In 2017, around 8 million people in the U.S. worked from home full-time, with even more working in the field and not a home office. So, in 2020, managing virtual teams isn’t a new concept.

Organizations that suddenly find themselves thrust into work-from-home and remote team environments during the COVID-19 outbreak can turn to the experience of others to learn how to overcome the unique challenges of virtual team management. Discover nine tips for more productive management of remote teams below.

1. Don’t Force the Workplace on the Work-From-Home Place

Leadership and staff must first come to terms with the fact that this is a big change. While it’s important to maintain as much normal functionality as possible during such times, you also can’t be blind to the reality. What worked well in the office may not work for people in their homes, and some creative problem solving is going to need to happen.

Supervisors and other leaders can reduce some of the friction in this process by:

  • Being open to new ideas or workflows
  • Understanding that people may have to work different hours or in fits and starts
  • Remaining available to mentor staff through these processes and provide compassionate support as they figure out how to work from home effectively

2. Use Numerous Methods of Communication

In a workplace setting, you’re able to control more things. You know that everyone has a stable internet connection and computers with specific functionalities. You control the quality of the phones, the web-conferencing tools, and whether someone has a quiet place to dial in from.

You have less control over these things in a virtual environment. Some staffers might be struggling with slow or unreliable internet connections; others may have six kids schooling from home and no extra room for a private office space. Face-to-face video conferencing may not be an option for everyone at all times. Offer multiple ways for people to get in touch with leadership or other critical team members, such as chat apps, phone, and email.

3. Ensure Everyone Is on the Same Page

Communication options are important, but make sure you have one repository for messages and directives that’s accessible by everyone. Slack is a good example of a tool that helps keep everyone connected on the same channel and ensures everyone has access to information. However, if you use the free version of this app, messages eventually archive, so you’ll also want another location where you can drop important posts and documents for reference by staff in the future.

4. Create Measurable Work Goals and Milestones for the New Situation

Take some time to re-evaluate how you measure employee production goals or milestones. For example, if you normally require that someone complete 10 tasks per hour during an 8-hour shift, consider simply requiring that they complete 80 tasks within each 24-hour period.

Many people want to succeed and continue to meet goals, even during crises or changes. But if those goals are seemingly impossible — someone working at home with kids may find it difficult to string an 8-hour shift together — they can give up altogether.

For teams that are working on more complex projects and not task-based workflows, project management software solutions can help you keep tasks and milestones organized. In these cases, instead of worrying about what everyone gets done each day, you may be more concerned that each person is meeting overall task deadlines.

5. Empower People to Make Decisions

With everyone working in a different location, staff may not be able to reach out to each other for quick answers like they do in an office setting. Empower employees to make decisions — especially minor, task-based ones — for greater efficiencies.

Create easy-to-reference decision trees or other documents people can turn to for help in making these decisions and place those documents on a portal or within a virtual team management software program.

6. Use Scheduling Software to Cover Customer-Facing Tasks

If your work-from-home teams are handling customer-facing tasks, such as taking phone calls, you might need to require they do work a specific shift. But virtual work, especially in a time of an emergency such as the coronavirus pandemic, still requires a bit of flexibility.

Consider using scheduling software that lets people request certain work times or input best times for their homes. Smart scheduling software can help you build complex coverage, even if that means certain people are covering workflows in one- or two-hour stints throughout each day. A good scheduling program lets you create that flexibility while ensuring phones, chatlines, or other workflows are always covered.

7. Rely on Automated Systems to Load Balance

Similarly, make sure you’re relying on automated systems to balance call and work queues. When you and your team all work in the same physical location, it’s much easier to keep an eye on who has plenty to do, who’s overwhelmed, and who might need more work on their plate. In addition to any digital tools you have in your workplace, you also have visual cues and the ability to manage by wandering around (MBWA) to check in face-to-face with everyone.

In a remote team environment, your MBWA capability isn’t just diminished. It’s zeroed out. Yes, you can check in face-to-face on Zoom, but that requires coordination and puts a stop to the workflow, which MBWA does not do.

Automatic tools that ensure workflows are well-balanced and alert you if someone seems to be struggling with their tasks. This allows you to enter the narrative at the right time and avoid interrupting people who are holding their own just fine.

8. Choose Remote Management Tools That Work on Mobile

If you’re shopping CRM solutions, project management tools, or scheduling tools to help you manage virtual teams in the weeks of COVID-19 Quarantine, make sure you opt for tools that work on mobile devices. You might not expect your teams to do all their work on a tablet or smartphone, but it provides a secondary option for communication and looking up information, which can be invaluable.

Consider this scenario: An employee working from home has a customer on the line and is using CRM software on their computer. They have a question or need to look up a secondary piece of information to complete the task. If they can look that information up on their smartphone or ask a Slack question on their tablet, it can make their job much more efficient.

9. Spend Time on Employee Morale Activities

Finally, don’t let your employee morale activities languish just because people aren’t in the office right now. Because people are spread out and dealing with serious issues and the unknown, this is the time that your morale activities might be most important.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money or go crazy to help keep your team positive. Here are a few small actions you might try:

  • Create a channel on your team chat software for positive stories and invite employees to share what they smiled at each day.
  • Ask a daily question not related to work to keep employees engaged. During the time of COVID-19, questions might include: “Who got lucky and found TP today?” or “What show are you binging right now?”
  • Consider instituting a recognition program for employees who are going above and beyond with positivity and kindness. You might choose one person and highlight their positive contributions each week and perhaps reward them with a small gift card.

Ultimately, team success during the coronavirus pandemic comes down to a few critical factors: keeping communication lines open, learning to be flexible, and staying as positive as possible. Investing in tools to help you do those things can make a big difference for your business and employees.