10 Mistakes to Avoid When Managing a Virtual Team

10 Mistakes to Avoid When Managing a Virtual Team

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written on July 2020 by Magda Sowierszenko

Organizing and managing a virtual team presents a whole new set of challenges for a manager when compared to working in an office. Collaborating well with team members who may be from all across the globe is no easy feat, but more and more it’s becoming the norm in many companies. To really make remote teams work, a manager has to clearly communicate the goals and objectives of the team, all while tackling the issues that remote work can bring. 

The manager’s role here is even more crucial in making sure that everything is coordinated well, clearly set out, and organized. To do all this, a remote manager has to access a unique skill set that office managers just don’t have. A combination of tools, best practices, and good remote strategies have to all be combined together.

To help make the journey easier though, we’ve got top remote experts to explain the mistakes all remote managers should avoid.

Mistakes to Avoid

#1 Mistake: Not trusting your people

For remote workers, it can feel difficult to trust well and get to know someone who you might never have actually met in person. Remote managers don’t have the luxury of physically checking in on their team members, so trust really has to be learned.

“One of the biggest mistakes a manager can make when working remotely is not trusting their team. A lack of trust often leads to micromanaging, which causes stress for both manager and direct report — and as a result, everyone’s likely to get less work done. It’s a good idea to have an open, honest talk with your remote team and get specific with expectations by answering questions like: When do certain projects need to be done by? When will check-ins happen? Will you give your manager an end-of-day report? What hours will your team work? (Their hours may not align with yours if they choose to work asynchronously, but it doesn’t mean they’re not getting the work done). Keeping open lines of communication and setting clear expectations is crucial when working remotely.” 

Lorraine Lee, Managing Editor at Prezi

The very essence of working from home means that you are providing a level of autonomy to your team members. This leads to trust, which drives engagement. So when leading a work from home team, focus on the outcomes you are looking for, more than the process. Trust that an engaged and motivated team who are given the correct context will find their best way to deliver an exceptional outcome.”

John Riordan, Director of Support at Shopify

#2 Mistake: Skipping your 1-1s

Finding the time to do 1-1s can feel like an impossibility, but the pay off can be huge if they’re implemented well. It’s also one of the best ways to really get to know your team professionally, so we really recommend scheduling them when you can.

“As a remote team, we firmly believe that 1-1s are the most valuable and powerful channel for managers to connect with, empower, and coach their team. Everyone in the company is expected to have a weekly 1-1 with their team lead. Ultimately, the goal here is that they serve as a consistent space to celebrate accomplishments, exchange feedback, and gain insights into how your team is being successful (or not). When 1-1s are infrequent or regularly skipped, building trust and rapport between you and your team, or making meaningful progress and creating accountability becomes nearly impossible!”

Chloe Oddleifson, Director of Operations at Dribble

#3 Mistake: Focusing on working hours

One of the reasons why people choose to work remotely is in the flexibility it offers for the working day. But, a lot of managers still focus on the hours that someone works and not actually the output. It’s a real throwback to normal office working conditions, and it’s best not to carry the practice on into the remote world.

“In remote or distributed organizations, you cannot manage by wandering around. There’s no way to look over someone’s shoulder, and in my opinion, all the attempts to replace that with technology are creepy and looking at the issue the wrong way. Unless the role requires the team to be available at a specific time, forget about whether folks are “putting in the hours.” Most organizations are not in the business of “consuming employees time,” but in the business of creating value for their customers. The best approach to this problem, and in my opinion the approach that colocated teams should also take, is not to measure whether people are showing up, but measuring the amount of value it is meant to create

Depending on the type of business you are in, this could take different forms. If your team is composed of salespeople, measure the amount of sales. If you manage programmers or developers, measure the features/products shipped per unit of time. And so on. With that mindset, it doesn’t matter how many hours your team has worked, as long as the output and the results are what they should be. This can be uncomfortable because many organizations do not have these results and output well defined enough to be able to establish a standard of performance for their team. In my opinion, that is the heart of the problem.”

