The Biggest Mistakes I Made as a First-time Virtual Project Manager (and how not to repeat them!)

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By Angela Johnson

June 01 , 2020

I had been managing teams for several years now and thought I was a pretty savvy leader, always thinking about my team’s best interest while working towards the organization’s goals. Until….

I had no idea that managing a virtual team would be any different than my other teams. Who would think that managing employees who work remotely could require other skills and techniques? I certainly did NOT. I want to share with you today some of the biggest mistakes that I made as a first-time virtual project manager with the hope of enlightening others to NOT make the same blunders that I made.

Of course, my goals are still the same with my virtual team as they are with my in-house team but it is how I go about achieving these goals that is different. The primary mistake that I made was in assuming that this HOW was exactly the same!

  • I assumed that just as employees work diligently and autonomously in the office, I could rely on the remote workers to work in the same fashion. Little did I know that some people are just not cut out to work in a “virtual” environment in which efficiency is dependent on the employee’s personal attributes of discipline, self-determination, and goal-setting. I had erroneously assumed that everyone was pulling their weight whether they were in the office or at home. Big mistake!
  • To efficiently manage your project, you normally establish a timeline, with deadlines, due dates, and progress reports. In an office, you may easily be able to check on the status of information by making a quick call or even speaking in the hallway. Unfortunately, remote employees may not necessarily be as reliable with meeting deadlines if not prompted. Accountability must be established early on to ensure that all team members pull their weight and meet expected deadlines. Another learning experience!
  • While technology has given the organization to have virtual teams, it does not mean that EVERYTHING must be done electronically. People are human and still require human contact. I had made the mistake of only communicating via chat and email and had neglected to check in with my remote team members via telephone or video conference to establish and maintain that personal connection. If I wanted simply a robot (technology) to do the work, I would have hired a machine!
  • I had neglected my own role in managing a virtual team and did not hold myself accountable to properly manage my team members. Unfortunately, the adage rang true, “out of sight, out of mind.” Because the employees on this project were not present in the office, I did not see them or chat with them every day, the project and the employees themselves were relegated to the back burner in my daily operations. I continually said “I will schedule a team meeting tomorrow” or “this week we will catch up on the project’s progress.” During my busy day, these crucial tasks were consistently moved down the list of priorities as new challenges and opportunities arose right in front of my eyes (in the office). Just because these employees were not physically near me did not mean that I should not hold myself accountable or that their work was any less important. Shame on me!

Each of the mistakes that I made boiled down to one crucial component: communication. I should have communicated more often, establishing a sense of trust, accountability, and responsibility with my team members. The success of the virtual team and the individual employees is dependent upon my ability to successfully manage. Poor communication, while it can be detrimental in any situation, is amplified and exacerbated by the distance that is inherent in the very nature of a virtual team.

Keys to successfully managing a virtual team:

In summary, I wanted to provide you with several keys to NOT make the same mistakes that I did in managing a virtual team.

  • Establish clear objectives and roles
  • Be available and accountable
  • Communicate often
  • Check-in as a “real” person
  • Establish trust and commitment
  • Show empathy

Although I did not mention this last one in my list of “mistakes”, it is very important to note that in a virtual work environment, there are many personal factors to consider when managing employees. When a person comes to the office to work, they can logistically speaking leave their personal lives at home. However, when their office space is in fact located IN their home, the two tend to blend and sometimes collide. As a manager of remote employees, be sure to be aware of and sensitive to this reality and understand that not everyone’s personal life is equal.

As Marcy Klipfel, Chief Engagement Officer at Businessolver, tells, “empathy can and should be at the forefront” of managing virtual teams.

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