communications. Asana, Trello, ProofHub, Basecamp, and many other software packages offer a way to quickly communicate specific questions and feedback around tasks, display tasks and project updates, and facilitate sharing documents.

Don’t forget Google Docs, which formed an essential component for many of our teams. We could collaborate in real time, review feedback, and save data easily.

Technology supports clear communications, but people must agree and commit to the concept of timely communications for a virtual team to succeed. One of the teams I worked with had a ‘24 hour rule’ that served us all in good stead. We required everyone to respond to messages and comments in the project management system within 24 hours of posting, except on weekends or scheduled time off such as vacations when the turnaround time could be flexible. If you failed to respond within 24 hours, your manager looked for you. If she couldn’t find you, there had better be a good reason.

Not only did the 24-hour rule ensure that we could count on each other, but it also ensured that clients could get an answer to their question quickly. In faster-paced environments, such as social media and public relations, this sped up our response time to media inquiries and public questions, which in turn gave the client’s company a favorable reputation. All aspects of clear communication, from our smooth internal communications to external responses, worked favorably to ensure a well-functioning virtual team.

Okay, but what if people don’t like each other — and don’t want to respond to their messages or calls for help? I’ve experienced that too. Frankly, such people don’t last long within a virtual environment. We had one social media manager who outright refused to work with me. At that time, I was in an editorial role, and our roles were equal and analogous. She took a personal dislike to me after I asked clarifying questions around our roles. Our manager stepped in to assist, but my counterpart refused to cooperate. She didn’t last long. In a virtual team, without being cramped into cubicles or forced to see coworkers you dislike on a daily basis, there’s no excuse for the social media diva’s responses.

You can’t afford to keep divas on the virtual team. If they don’t play well with others even with the buffer of a computer screen between themselves and other teammates, they aren’t well-suited to virtual work life, even if they’re brilliant. They must be able to communicate well with others, even those they dislike.

Photo by Djurdjica Boskovic on Unsplash

Accountability

Without accountability, virtual teams collapse.

Ah, accountability. Together with communications and clarity, I’d say accountability is the most important attributes of a virtual team.

If you notice from my descriptions of various virtual work environments that thrived, high accountability is among the chief hallmarks of teams that worked. Our “24 hour” response time rule worked only because a high degree of role clarity made it simple to figure out who to ask questions of and an equally high degree of accountability to one another made responses imperative.

Accountability means taking responsibility for our actions. We had a saying in one company that it was okay to negotiate deadlines but not okay to forget deadlines. We had to be accountable for our time, our projects, and ourselves, period.

Systems and software add transparency to accountability, but they do not substitute for personal accountability. Only mature virtual workers who value teamwork and understand the importance of taking responsibility for their work and deadlines adds true accountability to virtual teams.

Without the first three — clarity, communications, and accountability — virtual teams fall apart. The rest adds to the success of your virtual teams, but they will collapse without the first three.

Reliability

I know you’re out there. And you know I’m here.

Reliability differs from accountability. Reliability means one can trust that something will happen regardless of being physically present to oversee that it does.

In virtual environments, reliability affirms that despite not being present with one another at work every day, we can rely upon certain activities, events, or networks to ensure jobs are done.

Team meetings are a great example of reliability in the virtual workforce. Every Monday, for instance, at the advertising agency where I managed virtual teams, I scheduled client meetings and calls. We had a biweekly all-company call with a set agenda sent to all participants a day before the meeting, another sign of reliability. We were paid regularly, through an agreed-upon medium, a reliable indication of trust from the company.

We had regular hours; even though virtual, and an independent contractor at the time, I established regular “office hours” when my teams knew they could reach me regardless of their time zone or mine. I set the hours, and I chose the communications medium, but this reliability offered a bridge to them that set their minds at ease. They knew they could count on finding their manager even though I was half a world away.

Reliability builds a stable work platform from which all creativity, all excellence, derives. People excel in a reliable work environment because they have a steady base from which to extend their efforts. Virtual workers are much more likely to ‘go the extra mile’ when they know they have a solid starting point.

Flexibility

It’s why many prefer working virtually, so don’t ruin it with stupid rules.

One of the reasons people go into the virtual workforce is because they prefer the flexibility of the jobs, the work environment, and the hours. Allow your virtual teams both the flexibility and creativity to form new solutions, try new ideas, and build upon their jobs.

If you feel the need to require all virtual workers to install monitoring software to ensure you get your money’s worth from their time, you have doomed your team to fail. You are treating your virtual team as if they are punching a time clock at a factory; they will equate time with worth instead of adding value to their interactions with your company and clients. The “time is money” equation may work well for a factory producing pajamas, but it fails for those who like to work in their pajamas.

Go Virtual or Go Away

Nothing frustrates me more than ads for writers, editors, or marketing professionals that require extensive industry knowledge, education, and experience, but demand that workers relocate to work from physical office space.

The days of regimented nine to five are long over. If you want the best for a job, look far and wide. Virtual workforces can work beautifully in service-based organizations and in many companies that produce products that require a high degree of skill, such as software engineering, fashion design, and others.

Drawing from specific geography or demanding relocation immediately narrows the available pool of workers. You won’t get the best of the best. You’ll get the best of who is willing to live in Chicago, New York or Detroit; but for those of us who are the best at what we do, and choose to live in a less populated area, you’ll skip right over us in favor of someone closer to home.

And that’s a shame because there are many people like me — educated, experienced, and skilled — who choose to live in rural areas, remote areas, or who just can’t or do not wish to relocate.

If you want the absolute best person for the job, consider a virtual workforce. And if you want your virtual workforce to thrive, implement these five points for a healthy, productive work environment.