It may have seemed like the perfect solution, this whole work-from-home concept. In fact, as recently as May 2021, 40% of workers said they would quit if forced to return to the office. But the management of virtual teams is far from easy. From Zoom technology to psychological well-being to company culture, there are hurdles to managing people from a distance. 

Currently, companies are deciding whether to transition back to the office or keep all or part of their remote operations. Most appear to favor a hybrid model. Gartner expects that in 2021 51% of all U.S. employees will work from home at least one day a week with 53% remote in 2022. 

What’s the best way, then, to quickly put a functional and productive structure around managing virtual teams? If you plan to make remote work part of your operating model, you need a head of remote work. Here’s why.

Remote Work Challenges

Despite the well-publicized headlines that many employees don’t want to head back to the office, the statistics don’t tell the whole story. Over half of home workers report feeling burned out. The percentage is even higher among 31- to 40-year-olds. Some 61% say they are struggling outside of the formal office. 

For employees, the perfect solution may have become the perfect storm. Whether perception or reality, 56% believe they have to respond immediately to phone calls or text messages. Of course, it doesn’t help that they’re tethered 24/7 to the mini computer, aka cellphone, in their pocket. 

Second, the perceived need to be “always on” makes workers feel mistrusted and watched, especially when the boss’s email pops up when they take a much-needed break. Also, pre-pandemic, some employees wholeheartedly bought into the concept of face time — that unspoken, culturally ingrained rule around the amount of time employees should spend in the office. They’ve taken that attitude off-campus.

Third, when employees are working from home, they may find themselves torn between job and family responsibilities. As the boundaries blur, anxiety and emotional exhaustion can grow, exacerbated by the lack of the safety net of work colleagues that once surrounded them. Employees need management support more than ever, yet the perception is that management is distrusting of them. 

Managers struggle as well. They didn’t offer a virtual team management course in B-school. Many are uncertain how to deal with employees they can’t see. This uncertainty seems to suggest a conflation of monitoring and management. Some 40% lack confidence in their ability to handle a remote workforce. Not surprisingly, these managers have a negative attitude about remote work, in general, and report little faith in their workers. 

Understanding How To Manage Virtual Teams

Even with all the challenges, productivity yields a surprise. The people-centric opinion was that employees would underperform when they had a toddler hanging from their leg, an elderly parent in the guest room, a leaky toilet and other home distractions. The more cynical view was that unless employees were watched, cajoled and instructed, they couldn’t possibly get anything done. 

Productivity did not suffer, however. It went up by 3.8% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the real question is: How does this translate into actual business results, a more engaged virtual workforce and higher profitability? It’s not just a matter of productivity. There is so much to understand and the answers are complex and still emerging.

During the pandemic, many managers didn’t have a clue when it came to managing remotely, particularly if they previously relied on line-of-sight to get the job done. Of course, it’s doubtful that this technique was particularly effective even when employees were right under their noses. For certain, it’s not an effective technique now. 

Organizations continue to struggle to manage virtual teams so that their processes work, employees feel connected and customers remain happy. But as the situation settles, companies have an opportunity to reimagine how work from home ought to look.

Who’s Your Remote Work Champion?

In many organizations, there is no one person accountable for the remote workforce, even as the movement gains steam. It will be a critical role, however. As mentioned, over half of all companies will have a remote workforce in the near future. Companies that have assigned a head of remote work realize that this operating construct requires a fundamentally different approach. 

Companies such as Facebook, Quora and GitLab are adding the role, signaling intentionality from the front line to the boardroom to ensure that they capture the benefits of remote operations. It’s a critical opportunity, as well, to rethink the way work gets done and to address incumbent issues of employee burnout and work-life balance. 

For virtual teams to be high-functioning, they need support. In addition to managerial trust and a high degree of job autonomy, this includes an executive leader charged with:

  • Representing the needs of the remote workforce, i.e., in the executive boardroom, in policy decisions, in hiring strategies, etc.
  • Planning infrastructure and technology that allows employees to work efficiently and effectively from home.
  • Training managers in the skills needed to lead virtual teams.
  • Providing the resources to recognize issues and support employee well-being.
  • Understanding how to support the culture.
  • Rallying C-suite commitment and the modeling of healthy work boundaries.
  • Promoting management by results, without regard to how, when and where employees get the work done. 

Remote work is here to stay. It’s uncharted territory in many respects. Companies that recognize this are already building the structure for virtual team success. Leadership focus will ensure that the virtual workforce is equipped, engaged and productive. Hiring a head of remote work will help position your company for future prosperity.

Ready to find your company’s next leader? Y Scouts can help you hire on purpose. Reach out today to start the conversation.