How to Manage an Entirely Virtual Team

Written by Rosie Gailor Wednesday 18 March 2020
As the majority of the UK turns to remote working to slow the spread of COVID-19, we talk you through how to step up your management style to ensure business continuity
Man speaking with someone through their mobile phone

On Monday 16 March, the government made its recommendation that as many people stay home as possible. Public landmarks are shut, including UK theatres that hadn’t previously closed since The Plague. It’s a time of unprecedented change, and presents a unique set of challenges to managers and employees all over the world. Suddenly, companies that aren’t built for remote working need to quickly build the right IT infrastructures and lines of communication to support entire virtual teams for an undefined period of time.

We know that this is a stressful change – but it’s not impossible. We spoke to key business leaders all over the globe to find out their advice for managers finding themselves leading virtual teams.

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of I.t.

With the incredible pace of technology innovations in recent years, we usually assume that everyone owns a smartphone or decent laptop. But that may not be the case -- and even if they do, the laptop’s camera or mouse pad may be broken or their home’s internet may be slow.

“There are three things under ‘infrastructure’,” says the author Gihan Perera who is one of the world’s leading authorities on remote team management – he’s held a number of CMI webinars on the subject in recent years. “First is IT and its practical implementation; the second one is HR rules, as you're required to create a safe workplace environment even at home. The third one is employee relation infrastructure – working from home for a long time has some psychological implications, so give them advice around that.”


“If you forget to mention something or have a problem when you’re in the office, I can just walk over here and say something,” says Gihan Perera. “But when people are working from home, it's not as easy to do that. You've got to be much clearer about objectives. Say I give someone a task to do and we agree to check in in two hours’ time. If we're in an office and I suddenly think of something that I should have told them, I can just wander over and tell them, or if they’re unclear about something they can come to my desk. But there's a bit more reluctance to do that while working remotely, or we may not see each other’s emails. So there's more of a chance that in two hours’ time, they’ll come back and give me work that doesn’t meet my expectations – but it's not because you've done it wrong, it’s just misinterpretation and miscommunication. That clarity is much more important up front.”

Make Conscious Efforts

When managing a team virtually, we miss out on the opportunity to read their social cues and body language. We can’t read a room, see someone’s slumped shoulders or fidgeting, or even their eyes when they get excited by something. We need to make conscious efforts to check in and make sure our team knows we’re there to support them. Gihan recommends always using video calls so you can get as close to face-to-face communication as possible, and make sure you always ask how they’re doing today, what’s going well, or where they need more support. They’ll appreciate the question, and you’ll be able to identify problems early on in the pipeline.

“Mindsets are so important,” he says. “If you’re used to managing a team in an office, you’re subconsciously taking notice and making judgments by what you see. As soon as your team becomes invisible, managers and leaders are suddenly in this uncharted territory.


"Trust is really important, as the rules around trust change when you're working remotely,” says Gihan. He cites research showing that trust is established differently in offices versus remotely. “In an office environment, people create trust by social interactions, like their kids going to the same school and so on. While all of that will still happen virtually, the problem is that if you're working from home there are other trust factors that come into play. So if I plan a call with someone for 10.30am and they’re not on the line at 10.35am, we've lost a bit of trust. You don't know whether they have completely forgotten or whether they might just be five minutes late. It's different if you see me in the office, held up by a meeting or a call – but if you don't know that, you may assume they’ve completely forgotten. The whole idea of trust and reliability and dependability between team members becomes much more important when you've got your team working from home.”

Above All, Be Kind

Right now there’s only one global story: COVID-19. It’s a stressful situation professionally and personally; employees may have high-risk or already ill family members or friends, and are now cooped up with their families or roommates who are all also trying to work from home as best they can. While we should aim for business continuity, it is also important to understand that employees will not (and possibly cannot) be as productive as if they were in the office.

“Cut them a bit of slack,” says Gihan. “Don't expect them to be fully productive when they start off working from home: it's difficult, especially when there's this crisis going on around us. Even if they were in the office, they would be chatting about COVID-19, the latest news and what Boris Johnson and chief medical officers are saying. They would have been less productive anyway! So it's something they had productive because it wasn't all that productive, because it's at the top of mind for them at the moment. Just be aware of that.”

Here are seven bite-size tips to get you started:

  • Make the dynamic of the team clear by delegating roles and tasks transparently
  • Make all managers aware of current working environments (eg, children, parents, or flatmates at home)
  • Schedule regular video calls with your teams to touch base and check in on productivity and time-management issues
  • Adhere to organisational values while in your new remote working space
  • Prioritise maintaining trusting relationships
  • Give regular feedback on your team’s efforts, and praise where praise is due
  • Set clear objectives for all virtual meetings and calls, and be precise about action plans and expectations

CMI members can rely on support from this community to help solve problems, address anxieties and build plans for the future. Let’s use the hashtag #BetterManagers to share and exchange great management practice to meet this unprecedented challenge.

With free access to ManagementDirect, CMI members can find checklists for remote working, time management advice, and performance management templates. Log in here.

If you’re not a CMI member, see the excellent resources available on our Knowledge Bank. If you’re interested in how CMI Membership can support you, check out our member benefits and join today.

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