Guide to Managing Virtual Teams for SMEs

By Joey Lim, Lark VP of Commercial, Asia 

With the recent developments in Malaysia regarding the pandemic and various remote work orders, it is clear that remote working or flexible working arrangements will still be a part of Malaysia in the near future. Underscoring this, the KMPG HR Pulse Survey 2020 showed that 30% of Malaysian companies will most likely continue working remotely over the next 12-24 months. 82% of survey respondents also came to a startling conclusion where they agree that it is likely for the workforce to continue working from home.

Even with the Malaysian government lifting the work-from-home order on 30 March to primarily invigorate the manufacturing sector, we believe that most companies would do well by minimising the risk of Covid-19 exposure to their leadership and employees. This can be done by continuing to provide flexible working arrangements that almost everyone has successfully adopted over the last year.

While there are some companies (like manufacturing facilities) that would benefit from the lifting of the WFH orders, there are others that are adopting a more cautious approach especially regarding the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation. Companies are also implementing hybrid policies such as split teams, scheduling who gets to go into the office and who doesn’t, either on a weekly basis or alternating days of the week.

Amidst all these, SMEs, especially those that just started, are the most vulnerable, as they find these challenges compounded when navigating new policies, cash flow and technological inclusions. For these companies, this may be their first time rolling out remote or flexible working arrangements. Though advancements in technology have made this shift easier, managing virtual teams can often present a new set of challenges that SMEs weren’t previously prepared to address.

Below is a guide to navigate many of the common pitfalls of remote working, as well as the mindset and technological shifts necessary to avoid them. These tips will help keep your team focused, aligned and cohesive during this critical juncture.

 1. Manage Expectations & Explain the ‘Why’

Inside an office, it’s easy to walk over and check in on the status of a project with a colleague. It’s also much easier to get a feel for priorities and knowing some projects will be delayed in favour of more pressing needs.

However, in a remote environment, these may not be as clear. For teams to remain aligned, everyone must be on the same page regarding expected turnaround times and deadlines. Set standard deadlines for recurring tasks and create trackers for ongoing projects. Most importantly, communicate clear deadlines and encourage team members to make status updates for everyone to see.

Now is also the time to over communicate. Since remote workers are often isolated, it’s easy to miss out on the developments that led to a particular decision. As managers, explain the reasons behind assignments to team members. This will help to prevent individuals from feeling siloed about a project or bitter about having to do a specific task.

2. Find and Stick to Routines

One of the primary appeals of remote working is the freedom and autonomy it gives employees. As such, some employers may be concerned that remote workers are not as productive as they are onsite.

Scheduling and consistency are key to ensuring that employees remain on track. Create a routine by fixing regular meeting times and status updates. For managers, a morning status is always a helpful idea, as it helps to keep track of progress and provides the flexibility to reprioritise certain tasks.

3. Always Assume Good Intentions

For virtual teams, one of the most commonly faced issues is misunderstandings among team members. Often, email and chat are not the best at reflecting tone and body language. Thus, messages can sometimes be perceived as overly harsh or curt. This mishap can be magnified on remote teams, where email and chat are often the primary modes of communication.

To avoid this, try assuming good intentions and positivity on all messages, unless indicated otherwise. This mindset will save time, mental energy, and frees everyone up from constantly trying to use emojis and exclamation points to soften the tone.

4. The Power of Video Conferencing

Video meetings are essential. Beyond being able to communicate body language and tone more effectively, a video conference forces attendees to show up, be present, and pay attention. Having that face-to-face interaction not only adds a personal touch, but also boosts morale and helps to maintain team cohesion among remote workers.

Where possible, encourage all team members to communicate via video conferencing. If you find yourself going back and forth with someone on email or chat, a quick video chat can quickly iron out any misunderstandings before tensions get too high.

5. Create Agendas for Every Meeting

While this tip should apply to any meeting, it is especially important for virtual teams. Without a proper agenda, teams can get stuck on long conference calls that meander off-topic or end a meeting before discussing critical issues.

Stay focused by creating a detailed agenda, which lists all points for discussion. Should you find the meeting heading off-track, use the agenda to steer the conversation back. It is also best practice to send meeting recaps afterwards, documenting the next steps, deadlines and assigned ownership.

Look for collaboration tools that can help to streamline this process and keep teams on track. There are tools available now that allow teams to create an agenda on a shared document and update it simultaneously. Individuals can add comments and even create a poll to collect the information needed. These features encourage collaboration between members, which is crucial when you are working with different teams.

6. Prioritise Time for One-on-One Feedback

When working remotely, it’s easy to get caught up in our individual tasks and forget about what others may be doing. Moreover, feedback on performance and work processes are often few and far between unless managers make it a priority. Schedule one-on-one reviews at a regular cadence to ensure everyone is getting proper feedback on their performance. These check-ins can be invaluable in understanding how an employee is coping with the current arrangement and find out how you can make this transition easier.

7. Implement Proper Handover Processes

For small and medium businesses, every employee counts. It is imperative for all SMEs to implement proper handover processes for when a colleague goes on leave. This ensures that all tasks are covered, and business operations remain uninterrupted.

Planning a handover process only requires three simple steps. Firstly, set up a procedure that delegates existing projects or decides which ones can be temporarily paused. Secondly, schedule a quick call between the two parties to ensure the new owner understands what needs to be done. Thirdly, set up an automated notification to let your team and other business partners know that you’re away from work.

Transitioning from the office to working from home can be challenging, especially for teams with limited resources and experience. However, the right digital collaboration tools and effective team management can help to re-establish full function to your organisation as smoothly as possible. As SMEs, employees are our most important resource. Thus, it is key for managers to adapt and learn to manage teams virtually.

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