Insights & Expertise

Overcoming the Challenges of Managing Virtual Teams

Tim Swift, Ph.D., offers tips for managing virtual teams for high performance in the new year.

Keys to the Article
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has forced managers across all industries to face the challenge of managing virtual teams – and some may not go back to the previous status quo after the threat of the virus has passed.
  • Saint Joseph’s Tim Swift, Ph.D., says it's important for managers to create an individualized plan for communicating with employees based on their unique needs.
  • Swift also says managers need to avoid over communicating with employees and to make sure to give them time to focus on work tasks.

COVID-19 has pushed employees in companies across all industries to face the challenge of working on and managing virtual teams. With Zoom meetings and telework continuing in 2021, some companies are moving to make remote work permanent — even after the threat of the pandemic has gone away. 

But a 100% remote workforce is quite an adjustment, even in the short term. Over the last 10 months, managers have been forced to reevaluate their responsibilities, finding new ways to lead their teams effectively without the benefit of face-to-face communication. 

According to Tim Swift, Ph.D., Saint Joseph’s professor of management, the key to managing a virtual team is to think intently about the best way to care for yourself and your employees. “The usual modes of being in contact likely need significant modification,” says Swift.

Strategies for Managing Virtual Teams

With teams relying on tools like Slack and Zoom to replace face-to-face meetings and desk-side conversations, Swift stresses the importance of individualized communication based on each employee’s needs. The new year is a good time to check in and see what’s working. “Speak with each member of your team to negotiate the frequency and method of contact throughout work hours,” Swift says. “While one team member might like video conferencing and some face time with you, another might thrive with instant messaging.” 

Swift also says that allowing team members to control their meeting environments could actually make them more productive. “Research has shown that people who aren’t effective communicators in live, face-to-face meetings do better in online or virtual environments where chat is available,” he says. “The folks are often quick thinkers with great ideas who don’t like to act aggressively or competitively in face-to-face settings. However, in these virtual environments, we often discover that these people have great things to contribute.”

Tools for Communicating Virtually  

Beyond personal preference, Swift recommends considering the urgency of the information when determining the mode of communication. “If we are going to talk about your mid-year performance review, we are doing that ‘face-to-face’ on Zoom. If we all need to know routine news from a client, that can be an email with a contact person identified,” he says. 

However, managers overseeing virtual teams need to avoid micromanaging. “Remember how your teams spent hours in their offices or cubicles thinking hard or getting creative?” Swift asks. “It was important not to interrupt them, right? The same applies now. Even though you can’t ‘see’ them anymore, respect your team members’ need for quiet time at work.” 

One way to do this is to be conscious of the messages you’re sending. “Since we are all reading more and hearing less than we would at the office, it helps to keep written messages concise,” says Swift. “I like to put the key point of my message – whether it be a request or an important update – at the top of my emails. Then I write, ‘If you would like more detail, please read below.’ Some people just want the bottom line information, while other people may want the context and supporting details. In written correspondence, lead with your news – don’t bury it at the bottom.” 

Swift’s final tips for managing virtual teams is to trust your employees. “At the end of the day, all employees understand that the work must continue to get done,” he says. “I would avoid setting deadlines and checkpoints too frequently, but they should be enough to ensure the team stays on track.”