Managing Virtual Workers

An Ernst & Young partner who has been managing teams virtually for more than a decade explains how to get the best out of remote workers
Tim Gough

Managing employees can be challenging even in the best of times.

During a recession, when demands and stress levels rise, it can become even more difficult, especially with a greater number of employees working remotely. Billie Williamson, a partner at Ernst & Young and the company's Americas Inclusiveness Officer—she oversees E&Y's diversity programs—has been managing virtual teams for more than a decade. Here, Williamson shares her insights and strategies for working and managing effectively in the virtual office:

Managing virtually offers many benefits: It's easy to accommodate differing schedules, schedule meetings on short notice, reduce travel expenses, be more ecologically friendly, and decrease unproductive travel time. It also allows for the creation of more diverse teams that bring together broader experience and knowledge. But the most important thing for managers to remember is that the success of any team, virtual or not, depends on the people. Technology can bring you together, but it's the manager who must make sure the relationships stay vital, each team member is valued, and productivity is high.

A lot of companies are now looking at having people work virtually. The younger generation expects flexibility. You have to be visible in your activities, especially in this environment, but visibility doesn't have to be face-to-face. Those who can demonstrate how to do more with less money are the leaders of tomorrow. Insisting on more face time makes you look out of touch.

Technology matters, so understand the latest innovations and make an effort to incorporate them into your work life. Simply having access to e-mail and the company Intranet isn't enough. Think about setting up a community home space featuring pictures and profiles of team members, a discussion board, a team calendar, or a chat room. That will help team members connect with each other outside of meetings and create a closer bond as a group.

Also, listen carefully to every team member on phone calls. You don't have the benefit of face-to-face interactions (although videoconferencing can help). I focus on how the person is speaking. Is the person excited? Bored? Is the choice of words overly careful? Is there a quality in the speaker's voice that would make a private conversation advisable?

It's important to listen to everything, particularly any silences. Silence can mean consent, or it can mean the person you're not hearing from disagrees with the team's strategy or is disengaged. You need to hear from everyone to make sure the team is moving forward together. If I sense that a team member is lacking engagement—not responding, not participating, or missing deadlines—I call as soon as possible after the meeting to find out what's going on. And I always send an e-mail after each meeting to document and confirm discussions, conclusions, and next steps.

Managing a global team brings another set of challenges. You have to be sensitive to language differences, business protocols, and time zones. When managing a team that serves a multicountry client or one in which many of the team members speak English as a second language, it's vital to determine that everyone understands what has been said. "I heard you say ..." is something I often say when I have a sense that a point may need clarification.

A virtual manager also shows respect by making sure the burden of holding international conference calls is shared. Scheduling regular calls at convenient times for everyone may not be possible. In this case, I shift the start time so that people take turns participating in the calls during their early morning or late evening. Don't simply assume that everyone should adapt to your time zone.

"Virtual" also should not mean you never meet. With international teams, I visit each country's team once a year. With Ernst & Young's Americas Inclusiveness team, which has members in a number of locations, we all get together annually. In the current economy, it might not be possible to meet as often as you would like. But you need to step up the frequency of communication. Check in more often, and make sure people understand what's going on.

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