The following is a Q&A with Ben Bisbee and Kathy Wisniewski, the authors of The Unashamed Guide to Virtual Management, an ATD book about how to address the unanswered and critical questions that arise when managing virtual teams.
What, from your own virtual management experiences, prompted you to write this book?
Ben: We were experiencing a variety of daily challenges and frustrations in our own virtual management efforts. We both started in the virtual management landscape in 2009 and were shocked by how little information you could find when it came to typical daily management issues and how they should be or could be best experienced in the virtual workplace. At one point, I was asked to provide employee engagement and team building opportunities for more than 80 virtual employees to help repair morale and build community. With no funding and just a few weeks’ notice, this felt like an impossible task. Another time, Kathy was trying to figure out how to build a strong new virtual volunteer orientation model that didn’t rely solely on written web documents or phone conversations. We weren’t even that deeply interested in innovation; we were just craving some best practices to do our jobs in that moment and could not find resources on Google or Amazon.
Kathy: The tools and resources addressing real daily issues did not exist. Discussions were focused on the possibility and costs of virtual workplaces and on how to move offices online. There wasn’t a community of virtual managers talking about daily, classic experiences and solutions. Best practices did not exist—nothing anyone could point to, anyway. And, so we started developing ideas and found them to be successful. We knew we needed to share them with others who found themselves in the same position.
Where is virtual employment in 2019?
Ben: Virtual employment is one of the fastest-growing professional areas in just about every white-collar industry. We needed to move past the idea of virtual management being novel. It’s 2019. People need real tools about real topics to help them be the best they can be as managers behind a computer, leading one or more people to success.
What were some of the challenges you were facing as you started to manage virtually, and how did those struggles lead you to write this book?
Kathy: When we began managing virtually, we did not realize that communicating virtually could be such a challenge. We assumed that email and telephone would be fine mediums for communicating with remote employees. We quickly discovered that email has limits and shortfalls. It is a terrible medium to talk one-on-one about heavy issues. And there were better mediums than the phone as well. We realized we had to get comfortable with new technology— namely, the medium of virtual video for complex or difficult meetings. In fact, video meetings are essential because these meetings need a “human touch,” requiring some eye contact and face-to-face interaction.
Ben: Knowing how to leverage a variety of technologies is critical. Elements of that realization absolutely made it to the book in a wide variety of ways. We wanted to explain that tech needs to aid you, not allow you to evade important management moments.
What answers were you looking for that you could not find out there?
Ben: Most of them, honestly. It was often like trying to convert a recipe from U.S. measurements to metric measurements. We found standard day-to-day management struggles, successes, answers, and policies but nothing that helped us figure out how to convert those strategies and successes to the virtual landscape. Topics like hiring and firing may sometimes discuss about virtual models, but they often would start with suggestions like, “If you can fly them out to your offices, we recommend you do . . .” And in many cases, there wasn’t some model of “headquarters” and everyone else. It was all just everyone, everywhere.
Kathy: Or when we wanted to try to learn more about topics like managing effectively across multiple time zones—not just trying to schedule an occasional or standing meeting but truly managing people across a variety of time zones with different ideas of a workday or bandwidth. There are a ton of topics and issues that are unique to the virtual workplace that were literally impossible to find information on. For example, how to tackle online happy hours; how to handle digital awkwardness in text, print, or on camera; how to handle random power outages; what to do when you know someone is taking a meeting from the bathroom. These were issues related to personal, cultural norms or issues for which we did not find anything to support our daily needs.
What seems to be the hardest issue to address with virtual employees or the greatest challenge in managing virtually?
Kathy: This is less of a universal thing and wildly varied based on the employees or manager at the center of it. For more introverted virtual folks, the hardest issue may be teambuilding or work parties. For the extroverts, their challenging issue may be building the landscape for equitable meetings where it’s not just the same three people talking over each other on a conference call. For managers, perhaps the challenge is getting comfortable on camera or having to fire someone thousands of miles away.
Ben: In many ways, the hardest issue is knowing how to leverage the technology or tech-driven process based on whatever is already feeling burdensome as a manager or for the employee at hand. It’s about gaining a virtual management intuition as much as it’s about knowing the rules or most effective process. That takes time and experience. Even if you grew up as a digital native, there are still the skills and experiences necessary to blend classic management effort to the virtual workplace.
How do diversity and inclusion factor into virtual management?
Ben: Diversity and inclusion factors into virtual management powerfully and dynamically if done correctly. In the virtual workplace, talent isn’t held to a specific geography, worldview, background, or ethnicity. On the one hand, the virtual workplace can quickly level the playing field when it comes to new, diverse, inclusive hires. On the other hand, it can also “wire-wash” the idea of diversity and inclusion, which means we almost disvalue (or devalue) the need for diversity and inclusion because we start to look for only individuals with the privileges, background, and experiences of virtual employment—an area that is still highly white and middle class given its requirements for modern technology and environmental temperament.
Kathy: The note here for virtual managers is that smart, equitable technologies afford a wealth of advantages to help level the playing field for employees of all backgrounds, types, and experiences. They can create a way to address issues such as workplace inclusion and diversity with a fresh set of tools and approaches.
What is something that every virtual manager must adjust to or do to be successful?
Kathy: To be a successful virtual manager, you do have to be tech savvy. This doesn’t mean you need to be the tech expert; it just means you need to be comfortable enough for both advancements and daily tech struggles.
Ben: Your virtual staff will come to you often with questions or problems—like they would for any workplace issue—and your technology knowledge and comfort will give you a stronger sense of virtual workplace empathy when things are broken or confusing.
Is there something within virtual management that we will never get right? If so, what is it and why is it problematic or elusive?
Ben: This is all in the eye of the beholder. Do you love the smell of someone else’s burnt popcorn on the breakroom? Do you miss being able to walk down to an employee’s cubicle to talk quickly one-on-one about something pressing? Do you miss having to physically gather everyone into one room for a meeting? In many ways, just about every management and workplace experience can be virtually replicated successfully.
Kathy: Virtual management will not be experienced or felt the same way by every person. For some, that will be refreshing, maybe even the new normal. And for others, they may be forlorn or frustrated by this new reality. It just depends on their expectations. On the other hand, virtual employment may not be for everyone. And that’s OK.
Does it cost more (or less) to manage virtually?
Ben: No matter how you lay it out, running a virtual office is far less expensive than running a stationary office. In virtual management, there are no expenses for leasing or buying office space, building supplies, utilities, or office and breakroom equipment. There is no need for security staff, cleaning, or administrative or office management.
Kathy: There is the cost of the technology itself and upgrades when necessary, but those costs are still likely going to be present in a stationary workplace. The overall costs for virtual offices are far less than the costs of a stationary work environment.
What about the future? Will managing virtually get easier? Or, with more of our workforce working remotely, will there be even greater challenges?
Ben: We believe that managing virtually will get far easier. There are innovative, cool, wild technologies coming out to help us work better together no matter where we are in the world. With stronger, hands-on collaboration tools, in-real-time language translation tools, the daily advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR), this is an exciting time to be in virtual management.
Kathy: It’s already fairly easy for a good manager to be a great virtual manager with the right instincts and efforts, even with slightly outdated and limited technology. It’s about blending classic management skills to match existing technologies to make virtual management successful. As more and more digital natives join the workforce, working and managing remotely will become the norm and become second nature.
The Unashamed Guide to Virtual Management
ISBN: 978-1-949036-55-8 | 248 pages | Paperback
To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.
To schedule an interview with Ben Bisbee or Kathy Wisniewski about their book, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at [email protected].