There are a lot of advantages to adopting a virtual workplace. It can increase employee satisfaction by creating more flexible work environments, and long term, it can reduce costs associated with your real estate portfolio.
But virtual workplaces introduce new challenges as well. When everyone is working in different spaces without physical access to someone’s office, it can be more difficult to build rapport, sustain relationships, collaborate, and ensure that every employee has what they need to be productive, healthy, and happy.
And since virtual workplaces mean employees can work anytime, anywhere, the inability to unplug was the biggest struggle remote workers reported in 2021.
Whether your company is fully remote or utilizes a dynamic workplace model, you and your employees will encounter these challenges. And if you don’t have a solid strategy in place, it will be difficult to reap the benefits of a virtual workforce.
Here are seven tips for managing a virtual workplace.
1. Prioritize asynchronous communication
“That meeting could’ve been an email.” Anyone who’s worked in a corporate environment knows the frustrations of unnecessary meetings. But virtual workplaces only compound those frustrations, because they unnecessarily restrict the flexibility that makes them appealing and valuable in the first place.
It’s a lot harder to coordinate meetings and phone calls when people have different schedules and work in different locations. You can’t just stroll down the hall to someone’s office, holler across the open floor, or hop in the elevator to get to a colleague’s workstation. And depending on your work from home policy, you may not be able to count on everyone being available during the same hours.
Synchronous communication is especially difficult if your workforce is distributed across multiple time zones. It’s certainly not impossible, and spontaneous video calls can still happen. But you don’t want to rely on these channels for conversations that could take place asynchronously.
Slack, email, and other asynchronous channels should be the default communication methods in a virtual workplace. Video meetings, phone calls, and other channels that require employees to drop everything and get online should be reserved for time-sensitive conversations, in-depth discussions, and other complex interactions that would take too long to facilitate through text.
Prioritizing asynchronous communication limits the interruptions employees have during their most productive times and ensures that your virtual workplace is as flexible as possible.
2. Create space for virtual collaboration
Sometimes asynchronous communication won’t cut it. When people need to work on projects together or talk through their ideas, face-to-face (or perhaps more accurately, camera-to-camera) meetings can be more effective. Our faces, body language, tone, and emotions come through more clearly, which can enable people to articulate their thoughts faster, more fully, or in reaction to someone else’s nonverbal communication.
Collaboration is also an integral part of developing professional relationships with colleagues. These periods of strategic synchronous communication remove the ambiguity of text and reduce the work of interpreting tone, emotion, and intent that can make text-based communication more difficult.
If your company is fully remote, it’s important to ensure that every employee has access to virtual collaboration tools and equipment for one-on-one meetings, brainstorming sessions, and other applications where they need access to colleagues. Quality microphones, internet connections, headsets, and webcams can go a long way to alleviating some of the difficulties associated with video calls. You’ll also need to regularly identify the situations where virtual collaboration is ideal.
While you wouldn’t want to discourage someone from collaborating when they need it, you want to ensure that your employees adopt a shared understanding of when virtual collaboration may be unnecessary. This will help save people from feeling like, “That Zoom call should’ve been a Slack message,” or “I really just needed them to share that document.”
If your company is only partially remote, then part of your office should be dedicated to virtual collaboration. While anyone can obviously join a meeting from a laptop, dynamic workplaces—those that combine in-person and virtual work forces—can promote collaboration by equipping every conference room with the screens, microphones, cameras, and other tech your employees need to effectively meet. Whether they’re joining a virtual meeting from the office, their home or someplace else, employees should have easy access to the tech that enables a quality experience.
The ratio of in-person to virtual employees and their split across your departments will change how much space you’ll want to dedicate to virtual collaboration and in-person workstations.
3. Encourage employees to set boundaries
When you work in the same place you live, it can be difficult to maintain a work-life balance. Depending on your company’s goals and your culture, your WFH policy may explicitly define the hours employees need to be “at work.” Or you might let every employee set their own schedule, so long as they complete their assigned work. You may also have the expectation that your employees are available at any time.
There’s a broad spectrum of flexibility in virtual workplaces, and there’s no set model that it has to follow. It will likely depend on some combination of:
- Your industry
- An employee’s role
- Your company culture
- The personalities and preferences of your employees
- Life circumstances (such as childcare, health issues, or inflexible commitments)
Beyond simply establishing a set schedule, this should also include discussions about any unique circumstances your employees need to work around. They may need support to set the boundaries they need to be productive.
This should all be defined in your WFH policy, but it will be important to discuss this regularly with employees and check in on how it’s working for them. In some ways, setting boundaries in a virtual work environment should be treated similarly to ensuring your employees have the equipment they need to perform their tasks.
4. Promote greater transparency
If you share an office with someone or work in the same building, it’s obvious when someone steps away for an errand, a personal meeting, or a break. They’re not at their desk. And they likely told someone what they were doing when they left, in case someone needed them.
But that’s not how it works in a virtual workplace. And with asynchronous communication channels, you don’t always know how soon someone will see your message, let alone when they’ll reply.
