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June 2018
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Virtual Proximity
TD Magazine

Virtual Proximity

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Virtual Proximity

Good managers don't let distance interfere with forming a connected virtual team.

While often touted as a daydream scenario for those uncomfortably tethered to a cubicle or office park, virtual or work-at-home employment no longer is an unrealistic or far-away opportunity. GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com reports that since 2005, full-time, nonself-employed work-at-home employment has grown by 115 percent, or nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce in full. In fact, 3.7 million employees now work from home at least half the time

Those statistics speak to a reality where it's clear it's time to start fully supporting the human capital working to thrive in a virtual environment.

This new generation of managers no longer are simply defined by their age or ladder-climbing. They are rising through the ranks because of their comfort with balancing the management of technology and the human experience and doing so remotely. Decades in the making, these are diverse individuals with assorted backgrounds and experiences, expressing and exercising their management oversight at the literal tips of their fingers and on video screens and conference lines.

However, there are real differences to understanding and managing between the world of proximity-based management and virtual management. Dropping by a doorway for a question, chatting around the watercooler with teammates, or taking a break from your desk to celebrate a co-worker's birthday around a budget-approved cake become things of the past.

Or do they?

The basics

We believe one thing will never change no matter who you manage or where you manage from: classic management skills.

Accountability, communication, collaboration, team building, change management, and conflict resolution are just a handful of the classic management skills that become the backbone of any successful manager in any industry, anywhere. And that's important to understand because, at the end of the day, technology cannot save a bad manager.

New software doesn't make you more accountable if you're already struggling with managing your team. Delivering difficult news or performance reviews isn't more effective when done via email. And if that is what you believe, you're not only using technology poorly, but you're also not exhibiting the qualities of an effective manager.

But how does a manager truly thrive in a virtual environment? What makes for a flourishing, successful, well-balanced, and well-organized virtual manager? It requires four elements.

Recognize that workplace norms and policies are not confined to four walls

When considering the workplace norms that must to be established in a virtual setting, start by thinking through a typical workplace environment. What are the norms or standards you have experienced in the past that you would like to pull forward into a virtual environment? If you think something cannot be accomplished with a virtual team, think again. Determine how those things can be modified to work in the virtual realm. Think outside the box and try not to be stifled by your experience in how things "typically" work.

Moving beyond culture and human norms, this now also becomes a topic focused on policies and procedures. What is your policy on workplace romance, for example, or how to request time off? How can proximity-based policies translate to the virtual world? You need to figure these out.

A thriving manager in a virtual world knows how to distinguish people from technology and process while also seeing their intersections for what they are: integrated and essential to a virtual workplace.

Embrace the humanity of management, virtually

Virtual managers recognize that people are just as real virtually as they are in a traditional office setting and that creating employee engagement and workplace culture means finding opportunities to make room for life and workplace norms. They know that events such as birthdays and a new baby are still reasons for celebration, but in the virtual world, they cannot easily be accomplished by cutting a large cake in the break room.

Virtual managers manage processes and people. And people, while technologically supported, execute those processes. Real people. And real people get sick, get married, lose loved ones, take vacations, and live real lives at their desks and away from their screens, phones, and headsets.

For a birthday or baby shower, consider sending everyone on your virtual team a gift card to a local donut or cupcake shop. Encourage them to pick something up for themselves, then select a time to gather around a videoconference call to sing happy birthday or wish congratulations. The possibilities are truly endless, and a little bit of creative thinking can help you establish a virtual culture that uplifts and inspires your entire team. Good virtual managers don't pretend that these milestones don't exist simply because their employees work from home.

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Always consider the humanity of your virtual employees and draw from your experiences as a proximity manager to make your virtual team work. Think creatively about your employees and figure out the ways to make them feel connected and appreciated even though the forum is now virtual. Think about how you like to be treated in a work environment and always keep that at the forefront of your mind. Yet, at the same time, remain flexible.

Understand that change management is virtual management

It's not often that the lights go out in an office park. And when they do, it's unlikely there is a plan of action for how a manager determines the next steps for employees and the day's work. But we bet your company has a plan for snow days, regional holidays, or special events. In a virtual world, there are any number of potential weather-related, geographic, and technological unknowns, notwithstanding the ever-changing culture of advancing technology.