Cesar Abeid, Happiness Team Lead at Automattic

#4 Mistake: Not finding time to connect with the team

Connecting with the team requires more effort and time as a remote manager. Without doing it, a lot of the interactions that happen in an office just won’t take place with a remote team. Again, it’s another example of something that really has to be scheduled into your calendar.

The biggest mistake a manager can make with a remote team is to reinforce information inequality by failing to facilitate group connection and socialization. Managing a remote (or virtual) team is a complex beast with a set of unique challenges, the most difficult being an inherent inequality of information. When you’re in the office, you receive information every day through hundreds of microtransactions. You overhear conversations, chit-chat with your colleagues over lunch & in the hallway, get pulled into impromptu meetings, etc. This is missing in a remote work setting and to avoid team members being left in the dark Managers have to build a solid plan to balance the equation.”

Jesse Finn, Senior Brand & Content Manager

“For managers used to be in close proximity to their team, transitioning to leading virtually can take some time and intentionality to get it right. One of the biggest challenges of managing a virtual team is effective communication. One of the mistakes I often see is failing to be intentional about scheduling time to connect. In the office, teams have “over the shoulder moments” where they can learn from each other, and frequently grab coffee. In a remote world, you need to engineer that time, and you have to bring in the right tools – like Slack or Zoom – to make it happen.

It can be as simple as a team coffee break where you talk about non-work related things, or encouraging your team to lean into spontaneous communication like hopping on a Slack call to ask a question. For effective communication and collaboration, you need to invest in getting your team to connect casually as a group, as well as schedule time with each other 1:1 and catch up.” 

Brian Bresee, Director of Sales, North America Solutions Partner Program at HubSpot

“A good manager should never neglect connecting with his or her team on a personal level. In a virtual setting, it is all the more important. In our internal survey, we learned that 31% of our colleagues struggle with loneliness. As a team leader, I believe it’s my responsibility to bring the human touch into our work routine. That’s why I purposefully create opportunities for the team to socialize. For example, we start our team meetings 15 minutes in advance and we spend the time together on personal topics –  how the team is doing, what makes them happy, what TV series they are hooked on right now. We even show off with our coffee cups. Before talking about business, I always try to connect on a human level first.“

Juraj Holub, Head of Brand & Communications at Slido

#5 Mistake: Thinking that meetings will solve your problems

What works in the office doesn’t always work in the remote world. Meetings are a key example of something that just doesn’t translate so well with a remote team. It’s a difficult habit to kick, but it will ultimately save you time and get the message across quicker if you avoid remote meetings.

“One of the biggest mistakes I’ve noticed over the past few months is overscheduling calendars. Meeting fatigue has become an issue now that most of us are working remotely. Since we’re unable to have those quick face-to-face interactions in the office, managers tend to overcompensate by placing too many meetings on the calendar. It’s beneficial to schedule regular check-ins with your team; however, it’s easy to fall into the trap of too many check-ins because we’re new to remote work and want to make sure everyone is pulling their weight and/or feels supported. You may be familiar with this stat from the University of California, Irvine, but after one disruption, it takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus. Just think of the time wasted if you have any unplanned meetings pop up throughout the day.

I recommend rethinking your meeting strategy. Which meetings are absolutely necessary? Which meetings should be turned into regular check-ins? Consider the cadence. Should they be held once a week, bi-weekly, once-monthly? When something pops up that requires further discussion, how long do you expect the conversation to last? Should you meet about it or try to communicate via other means? There are a number of collaboration tools out there like Slack or Wrike that help teams connect in real time on projects in play without having to make a big production of it. Next time you begin to set up a new meeting invite, ask yourself – can we discuss this in another way?”

Rory Schaff, Sr Social Media Manager at Wrike

#6 Mistake: Overlooking the personal & professional development of your remote team

In your role as a remote manager, you need to invest time and dedication into the development of your team. Your team members will appreciate it, become more engaged, and are much more likely to stay with you if you show some care.

“People, especially in business, I’ve found often scoff at the ethereal nature and intangibility of soft skill development. In the space of community managing, nearly nothing matters more than personal development via relationship building which can lead to connections, mentoring, resource sharing and so on. Similarly, professional development offering to your team shows your faith in that team to enhance what you’re doing together. It’s high praise, in my opinion, to offer professional development in any facet to your remote team.”

