Companies & Industries

Managing Virtually: First, Get Dressed


An Ernst & Young executive who has been managing teams virtually for a decade shares her tips and caveats

I have virtually managed a range of teams at Ernst & Young for more than 10 years, and am often asked for advice on how to do it. One of the first things I respond with is: "I don't work in my pajamas. And neither should you." While I often work from home and don't necessarily put on my power suit, I do get dressed to manage. It helps me to focus. When working from home, it's also important to find a place that is conducive to being productive. In my case it's the kitchen table. It's large, is located near the best light in the house and allows easy set-up for my computer and supplies (which I keep in a small bin). Over the years, I've also come to some other conclusions on how to stay effective when managing from a distance.

Technology matters. The ever-increasing range of technology options now includes audio conferencing, simulcasts, webcasts, and instant messaging. Understand the latest innovations in technology and make an effort to incorporate them into your work life. Simply having access to e-mail and the company Intranet isn't enough. Think about setting up a community homespace featuring pictures and profiles of team members, a discussion board, a team calendar, or a chat room. That will help team members connect with each other outside of meetings and create a closer bond as a group.

I am often asked if women are better virtual managers because the general stereotype is that women have stronger skills when it comes to listening and building consensus. There's some truth to that. I've noticed that many men find virtual managing challenging at first. Virtual managers need to work on their listening skills. That's important for any manager, but it's especially critical when you can't see the people you're managing. With the right attitude and support, anyone can learn to adapt.

Listen to Silences, Too

You need to listen carefully to every team member when you're on a call. You don't have the benefit of face-to-face interactions (although video-conferencing can help). I focus on a speaker's speed. Is the person excited? Bored? Is the choice of words overly careful? Is there a quality in the speaker's voice that would make a private conversation advisable? It's important to listen to everything, particularly any silences.

Know who's on the call—and make sure that you hear from everyone. A successful virtual meeting is one in which everyone participates. I encourage involvement with open-ended questions and often ask a team member to restate our conclusions or recap a particular section before proceeding. Silence can mean consent, or it can mean the person you're not hearing from disagrees with the team's strategy or is disengaged. You need to hear from everyone to make sure the team is moving forward together. If I sense that a team member is lacking engagement—not responding, not participating, or missing deadlines—I call as soon as possible after the meeting to find out what's going on.

Distribute handouts ahead of time. With a virtual meeting, you don't have the luxury of bringing handouts with you. You want everyone to be looking at the same material at the same time. And you don't want a last-minute scramble to get the material to those who aren't physically with you. Also, be sure to follow up. I always send an e-mail after each meeting to document and confirm discussions, conclusions, and next steps.

Managing a global team brings another set of challenges. You have to be sensitive to language differences, business protocols, and time zones. When managing a team that serves a multi-country client, or one in which many of the team members speak English as a second language, it's vital to determine that everyone understands what has been said. "I heard you say…" is something I often say when I have a sense that a point may need clarification.

accommodate time zones

Be sensitive to the cultural differences on your team as well. For example, naming conventions are different in many countries. When I talk with team members in Japan, I am conscious of adding either "san" or "sama" (depending on gender) to their last names as a term of friendship. Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries is a book I have found invaluable. And a virtual manager also shows respect by making sure the burden of holding international conference calls is shared. Scheduling regular calls at convenient times for everyone may not be possible. In this case, I shift the start time so that people take turns participating in the calls during their early morning or late evening. Don't simply assume that everyone should adapt to your time zone.

Plan for technical glitches. Each team member should have a contact name and number in case of technical difficulty, and there should also be a plan if one or more locations have technical challenges.

"Virtual" should also not mean you never meet. With international teams, I visit each country's team once a year. With Ernst & Young's Americas Inclusiveness team, which has members located across the country, we all get together annually.

Managing virtually offers many benefits. It's easy to accommodate differing schedules, schedule meetings on short notice, reduce travel expenses, be more ecologically friendly, and decrease unproductive travel time. It also allows for the creation of more diverse teams that bring together broader experience and knowledge. But the most important thing for managers to remember is that the success of any team, virtual or not, depends on the people. Technology can bring you together, but it's the manager who must make sure the relationships stay vital, each team member is valued, and productivity is high.

Billie Williamson is a partner and Americas Inclusiveness Officer at Ernst Young LLP.

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