How to Manage a Virtual Team: Fractured Atlas Managers Weigh in
One of the major challenges with a switch from working in an office to working from home is figuring out how to manage teams.
How can you effectively provide your team with the resources they need to do their work? How can you make sure that they know what your team is working on without micromanaging? How does your whole management philosophy change when you don’t have an office and can’t physically see or meet with your team?
If we’ve learned anything in our long switch from working together in an office to working together as a fully distributed team, it’s that there’s no one answer for everyone. What works well for you and your team might not work for someone else.
That’s why when it comes to managing virtual teams, we wanted to share several different approaches. We hope that some of their advice resonates with you as you navigate this change to your work life. Here, different members of the Fractured Atlas team in leadership or management positions share how they have learned to manage teams virtually.
We hear from:
Courtney Harge: Associate Director, Inbound Marketing
Theresa Hubbard: Associate Director, Program Operations
Lauren Ruffin: Chief External Relations Officer
How is it different to manage a virtual team versus an in-office team?
Courtney Harge: I resisted management in an office setting for a long time. As a theatrical producer and director, I compartmentalized. I kept my management work in my art. However, [my experience in theater] has informed my management philosophy: create the space for talented people to do their best work. That philosophy applies in person and virtually.
It’s easier to “read the room” in person. One can sense shifts in mood or energy that are more difficult to detect in a video meeting. I’ve found it helpful to set intentions and expectations for a virtual meeting so that people can bring the right energy to the room.
It’s also much harder (if not impossible) to generate that same collective magic that happens when a group of people are sharing space, so don’t try. I try to focus on generating new magic: what can be answered by this group of people having a conversation? How can we generate inspiration if not work in real-time?
Theresa Hubbard: The biggest difference has to be that you can't see [your team]! In an office, it is easier to know how people are spending their time because you can physically see them. When you manage a virtual team, you need to be more strategic about the touch points you have with individuals and how frequently you need to have them in order to get an idea of productivity. This might actually turn into a more interactive workplace as the team frequently checks in with one another to see how others on the team are doing and how they can support one another.
Lauren Ruffin: I do the same things managing a virtual team that I did when I was in the office 5 days a week. Standup in the mornings, weekly team meetings, and one-on-one check-ins all matter, regardless of whether they're happening face-to-face or not.
How did you have to change your own approach to management and leadership for a virtual office?
Courtney Harge: I underestimated how lonely management is—something that all the books say but is hard to be adequately prepared for. Virtual managing can be lonelier still because the information isn’t always shared in the same way. One of my partners has a “middle managers’ meeting” at his job where all the people at a certain level connect and share information. In a virtual space, each middle manager has their own priorities so it’s harder to have that type of consistent conversation.
Additionally, virtual management requires more explicit communication about intention and modeled behaviors. In-person, one can try tactics and see how the results play out over time. In-office behaviors adapt as practices are repeated and witnessed. Virtually, you can’t rely on that same osmosis.
Theresa Hubbard: Managing specific problems has become harder because online conversations may be more one-on-one than those that happened openly in the office. As a result, I've needed to change how I approach them by more actively inserting myself into these situations or coaching the team to include more people in their conversations so there's a wider understanding of the problem they're dealing with. It feels like a turn toward helicoptering (which I don't like), but I'm not doing it to micromanage, instead it's about having an ear to the ground in case something serious comes up.
Lauren Ruffin: I've always prioritized ensuring that my team uses all of their vacation and personal time, but it becomes even more important when the line between work and home is blurred. I'm now proactive about monitoring time off and being loud about asking people to use their time. It's easy to do that because we have an unlimited time-off policy, but beyond that I really do believe that the time belongs to them and workers shouldn't be afraid to use it.
How do you think about trust and productivity in a virtual working environment?
Courtney Harge: It’s easier to assume trust and then correct mistakes than it is to assume failure and try to plan around it. That’s like trying to guess which link in a chain is going to break: you’ll exhaust yourself and your resources before the break happens and then will be out of luck. If something does fail, you can then address it and correct for it when it happens.
Are the things that need to get done getting done? Are people consistently delivering their deliverables? Are people feeling satisfactorily supported? If so, then trust that your employees are doing what they need to do to be productive. If not, check in and make adjustments as needed.
