The Ultimate Guide to Managing Remote Teams: How to Build Trust & Rapport in a Virtual Environment

Published on: November 7, 2023

The pandemic ushered in a new era of work, complete with home offices, video chat and minimal commuting. While many employees have returned to the physical office in some capacity, the remote environment remain incredibly popular. Data compiled by the Pew Research Center suggests that over one-third of US workers with the ability to work from home do so all the time. Meanwhile, a significant subset continues to appreciate the unique advantages of hybrid work.

A variety of benefits make the modern remote environment appealing from both the employer’s and employee’s perspectives. Chief among them: the ability to attract the best and brightest job candidates in the midst of a tight labor market. If you are interested in a career in management, you will need to know how to manage remote teams. There are considerable challenges worth considering and, without effective management, even the most talented remote workforce will be prone to distractions or disengagement. To that end, we’ve highlighted critical strategies for managing virtual teams.

How to Manage Remote Teams Effectively

From a management perspective, remote teams bring a variety of unique complications to the forefront. A lot of processes that feel natural in the traditional office environment must suddenly be planned and executed in a highly nuanced matter. Meanwhile, employees risk feeling disconnected when they are rarely able to interact with one another on a face-to-face basis. Still, effective management is far from impossible, and, with the right strategies, these teams can be even more productive or even innovative than their in-person counterparts.

For remote teams to operate efficiently and effectively, new structures must be developed. These should be distinct from traditional processes. Communication, while always vital, becomes even more critical for effective remote management. Structure is also important, although it should not impede the autonomy that today’s remote employees so clearly value. These top strategies can make a world of difference:

Determine Team Responsibilities

Purpose-driven teams are the most impactful, so there should never be any question as to what a given team is supposed to accomplish — or how. At the outset of any project or initiative, its core purpose and goals must be clearly defined, along with the individual responsibilities that will make it possible to achieve ambitious objectives. Continue to communicate these responsibilities along the way, especially if there are any changes in project scope or deliverables.

Define and Create a Team Structure

One of the greatest struggles of running a remote team? Striking the right balance between structure and autonomy. Remote employees thrive when they’re allowed to set the pace, but they still need some semblance of structure — and in a team-based environment, this often comes from clearly defining the team itself and how it should function.

This will be determined by the responsibilities of the team as a whole, plus those associated with individual members. All team members should understand what specific role they are expected to play within the team and what they can do to facilitate positive outcomes. They should also be made aware of other team members’ responsibilities.

Another component that must be defined early on? Where and how various team members will fulfill their various assigned roles and responsibilities. Often, a single team will be made up of employees with dramatically different work setups; some may be hybrid, for example, while others are entirely remote and still others only occasionally work from home. These structures should be clearly defined so that there is never any question as to who will be working in what capacity and when.

Communicate Effectively and Clearly

Clear communication is critical to the success of any remote initiative, particularly when this primarily involves text-based interactions. It can be surprisingly easy to misinterpret even seemingly simple instructions or insights when these are not accompanied by cues from intonation or body language.

Similarly, team members must be actively taught how effective communication looks and sounds like in a remote context. Some will initially struggle to get their point across, but through strong examples from leaders and continual feedback, most will adapt quickly. Provide a variety of ways to communicate and be willing to adapt based on the preferences of individuals and the team. Don’t forget to set ground rules to ensure that all interactions are respectful.

Be Flexible and Considerate

Remote and hybrid workers tend to have more stringent demands regarding workplace flexibility. Many will exceed their employers’ expectations when given the freedom to complete tasks as they see fit. Given sufficient tools and opportunities to collaborate, they can even flexibly complete essential tasks within the greater framework of a highly flexible and primarily virtual setup.

A considerate and empathetic approach is also essential. While remote and hybrid employees should be respectful and reliable, the occasional hiccup is bound to occur, just as it might in a conventional office setting. Be willing to extend the occasional grace, so long as team members have proven that they can be relied upon to get the job done.

How to Build a Culture Around a Remote or Virtual Team

Many management professionals have been pleased to discover that it’s surprisingly easy to keep their hybrid teams on track — and many have noted dramatic improvements in productivity when employees are not required to work in the office.

Where remote setups are more frequently lacking, however, is in collaboration and cohesiveness, and for good reason: when restricted to online communication, it’s difficult to build the rapport that naturally comes from frequent, casual interactions within the office environment. As such, learning how to manage virtual teams means experimenting with creative ways for building a stronger culture that goes beyond physical presence.

Video chat and social media can help to bridge the gap, but there’s something special about an onsite collaborative environment for generating discourse and creative ideas. Still, when managers are purposeful about building close-knit teams and promoting social interactions, they are pleased to find that remote employees can form impactful, passion-driven relationships — even if they rarely get the chance to meet in person.

This begins with building a strong culture from the ground up and making a point of communicating and reflecting on that culture on a regular basis. Other essentials include:

Create Opportunities for Collaboration

Skeptics of remote work often cite difficulties to collaborate as the chief reason to bring employees back to the office. There is certainly some validity to this concern; it takes a lot more effort to foster collaboration among remote employees, who may be almost entirely focused on their own individual tasks rather than feeling tuned in or connected to the collective needs of the team. With the right tools and structure, however, collaboration is certainly possible.