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What are expectations when a regional nor'easter knocks out the power of one or more of your virtual employees? As a manager, do you have a plan for when a technology you're using is upgraded or stops working for some reason?

Virtual managers must know that change is part of the larger package. You should not only anticipate and prepare for it; you should welcome it, forecasting and strategizing within the knowns and unknowns. Thriving managers in a virtual world never see this as "other duties as assigned" but instead embrace this reality as part of their implicit professional responsibilities and mission. They view unexpected changes as exciting opportunities and harness that energy to build a stronger team and move it forward.

You may often think it's the manufacturer's job to handle upgrades or that it's up to the individual employee if she wants to take time off after losing Internet at home. Maybe that's true. But is it written down anywhere? And what happens when a tech supplier's tutorials fail your team? Have you smartly looked ahead at likely possibilities and outlined the expectations for when these things happen? At the very least, provide your staff with a written policy or understanding of whom to call or how to best communicate when these situations arise.

When you understand that all management is change management, you're prepared to work and manage powerfully in a virtual world. You don't need to anticipate every possible scenario, but you should know how and where to seek answers and at least account for the fact that the unexpected will happen. This truth should be reflected in your organizational policies and procedures.

Know how to effectively use the typical workplace management technologies

Good virtual managers learn how to manage beyond the workplace or the technology at their disposal. They work with humans facing human needs, leveraging the right technology for the job.

Seven basic types of technologies typically available to virtual teams are:

  • instant messaging
  • phone
  • email
  • videoconferencing
  • shared document systems
  • productivity or communication management platforms
  • server networks or intranets.

Email or phone? Videoconferencing or intranet? Do the particulars matter? Yes. But don't get caught up in the brand name of it all. Thriving managers in a virtual world know how to make the best out of any technology they're given—and, just as importantly, know how to choose the right tool for each job. Again, technology—even in the best hands—won't save you; it cannot save a manager from poor management.

Let's look at team building. As a manager, trying to use your phone to manage a team-building process is ineffective, and it's borderline team breaking. So, what technology works better for team building? Videoconferencing is a great technology to use virtually. It enables you to see the team and vice versa, and it also enables participants to feel like a team, with everyone's face on the screen, creating true reactions and interactions and allowing everyone to truly be present.

How about project collaboration? A shared document system, productivity program, or communication management platform may be the best option here so those who are collaborating can all work on the same topic or document at the same time or when available. This method also offers opportunities for real-time contributions and editing, suggestions, and leaving notes and comments within the document.

The real trick is understanding that not one of the seven classic types of workplace management technologies is inherently better than another, and none should be used for every kind of management need. That means you can't use email for everything, nor should you. And, yes, you and your team will need to become comfortable with videoconferencing for a variety of virtual office needs.

The right technology for the job matters, and it's essential.

Integral skills

When it comes to the art of effective virtual management, your ability to develop and command an effective environment of virtual workplace norms, humanity, change management, and effective workplace technology is integral to your success. The world is dramatically changing every day—and that always includes, and is often led by, technology advancing at lightning speed. In today's climate, virtual management isn't only an important skill to know but one to champion. With a few modifications to classic skills, policies, and norms, it is completely possible.

Perhaps one day we will be able to quickly teleport from Earth to Mars in seconds, offering employees an intergalactic gathering space, once again bringing us all together in proximity of each other. But in the meantime, virtual employment and, therefore, virtual management aren't going away anytime soon; they're only going to continue to grow. And so should you, your skills, and your methods.


About the Author
A multisector professional with more than 18 years of experience, Ben Bisbee has helped some of the largest nonprofits and corporations design effective partnership and engagement programing to strengthen enterprises and generate new and increased revenue and engagement. As the principal and founder of Rhinocorn Consulting, Ben is passionate about helping to make companies and organizations stronger, smarter, faster, and more sustainable within their corporate social responsibility and partnership development. Ben has worked for and with many nonprofits, including the American Red Cross, First Book, City Year, AmeriCorps, and the National Football Hall. In addition, he has led CSR and industry leadership design for innovators and corporations, including Realized Worth, Target, Disney, Walmart, AT&T, Residence Inn, and the United Nations.  
About the Author
Kathy Wisniewski is the administrative services officer for the Histiocytosis Association and the Histiocyte Society based in Pitman, New Jersey.
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