Theresa Hubbard: I think trust is among the most important pieces of managing a virtual team, especially since you can't see your teammates all the time. You need to trust that your team can manage themselves in order to get their work done and meet expectations.
You also need to trust that individuals on your team can make decisions to take care of themselves mentally and physically, while still keeping in mind what is best for the organization and the people you serve.
It's really easy to say that you feel well enough to work because you're at home and can take the breaks you need. That's not the type of work environment that I want to foster. I want for my team to know that I trust them to take necessary time off so that they get healthy faster instead of prolonging their illness and working at 50% or less for several days in a row.
Lauren Ruffin: We do our best to have a thorough hiring policy, because in many ways hiring well ensures that you can trust people to do the work. I tell my team that I'll trust them as long as I'm not hearing complaints from other people about their work product. Our organizational culture is really strong. When someone's work isn't up to the standard it rarely remains a secret for long.
How have your communication styles shifted for a virtual work setting?
Courtney Harge: I have tried to replicate [the pop into someone’s cubicle or ask someone to step into your office] behavior, virtually. It’s nothing to just ask for what you need. Sometimes you may have to ask in an all-staff channel “who do I talk to about X?” That allows other people to know who can answer their question and mimics the type of conversation that one would hear in an office.
Theresa Hubbard: I have no problem asking someone if they want to jump on a video call to hash through something we need to talk about. It feels like a natural way to replicate the "popping over to someone's desk" scenario. I think video calls actually end up being less imposing, because both parties have the agency to say "I need a few minutes" or "can we throw something on the calendar to discuss this?" instead of being interrupted and feeling obligated to stop what they're doing and engage.
I'm also frequently thinking about how my written words come across. I know sometimes my direct communication style can come across as abrasive over text, so I constantly evaluate what I'm typing to make sure the tone that comes across is intentional.
Lauren Ruffin: I've never been much of a "pop over" or "step into my office" type of manager; that just feels boundary-less to me. But more than that, I've worked with people who were constantly shouting questions over the top of the cubicle or down the hall. So annoying!
In many ways, Slack makes it easier to get questions answered in a way that respects everyone's preferred communication style, and if it's a complex or grittier conversation, finding a convenient time for everyone to hop on Zoom is super simple.
What advice would you give to managers or people in leadership when transitioning to leading a virtual team?
Courtney Harge: Manage within your values. Sometimes people think becoming a manager means becoming a different type of person. Yes, you will have to learn new skills and new modes of operating. However, you should not compromise your values to be a leader. You can lead, take care of yourself, and take care of your team.
Theresa Hubbard: Be patient with yourself. The transition will take time and you'll make mistakes. Be willing to learn from your mistakes and work with your team to figure out what works best. Also, do your research. You're not the first person who has had to figure out how to manage a virtual team, so seek out information from those who have already found solutions to some of the problems you're encountering.
Lauren Ruffin: If you're questioning productivity, be reflective. Are there instances where someone is actually missing deadlines or submitting subpar work? Or are you just struggling with a lack of control (about work or the world at large)? If it's the former, the person may need to be exited from the organization. If it's the latter, perhaps chat with a therapist or life coach before projecting all of that onto staff during a pandemic.
Transitioning from an office full of colleagues to home offices and virtual colleagues is challenging. We know because we’ve been there. Our team members who are in management or leadership positions have gone through these pivots in order to best support their teams so that we can all keep providing artists with the resources that they need to realize their creative visions. The challenge is ongoing; we are still iterating around how to work better with one another, wherever we are.
Above all, we hope that people in leadership at companies or organizations who have had to make the switch to virtual are making this switch as mindfully as possible.
Crises are opportunities for us to shake ourselves out of the normal way of doing things. They give us the opportunity to not return to normal, but to build something better. As you’re learning how to manage teams in a new way, here are some suggestions to make sure that your home office culture doesn’t become a toxic work environment.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman lives in New York City and holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley Insights. When she's not interviewing artists or sharing tips for navigating the art world on the Fractured Atlas blog, Nina makes ceramics at Wild Bower Studio, hosts Planet Clambake on Newtown Radio, and is a member of the New Sanctuary Coalition pro-se legal clinic.