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Managing virtual teams is becoming an essential a skill

Dr. Caroline Walker

...increased flexibility and better work-life balance, which leads to increased morale and more productivity
...increased flexibility and better work-life balance, which leads to increased morale and more productivity

Advances in technology, shifting attitudes in the workplace and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a rapid increase in remote working. But will this trend continue?

The benefits are clear for the employees, with increased flexibility and better work-life balance, which leads to increased morale and more productivity. Indeed, a recent survey from Flex Jobs showed that 80% of US workers would turn down a job that did not offer flexible working.

Remote work stats

  • The number of people who work from home has increased by 140% since 2005. (Global Workplace Analytics)
  • Globally, 52% of workers work from home at least once every week. (Owl Labs)
  • 74% employees said flexible working was the new normal. (FlexJobs)
  • 85% of businesses confirmed productivity increased when they introduced flexible working. (FlexJobs)
  • 90% of business said that flexible working increased employee morale. (FlexJobs)
  • 86% of people feel that working remotely reduces stress. (FlexJobs)
  • Data from 2018 shows that 65% of people think they work best at home. (FlexJobs).

The business drivers for remote working are also very strong, with employers seeing the benefits of decreasing office costs, the ability to hire from a much larger talent pool to access specialist skills, as well as increased employee productivity and talent retention.

This increasing demand for ‘remote-friendly’ workplaces brings the demand for “remote-friendly” managers, who can effectively manage a virtual team. Developing remote leadership skills is therefore now an essential for businesses to remain competitive and take advantage of this trend.

Our tips for developing your remote team skills

  • Get some perspective. If you have not yet tried working remotely, give it a go - it will rapidly give you insight into the pros and cons of remote working - Can I easily access documents? What makes me feel involved and included? What do I enjoy about it? What concerns do I have? How is my morale? - You can use this insight to consider how you can effectively tailor your management style and to become an able virtual leader.
  • Learn to trust. There is a mind shift needed as a remote leader to understand that you manage by the quality and quantity of the output, rather than by seeing someone tapping away at a desk. Beware of micromanaging your team by peppering them with frequent calls and mails to check for skiving! But you do need to stay in regular contact and prioritise checking in more frequently to make sure that everything is going well. How often should you make contact? A recent survey of remote workers suggested twice a week was optimal (Grenny and Maxfield HBR 2017).
  • Create a communications plan. In a remote team, there is no water cooler, tea room or popping your head around a door – all communications have to be planned to make sure that nobody is missed out of the loop and that the essential movement of information around the team is happening. This plan could cover how, and when, and to whom the team will communicate on actions. It would also cover aspects such as what is our response time to each other? and how we will contact each other in an emergency? The plan also needs to be developed in collaboration with your team so that they have ownership.
  • Use live communications lightly. Your team will only benefit from remote working if they have the flexibility of their own time. So, be aware that every time you schedule a live (synchronous) meeting you are going to be restricting this freedom and your team members are likely to be asking themselves ‘was it really necessary for me to skip school pick up to do this live?’. If the answer is ‘no’ then morale will drop. So, think carefully about whether there is a way to achieve the same aim but asynchronously. If not, try and make sure that you accommodate your team member’s schedules as much as possible and share the pain if out of hours working is needed.
  • Choose the right tool for the job. Email is not the answer for everything! A key skill for managing remote teams is to be comfortable with technology. This will often require getting some training on virtual platforms so that you can use them effectively, but it's also a great opportunity for some reverse mentoring in the team from tech-savvy colleagues. So, have a look at the tools that are available to you and think about how you could increase your ‘techno dexterity’. Develop a habit of thinking carefully about the tool that would be the best for the job and consider its pros and cons. For example, presenting your monthly debrief via a webinar can be really engaging and motivating compared to circulating a long document that gets ‘filed’ for reading later!

What are the key skills for a virtual team leader?

Managing a remote team requires dialling up core skills such as being an exceptional communicator, building relationships, and creating trust: but the key is that virtual team leaders can use technology in a fluent way to do this.

The Institution offers managing virtual teams workshops focusing on how to adapt these core skills to remote working to ensure that the team works well together and deliver. These workshops have been designed to give managers a practical way to develop these skills and are available in both face-to-face and virtual classroom format, featuring practical tips and tools combined with providing the insight needed to motivate and manage remote workers. 

Find out more about IMechE’s managing virtual teams training at


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