Part of effectively managing a virtual workplace is ensuring that everyone’s calendars reflect their actual availability, and that means including events that aren’t work-related if they’ll impact the employee’s availability. Depending on the nature of someone’s work, they may also want to schedule time for particular tasks and processes they need to complete, so they can be confident that this time won’t be interrupted by a meeting.
As with most things, there’s a range of flexibility in regard to how transparent you need everyone to be. Short, spontaneous breaks and activities probably won’t warrant blocking of a calendar. But it may be worth sending a quick Slack message—the virtual equivalent of telling the person sitting next to you what you’re doing. “I’m going to the gym. Be back in an hour.” And you may or may not require someone to specify in their calendar that they’re picking up their kids from school every day at 3:30—blocking off the time may be sufficient.
The point of this transparency is that in a virtual workplace, you need to know when you can schedule meetings, and it’s not always feasible to individually message everyone about their preferred availability. You want to create the expectation that if someone has an open slot on their calendar during the time they’re normally working, people should be free to schedule meetings during that time.
In a virtual workplace, you need alternative channels for the things you’d normally learn by sharing an office or work area with someone, and greater digital transparency about your availability. While this should be part of your WFH policy, it’s also an area where it really helps for directors, managers, and team leaders to lead by example.
5. Schedule in-person time
As we’ve all experienced living through the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no substitute for in-person interactions. Digital communication channels are great tools, but being completely reliant on them makes it far more difficult to promote team building and deepen professional relationships among colleagues.
Part of managing a virtual workplace should include devoting time to in-person gatherings, where teams can create meaningful shared experiences and have richer interactions. It could involve things like:
- Having a budget for periodically sharing meals together
- Coordinating team retreats
- Attending in-person conferences or events
- Establishing shared in-person workspaces
In a virtual workplace, employees can still bond over shared interests and find their own ways to spend time together outside of work, but the goal here is to create an environment that has more opportunities to foster the trust, camaraderie, and advocacy that more naturally occurs in an in-person environment.
How important this is will depend on the percentage of employees who work remotely and the number of days they’re remote. In a 2007 meta-analysis of 46 academic studies, employees who worked remotely for more than 2.5 days per week saw greater harm to their relationships with coworkers. There have obviously been numerous advancements in virtual work over the last decade, but the principle is still largely the same: if you see people less and only have isolated interactions with them, it’s far more difficult to develop meaningful relationships. And those relationships have a direct impact on employee satisfaction and less tangible qualities like team synergy.
6. Check-in with employees regularly
Part of a healthy management strategy includes keeping a pulse on how employees are doing, what they’re struggling with, and how you can best support them. If you want your employees to grow, stay productive, and continue strengthening your organization’s investment in them, they need short- and long-term goals, meaningful milestones, and guidance.
This can and should still happen in a virtual workplace, just as it would in-person. Whether team leaders schedule formal meetings with their staff, offer virtual office hours, or simply make themselves accessible via Slack and email, employees need to know that someone is listening to, responding to, and supporting their needs.
To the degree that it’s possible, upper management may want to create similar opportunities for teams and departments to discuss and share their own desires, goals, and visions.
Checking in with employees can take a wide range of formats. For large organizations, surveys are an excellent method for collecting aggregate information about your company’s overall employee wellness.
7. Utilize hoteling for shared physical resources
If your workplace is only partially virtual, then you need a system for allocating your physical workspaces and ensuring that your supply of space meets your demand. Dynamic workplaces often include shared workstations which aren’t designated for specific employees and which anyone can reserve as needed. This is known as hoteling, and it’s how most large organizations already manage the use of their conference rooms and other resources.
Depending on the makeup of your virtual workforce and your organizational goals, you may only want a handful of workstations set aside for hoteling, or you may need entire rooms. The decision is unique to your real estate, your employees, and your company culture.
Ideally, hoteling wouldn’t simply be a matter of letting employees reserve workstations whenever they need them. Your hoteling space is best utilized when employees who work well together are using the space at the same time. Some organizations handle this by allocating specific days to particular teams or departments.
But there’s an even better way – real-time occupancy management.
Real time occupancy management enables you to dynamically react to how space is currently being utilized, and promote opportunities to use it better. For example, if three virtual employees work closely together and have similar roles or responsibilities, then when one of them reserves a workstation for Tuesday and Wednesday, you might want to share that with the other two employees and encourage them to work in-person on the same days.
This is the future of space utilization, but enterprises are already beginning to see the optimization potential of real-time occupancy management. Tango’s IWMS solutions are at the forefront of this innovative solution for dynamic workplaces, creating pathways for companies to use their space in more intelligent, responsive ways.
Explore the modern workplace with Workplace 2.0
COVID-19 has transformed the modern workplace. Overnight, companies that never intended to work remotely became fully remote, and the world has been collectively exploring what can and can’t be done virtually.
Whatever stage your organization is in regarding the return to work, Tango is here to support you with Workplace 2.0: a growing collection of advanced insights from experienced professionals, analysis from the latest studies, and helpful visualizations modeling what is and isn’t working in the modern workplace.