This begins with selecting apps or programs that promote conversation and collaboration. Slack is a persistent favorite, as it promotes sharing and reflects the intuitive components of collaboration that so frequently arise within brick-and-mortar locations. To make full use of such platforms, assign tasks collaboratively, instead of strictly dividing them into personal components. Still, be mindful that some tasks are more easily completed on a solo basis and that some employees may prefer a greater share of tasks to be allocated individually.

Encourage Social Interaction Between Members

The once dominant concept of the office water cooler was compelling because it encouraged employees to let down their guard and genuinely get to know one another. Socializing is still possible and important, but it will take extra work to facilitate — and employees may occasionally be resistant if they feel that socializing detracts from productivity. Be prepared to remind them of the value of a caring and connected team, which is best fostered through relaxed conversation.

Keep in mind that, while day-to-day functions may largely take place from the comfort of home offices, there can still be opportunities to connect on a deeper level or even in person. For example, some largely remote workplaces still offer social hours, when employees are encouraged to meet in person (or if necessary, via video chat) and enjoy laid-back activities and conversations.
If anything, these gatherings can be even more impactful than the traditional happy hour, as introverted employees are less likely to feel burnt out after a day of constant socializing.

Include Time for Team Building

Team building should not take a backseat in a virtual environment. If anything, it becomes more important under this unique setup, as remote employees simply won’t have as many casual opportunities to build rapport. Some may chafe at these activities, assuming that they are not sufficiently purposeful or productive — but given the chance to genuinely engage, many will find that they enjoy getting to know their fellow remote team members and discovering their unique approaches to creative problem-solving.

Impactful opportunities for team building include:

  • Allow team members to take part in remote tours — a grownup form of show and tell in which employees get the chance to show off their pets, their remodeling projects or anything of interest around their homes.
  • Encourage team members to work together on volunteer projects that allow them to give back to the community, especially when these involve in-person opportunities to collaborate and socialize.
  • Complete training via virtual workshops. While it’s tempting to send employees training videos to watch on their own, a more collaborative take on skill development will simultaneously enhance team building.

Instill Company Values and Goals

Value alignment should not be neglected among remote teams, as it’s far easier to establish a strong sense of rapport if employees are driven by similar values. This begins with the hiring process, which ideally will reveal whether candidates align with the organization’s core mission.

This should also continue through onboarding, however, and also be built into training, team-building and other everyday initiatives. Your organization’s mission should be evident in everyday messaging, team-building activities, and efforts to recognize employees who live out core values.

How to Build Rapport With a Remote Team

A strong team culture can form the basis of an impactful, passion-filled workplace, but there is no substitute for trusting relationships between management professionals and individual employees. As with efforts to build a team-oriented culture, this will need to bring a purposeful approach to endeavors that, in the office, may feel effortless. These tried-and-tested strategies should help:

Value Input and Ideas from Team Members

Team members should feel that their voice matters, but promoting open and honest feedback can be extra difficult in a remote environment. Whether digital or in-person, however, simply asking for feedback is often the best first step. This may occur during video chats or could involve targeted messages requesting the perspectives of various team members. Make a genuine effort to act on this feedback when possible, as employees will only feel that their voice matters if it actually has a discernible impact.

Offer and Receive Feedback and Criticism

While remote employees often enjoy a significant degree of autonomy, they still need guidance — and they want to know that their managers have their back. This is best accomplished by providing regular feedback, including not only plenty of compliments, but also, constructive criticism to help them improve over time.

Virtual feedback is more meaningful if shared via video chat, although some written feedback may be necessary at times. With videos, however, it’s possible to amplify feedback with shared screens, which can provide direct indicators of the recipient’s progress.

Make feedback a priority, as this often falls by the wayside with remote work. Research from Gartner indicates that remote employees tend to receive less feedback than their in-person counterparts — and often, this involves more corrective responses than praise. Scheduled feedback sessions can be helpful, but this also needs to be built into everyday functions, ideally through messaging apps or other internal channels.

Establish an Environment of Trust

Team members should intuitively feel that they can trust both their coworkers and their supervisors or managers. Without this inherent sense of trust, disengagement is likely. Build it over time by making good on promises while promoting a culture of transparency. Trust goes both ways, so avoid micromanaging and, instead, be willing to grant remote team members the autonomy they desire.

Schedule Regular Check-Ins

In a whirlwind of emails, video chats and other interactions, it can be easy for some team members to get lost in the shuffle. If they don’t receive acknowledgment on a regular basis, these employees will begin to feel disconnected and disengaged. This is best addressed by maintaining a detailed (but adaptable) schedule that includes plenty of check-ins.

Employee check-ins should exist separately from reviews or efforts to provide constructive criticism. Remember: this is simply an opportunity to learn more about team members and how they’re handling the unique demands of the remote environment. Be fully present during these check-ins and demonstrate a genuine interest in team members and their accomplishments or concerns.

Your Project Management Story Starts Here

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