Going the Distance: How to hire and manage a virtual team

Worker connecting with his virtual team

Technological advances and increasing globalization have redefined when, how, and where we work. And for many Canadian workers, an increased focus on work-life balance has proven to be an ever-evolving part of that trend.

Workers increasingly seek employers that promote their wellbeing both in and out of the office. A decade ago, things like flexible schedules and telecommuting weren’t nearly as prevalent, but in recent years, start-ups and tech companies have led the charge in providing these types of benefits.

In fact, for many companies, offering these perks has become a major strategy for attracting, recruiting, and retaining talented workers. A recent Robert Half Technology survey of Canadian CIOs shows remote work as one of the benefits that IT employees desire most, while 34 per cent of the HR managers surveyed for the 2018 Technology and IT Salary Guide say their company offers telecommuting options.

For employees, the opportunity to forgo long commutes and spend less money on travel can have a major influence on in their decision to work for, or remain at, a company. For businesses, a virtual workforce can mean a larger talent pool, happier employees, and significant savings on overhead costs.

Despite the win-win, managing telecommuters comes with its own set of unique challenges, and companies need to have a plan in place for how to best support remote teams.

How to evaluate potential remote workers

Accommodating a remote team starts with who you bring on board in the first place. Telecommuting may be a mutually beneficial arrangement for employers and employees alike, but not everyone is cut out for it. When sifting through applications and interviewing job candidates, pay particular attention to their capacity for:

  • Self-motivation and self-management
  • Proactive communication strategies
  • An independent work style
  • Focus and discipline
  • Time management

To assess whether a candidate would be suitable for virtual work, ask them to describe a time they’ve handled a project remotely and how they resolved communication and collaboration challenges. You could also pose a question like, “What strategies do you use to stay on task?”

Don’t forgo reference checks. Asking a former colleague or employer questions specific to time management, accountability, and previous remote work experience, can tell you a lot about how successful they’ll be telecommuting in the future.

Managing a virtual team

Once you’ve interviewed and hired your remote staff, how do you supervise employees in different locations, and perhaps even different time zones? What are some best practices around using technology for communication? And how do you compensate for the absence of traditional team-building activities like office parties and after-work drinks?

Here are 11 ways to help your remote workers remain productive, and still feel like they’re part of the team:

Be clear about parameters. From day one, virtual employees should have no doubt about what you expect of them. For starters, work together to determine their general office hours and what are acceptable response times for returning emails, IMs, and phone calls.

Don’t be a stranger. While you don’t want to micromanage employees, you should do a verbal check in regularly – perhaps weekly – to discuss progress and deadlines.

Use a communication platform. Choose one of the powerful collaboration tools currently in the marketplace, and encourage workers to use it often. Some of the most popular services today are Skype for Business, HipChat, Slack, and Google Hangouts.

Head to the cloud. Take advantage of file-hosting providers like Dropbox and Google Drive to easily share information, update files, and store data so its easily accessible from anywhere.

Be available. Let your team know the best ways to communicate with you, be it by email, IM, or phone – or all of the above. Adopt an open-door (or IM) policy so workers understand they can reach out to you at any time, even though you may not be able respond right away.

Promote non-work conversations. Virtual water-cooler discussions can foster positive workplace relationships and compensate for the physical distance. One strategy is to set aside time at the front end of meetings for chatting about what each team member has going on in their lives outside of work.

Publish an e-newsletter. Send out a weekly email featuring a staff member and include details such as where they live and their favourite hobbies. Give shout-outs to individuals who have gone above and beyond, or received kudos from clients.

Bring the gang together. Budget for all-team meetings, including the cost of airfare and hotel accommodations for far-flung employees. For remote workers who live in the same area, plan lunches and monthly meet-ups.

Support from afar. Give staff the resources and tools they need for wellness and work-life balance, such as reimbursing them for gym memberships or sporting equipment. And don’t underestimate the value of speedy tech support, both inside and outside of official office hours.

Pay attention to behaviour. Out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind. Be on the lookout for signs remote workers aren’t performing at their best, such as missed deadlines, lack of communication, or decreased interest in their assignments.

Be mindful of generational differences. Your remote staff won’t necessarily be a homogeneous group. For instance, many Gen Z employees seek regular feedback and value coaching, while Gen Xers may crave flexibility, dislike frequent meetings, and favour long-form email communication. As much as possible, tailor your management approach for each remote worker, just as you do for in-office personnel.

Remote office arrangements continue to shift from a nice-to-have employee perk to a vital strategy for hiring and retention. By putting these best practices into action, your company will be able to take advantage of the benefits of working with the best, no matter where they are.


Deborah Bottineau is the district director for Robert Half Technology a leading provider of technology professionals for initiatives ranging from web development and multiplatform systems integration to network security and technical support.


See also:
3 reasons why you should be offering employees flexible work arrangements
8 expert tips for managing remote workers
4 of the best project management tools for small businesses


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