Building a virtual team should be a top consideration for every startup, entrepreneur, and online business in growth mode, because expanding your talent search to “everywhere” means access to better job candidates. However, managing a team that’s spread across the country (or the globe) presents its own unique set of challenges. SureSwift’s rapid growth from a team of two to a global company of 80 over the past four years has been like a crash course in managing virtual teams, and this is our guide to doing it right.
Recently, we wrote about why we’re committed to being a fully remote company. Not only has it been a great choice for us, but we also wholeheartedly believe that remote work is the future. And the current research definitely backs us up.
In fact, Gallup’s latest State of the Workforce report found that the number of employees who were working remotely (43%) was higher than ever, with a broader range of working hours, and fewer in-person meetings.
And employees want to work at companies that embrace the virtual office. When surveyed, 82% of employees said they’d be more loyal, and less likely to leave if they had more flexibility in their jobs (Source: FlexJobs).
It’s hard to argue with those numbers, and with remote company success stories like Hotjar, Hootsuite, and Buffer. But if you’ve only ever worked with a team in-person, you might be wondering where to start.
Or maybe you’ve hired a few remote contractors or employees already, but you’re struggling to communicate and collaborate effectively.
Whatever stage of going remote you’re in, we’ve got 5 straightforward tips to help you build your blueprint to managing a high-performing virtual team.
Managing Virtual Teams: 5 Steps to Success
1. Organize With The Right Tools
The great news for anyone managing a remote team of any size is that there are a huge assortment of free and low-cost business apps out there to help you do everything from organizing projects, to controlling account access, and tracking contractors’ or employees’ time.
Here’s the main app stack we use at SureSwift to manage our team and our projects:
- Trello: Break down any project by task with the ability to set due dates, create checklists, and leave comments or ask questions. You can also use Trello to create enhancement or bug-fix queues for a busy developer.
- Google Suite: Create team and project specific folders to share documents with permissions that can be easily edited anytime.
- Slack: Create chat channels for teams, projects, or specific types of communications to send and receive real-time updates in a fully searchable, super easy to use system.
- Zoom: Hold interviews and scheduled meetings with the ability to have video calls or share your screen.
- Paydirt: Create projects and work categories and have your team track their time along with notes on what they did. You can have multiple contractors and employees in the system, with the ability to approve timesheets or send them back with questions.
- Zenefits: HR, payroll, and benefits management for a distributed team.
- 1Password: Use this app to create separate password “vaults” for business and personal use, or make a vault for each product line you manage, then structure your permissions by person, team, or app category.
2. Find The Right People for Your Remote Team
Since you won’t be in the same office to oversee their work, you want to be sure the people you hire are proactive and resilient self-starters who have experience managing their time effectively. Include these qualities in your job descriptions, along with the specific experience and skills you’re looking for.
Since strong digital communications skills and attention to detail will be important in any remote job, you should also include some specific instructions on how to apply to help you do an easy first filter of your applicants.
Here’s an example from one of our recent job postings: “Please email us with your CV, cover letter and desired hourly rate, and add “Customer Success Specialist” in the email subject line. Please ensure your CV & Cover letter are shared on Google Drive with a link we can access.”
Once you have a set of candidates you’re interested in, set up video interviews. Video will help you assess things a phone call never will, such as internet speed, professionalism, and body language.
For some jobs, you may want to ask for work samples (writing, design, code, etc.) to see past examples of your candidates’ work. If you decide to go further and ask people to complete an assignment as part of your interview, either keep it under an hour, or be sure to pay people for their time.
3. Put the Right Legal Documentation in Place
Whether you’re hiring an employee or a freelancer, having the appropriate contracts in place can help you avoid major legal headaches (and costs) down the road.
Your freelancer or employment agreements should cover things like at-will employment, Intellectual Property ownership/transfer, non-disclosure/confidentiality, and non-compete terms. You should always consult a lawyer before finalizing your contracts, but you can get started with free templates from UpCounsel.
4. Hold Regular Meetings and Keep Communication Lines Open
One of the best parts of remote work is that there tend to be a lot fewer unnecessary meetings. But having a virtual team doesn’t mean you don’t need any regular meetings. Not keeping your team up-to-date or checking in on work barriers is the fastest way to lose their trust.
In a remote environment, visible and transparent leadership is even more important because people aren’t in the office to see what you’re doing all day or pop by when there’s a problem.
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If your team is small, you can keep things pretty simple. You may just need one team meeting, or a quick 1:1 with each team member once a week or every other week, with online communications like emails or Slack chats in between.
Set a regular schedule for these meetings for the same day/time/frequency to make sure they actually happen. It’s also helpful to have a predefined agenda so you can stay on track and on time.
As your team keeps expanding, you may hit a point where it makes sense to form a leadership or core team. Letting someone else be in charge of day-to-day operations of specific areas, such as support or marketing, will let you step out of tactical meetings and focus on strategy.
This point will be different for every founder, but trusting your gut and avoiding burnout will benefit your business much more in the long run than waiting too long to delegate.
It’s also worth noting that video is an extremely helpful tool for training and communicating with your virtual team. You can read a lot from people’s expressions and body language that you might miss on the phone or over email.
5. Build a Strong Company Culture
Despite the fact that 90%+ of your communications with a remote team will take place digitally, it’s still possible (and we’d argue imperative) to build your culture.
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Here are a few tips on how to do it:
- Be transparent about your vision and goals for the company and let everyone know how their role specifically contributes to them. All of your team members want to feel that their work has value.
- Communicate clear expectations about response time, deadlines, and milestones at the outset of jobs and projects. If you need to deliver constructive feedback, do that 1:1 on a more personal channel, never in a group meeting or channel.
- Say thank you, recognize extra effort, and celebrate successes.
- Set a good example when it comes to work-life balance, and respect your team’s personal time.
- Get to know your people. Let them know a bit about your life outside of work, and encourage them to share, too. Before you jump into calls or meetings, take a minute to ask how people are doing and what’s going on in their lives. (For team meetings, try keeping a short list of icebreakers to kick things off).
If you can afford it, getting your team together in-person once or twice a year can build interpersonal relationships, help you align on big-picture goals and priorities, and discuss any roadblocks or process issues.
At SureSwift, with our team spread out across 14 time zones and more than 28 different companies in our portfolio, gathering the whole team together in person hasn’t made sense so far. But we make a point of getting a group together if one of us is traveling.
When our CEO Kevin was in Chicago earlier this year, he was able to meet with 5 team members who live in the area. Some of our other team members have found opportunities to meet up when traveling or attending conferences, too.
At the end of the day, not being in the same office has made us that much more focused on hiring and building our culture intentionally, and the pros have been well worth the trade offs.
Managing a virtual team comes with its own set of challenges, but they can all be overcome with the right tools, planning, and leadership. So if you’re in growth mode this year, make it a top priority to consider going remote — you won’t regret it.