If you were a manager or team leader when the country went into lockdown in March 2020 you probably felt dropped in the deep end of virtual management. Madly trying to keep your staff supported, engaged and productive whilst battling your own mini crises at home.
Fast forward six months and you are probably hankering for the offices to fully open up again. But the truth is virtual management is almost certainly here to stay. In fact, a recent report suggests that 91% of office workers would like to continue working from home at least part of the time.
So, what can you do about it?
You could do nothing and insist everyone comes back to the office full-time when the opportunity presents itself. Or, if you want to attract and retain the best staff that like home working, then being a good ‘virtual’ manager has to be in your toolbox of management tricks.
Managing online is different to face-to-face management, so in this blog post we ask Colin Bentwood, SDN’s Managing Director, to share some insight, having managed SDN as a virtual organisation since 2006…
Why did you set up a virtual organisation?
“When Gerry and I started our business we both enjoyed the flexibility home working gave us and found we were just as productive, if not more so, without office distractions.
“As we started to grow and employ people, we contemplated setting up an office, but thought the added benefits of a virtual organisation outweighed the benefits of getting staff to a single place. We knew that no commute, parking fees or office overheads would actually mean we could put more time and finance into delivering a quality service.
“Being virtual also meant we could cast our net wider when looking for talent to help us grow – and we’ve certainly managed that over the years. The challenge is adapting your management techniques to suit an online environment, which is not easy.”
What is the hardest thing about managing virtually?
“Getting that sense of connectedness. It is much harder to achieve connectedness online than face-to-face. Connectedness drives individuals, teams and performance, so paying attention to this is fundamental to good virtual management.
“There is a sameness about seeing people in a square box on your monitor through virtual meetings that makes it harder to get to know people’s character and read the wants and needs of individual staff and the team as a whole.
“One way to overcome this is to adapt the management technique Managing By Wandering About (MBWA) to ‘Virtual’ Managing By Wandering About (VMBWA). This is a way of staying connected with your staff informally, so they know you are there to support them as a human being, not just an employee.
“In an office environment, MBWA means regularly talking to staff to understand what’s going on in their lives and how they are coping at work at any particular time. You can then put things in place to support them.
“‘Virtual’ MBWA – is a reminder to make the time to do this in a virtual environment. Touching base through informal online meetings or texting staff after a long day to see how things went. Essentially, you want staff to know you are there to support their overall sense of wellbeing, so that they are happy in their work and performing.”
What are the main differences between online and face-to-face meetings?
“There are a lot more distractions in a virtual meeting than a face-to-face one. Some people will do things they would not dream of doing in a physical meeting, like processing emails, sending texts, or even browsing the internet. There are also other distractions like the postman dropping off a parcel. These distractions do not all need to be dealt with but do need to be considered to set the right tone for successful meetings.
“It is also harder to hear two people talk at once. This sounds trivial, but it does affect the ability to take in what people are saying and interrupts people’s note taking. For example, if a team member is talking through their ideas and another member of staff blurts out a reminder, not only is it hard to hear both people, but the original speaker is less likely to process that reminder and action it later.
“The last thing, and a positive difference, is that everyone has an equal space at the meeting. Everyone’s face is the same size on the screen and looking at you, so it’s easier to remember to get input from the whole team. The key to doing that well is dealing people in and out and making sure everyone gets a turn to speak.”
Colin’s top five tips for chairing a good virtual meeting
There are some really basic things to get right if you want to improve online meetings:
- Set ground rules
To improve concentration in meetings, ask staff to turn their emails and phones off. You might decide to use virtual backgrounds too if you find people are not as comfortable in a meeting environment when sharing their home space with colleagues.
- No interrupting
Make sure people are given the opportunity to finish what they are saying and ask them to repeat if they are cut off. Because it is harder to hear, it is especially important that interruption is addressed so that everyone can digest the information and miscommunication does not occur with the actions and tasks given to people.
- Dealing people in and out of a conversation
As one person finishes talking, bring another in. You are the ‘dealer’ and select who speaks. This keeps things crisp and helps the meeting flow.
- Prepare the round table
At the end of a physical meeting you might close by going around the table for any other business. In a virtual environment, tell people the order, so just like face-to-face they know when their turn is coming and can collect their thoughts.
- Think gross, talk net
You have to concentrate more in a virtual meeting than face-to-face because there is not as much body language to draw on. Because of that it is really important to get to your point quickly and succinctly and make the most of the meeting time.