Remote Doesn’t Mean Removed—Lead a Successful Virtual Team


Living in the shadow of COVID-19 can feel like being stuck in a bad science fiction movie, but there are positives to be found in this challenging situation. Many of us will have the opportunity to be our best personal and professional selves. If you are heading a remote team, you can be a leader who helps your group to find stability and motivation despite the uncertainty and fear that is as easy to catch as the virus.

The association community is a latecomer to the remote workplace. Until two weeks ago many organizations were still reluctant to integrate regular work from home policies into their business practices. In contrast, the majority of the for-profit leaders we interviewed for our new book Association 4.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation have been managing, either partially or fully, remote operations for some time. They had plenty of practical advice about how to successfully lead a virtual team. Following are recommendations garnered from their deep experience in the digital office space along with tips from .orgSource for making remote work positive and productive and keeping your team on track.

Provide Structure

We are venturing into uncharted territory. No one knows how the next weeks and months will unfold. Don’t let anxiety about work contribute to your team’s stress level. Quickly establish guidelines and a process for how you will conduct business. As much as possible, involve the group in creating your policies. Arianna Rehak (Chapter 6), CEO Matchbox Virtual Media, a business built on the strength of community, is passionate about using co-creation to inspire excitement. She explains it like this:

Arianna Rehak

“Enthusiasm dies when people are not able to get the right buy-in. There can be many reasons why this happens. . . It’s a nice challenge to figure out how to discuss change in a way that includes the goals of the person you are trying to influence.”

To avoid misunderstandings, document expectations. If some staffers need to be available during specific hours and in specific ways make those requirements clear. Schedule regular times for group meetings and for check-ins with individual employees. Show empathy by being flexible and making accommodations for anyone dealing with special circumstances, such as children home from school.

Set boundaries between work and leisure time to ensure that staffers don’t experience burnout or accumulate unnecessary overtime hours.

If you don’t already have project management software, now would be a good time to make that investment. There are many user-friendly options.

Lead From Trust

David Caruso

No, you can’t be certain that employees aren’t browsing social media or watching TV when they should be working. But if you’ve hired the right people and created a healthy culture, it’s far more likely that your team will want to do their best to keep the organization’s goals moving forward. Now is the time to trust your judgement and theirs. Listen to this wisdom from David Caruso (Chapter 13) whose company HighRoad Solution has been virtual since inception:

“Our employees live in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Chicago, D.C. and other locations. It wasn’t our plan to be virtual, but initially, we were a bootstrap business with zero revenues which meant that our employees had to work from home. Today, we are able to hire the best people for the job, no matter where they live, and technology allows us to bring them together seamlessly. When you have the right team, you don’t worry about distractions. I know that our employees don’t need an office or a manager looking over their shoulders to be productive.”

Be the Great Communicator

If silos are a problem in your physical workspace, they may become even more challenging in the virtual office. This is an opportunity to improve practices for information sharing and collaboration in your organization. Set the example by keeping the rest of the association updated on your team’s progress. Circulate a weekly list of significant accomplishments and activities. That will also help you track your team’s progress. Ask how you can support other departments.

The strengths and challenges that your staff have in the office may be magnified in a virtual setting. To avoid stress, adjust your approach to help each individual maximize their talents. Don’t ignore an employee who is struggling with an assignment. Emphasize your willingness to provide additional attention quickly to those in need. Taking the extra time to offer this guidance will result in better performance for the entire team.

If your leadership style is more professional than personal, recalibrate that balance. Get to know your team as people. Make time to ask about their interests and activities outside of work. Have the group share how social distancing is impacting their friends and families. What you offer in understanding and appreciation will be returned with commitment and trust.

Let Go of the Reigns

If you are a micromanager, this is an opportunity to end a bad habit. Dan Stevens (Chapter 17), was surprised how quickly his team stepped up to the plate when he gave them the chance. Stevens recalls:

Dan Stevens

“When I was extremely involved in volunteering for my association, I was on the phone constantly or traveling. Staff members would come to ask me a question, and I could see how disappointed they were that I wasn’t available. I told them that if they could stand behind their decision, so could I.  After a while, they became comfortable working more independently. We grew 30 percent during that period. . .Now I am more of a cheerleader and a coach, making sure that my staff has the resources and the clarity of our vision to succeed.”

Applaud Accomplishments, Share Laughs, Spread Humor

One of the biggest challenges in working remotely is keeping creativity flowing and preserving your culture. It’s more important than ever to recognize accomplishments. Dispense kudos generously; they cost nothing. Laughter is a bonding experience. Carve out time in meetings to socialize. Here’s how David Caruso creates the virtual breakroom:

“Some employees miss the social aspects of the workplace. We’ve tried to compensate for the lack of coffee machine/breakroom conversations in several ways. We schedule daily conference calls around a number of activities. A monthly mystery lunch is one of our most popular events. Door Dash delivers a surprise meal to the entire team, and we all sit down and eat together. I thought it was silly at first, but everyone likes it. Events like that help keep people engaged and enthusiastic.”

As your team becomes accustomed to virtual work, you’ll learn where you can be most effective remotely and what you can only do face-to-face. So when it’s time to go back to the office you’ll be returning to a new and improved normal.

Find more resources for managing through COVID-19 here. Contact .orgSource directly if you have questions or would like to discuss your specific situation. We are prepared to support you with strategy solutions, vendor selection, management, communications, project management and digital transformation.

Learn more from Arianna, David and Dan in our new book Association 4.0: An entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation.



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