Victoria Cumberbatch, Community Manager at Osmosis

#7 Mistake: Failing to communicate

Communication really is one of the cornerstones of remote work. For a remote manager, it’s even more important to practice the skill as your team members rely on you for guidance and task setting. It can be easier to get away with communicating badly when you’re a normal employee, but it just can’t happen when leading a virtual team.

“Misunderstandings can be more common on virtual teams, slowing everyone down and affecting team relationships. As a manager, you need to double-down on clear, structured communication to make sure everyone’s aligned and understands what’s expected. This could include setting agendas for meetings, using frameworks like Kanban boards and daily standups to manage the team’s work, and documenting decisions and action items. There’s also a human element, of course – don’t forget to casually check in with team members, just to see how they’re doing and feeling. And leave a bit of unstructured time in your group meetings, so people can ask questions and share whatever’s on their minds.”

Sarah Beldo, Head of Content Marketing and Communications at Miro

#8 Mistake: Not setting the standard for your team (not being a role-model and walking the talk)

There’s nothing worse than being a bad example to your remote team. It’s a sure fire way to make your team members disengaged and also feel like they can do the same too. You have to be a good example in order to have everyone be on their best game.

“Leadership styles certainly vary, but in our distributed agency, we ask our teams—and especially managers—to lead from a place of empathy. It’s important in physical offices too, but it’s especially critical when you can’t easily read the room. We can write policies that explain our company values, but walking the talk is far more effective. If I tell my team they’re not on call 24/7, but they see me asking questions on Slack and responding to clients at all hours, I’m not setting a good example. But if I tell my team that I’m having a rough day and I need to go for a run, that simple act gives them a subtle permission to take care of their own mental health, too.”

Reid Peifer, Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Modern Tribe

#9 Mistake: Not setting clear expectations

Improving your overall transparency has a lot of benefits for a remote team, including the setting of clear expectations. We’re not all together in the same office space, so everything should be laid out explicitly to avoid any confusion over your team’s goals.

¨When you work in a fast paced environment, it is easy to forget that those around you might not see everything that’s in your head. Now if you are working remotely this is totally much more evident. Earlier in my career I almost expected everyone to work as hard and fast as I did, but initially this wasn’t the case with everyone I worked with. It took me a few tries before I realized how critical it was for me to set expectations crystal clear from day one. I recommend radical transparency as this will take you a long way in leadership¨

Andrés Cajiao, Co-founder and Chief Growth Officer at Torre

#10 Mistake: Not using the right tools

Making sure that you are using the correct tools is absolutely key to proper remote management. This isn’t just limited to your productivity tools, but also to any software or services that you’re using to communicate too. If you’re currently using only the very basics to manage your team, like spreadsheets for project management or just emails to communicate, you should really explore some other options. Check in with your team to see what they have experience with, and come up with a toolkit that everyone is happy and confident to use.

“Tools alone won’t solve any issues you’re having with managing remote teams. Tools are important enablers, but it’s totally up to you how you use them, how they fit with your team culture, and how your team gets the work done. Don’t fall into the trap of choosing the coolest apps. Instead, think about your needs, processes, workflows and what can be improved there. Software popular for remote teams is believed to be normal for remote teams very soon so the sooner you get fimiliar with it the better. According to our Report the Remote Managers 2020, 90% remote managers believe they will become standard in non-remote staff. If you are having hard times choosing the apps that would work for you, you can also take the bottom-up strategy and ask your teammates what kind of apps would make their work easier”.

Magda Sowierszenko, Head of Communications at Remote-how


A lot of the mistakes outlined here relate to trying to run a virtual team with normal team management practices. Unfortunately for all new remote managers out there, this just won’t work! You have to make use of the unique situation you’re in and use it to your advantage. Dedicating time to solving each issue and problem, even when it feels like you have none, is also key in the remote world. 

Think that you or your company need to get clued up on how to best manage virtual teams? Check out our educational Programs within Remote-how Academy, where you’ll learn how to build and lead highly effective teams despite the distance.

Go to the program website to sign up now and find out more information about what Remote-how can do for you.

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