Virtual working has become increasingly common in recent years thanks to globalisation; growing concern for the environment and the need for organisations to cut costs. It has been enthusiastically accepted by ‘Generation Y’ employees (those born between 1975 and 2000) who have grown up in a digital world and who see working remotely as part of a way of working that fits in with their lifestyle.

In fact, virtual working is an accepted part of their daily lives.

However, there are the others, particularly managers, who have difficulty in accepting this modern way of working because they believe it is necessary to see team members face-to-face, every working day. They feel challenged in trying to manage the performance and productivity of people whom they rarely see, and will endeavour to remain in the physical, non-internet world of the 20th century as long as possible.

The challenge for these managers is to be able to modify their mindset in a manner that will maintain competitive advantage for their organisation. Working away from the office via a virtual link should be an opportunity to better utilise the existing talent within the organisation.

However, managing people remotely is a different way of working and can either be viewed as an opportunity or, conversely, as a threat. The threat is usually perceived by those, (often of many years service) who may be entrenched in established methodologies and who often see working online as a loss of management control. It is a new discipline and a new working environment that requires needs to be learnt and implemented efficiently.

In a virtual environment, managers and team-leaders need to focus on how to motivate their people over communication links to and from remote locations around the world while simultaneously building and maintaining trust and rapport.

So, what are the key issues that managers have to face if they are going to maximise the potential of their remote working groups and ensure that productivity is maintained whereby it no longer matters whether there is any physical contact on a daily basis?

Building strong relationships

This is the key to virtual leadership and it is essential that the right foundation blocks are in place, upon which the virtual relationship can grow. At some point, a face-to-face meeting needs to take place with each staff member when the remote working issue needs to be fully discussed.

The potential challenges that can arise if either your team is working remotely or if you are working remotely, need to be explored and discussed. There may be a difference in time-zones, working hours, climatic conditions, gender–based responsibilities or cultural differences, any, or all of which, could cause problems if not properly anticipated.

What would the relationship lose and what would it gain? Test the reaction of your team members and you may well be surprised by their responses.

Focus the mind and the energy

Some people are self-motivated while others need daily encouragement to work efficiently with the job in hand. If virtual meetings are the order of the day, then these need attending with a commitment in exactly the same way as if the meetings were face-to-face.

It is not a time for being late or disregarding schedules. Agendas need to be sent out in advance and ‘required actions’ need to be distributed to all those attending at the close. Such virtual meetings require all participants to switch-off from everything else and to switch-in to the remote conversation. And that includes turning off all mobile phones, iPads and any other extraneous distractions!

Listening differently

It needs to be appreciated that at any virtual meeting, (or even when speaking on the phone), you do not have the visual advantage of body language clues. Not only do you need to listen to what is being said, but also what is not being said.

Learning the ‘art of listening to silence’ in important. If someone is not talking, it doesn’t mean that you always need to fill the space.

Leading a virtual team may be a different way of working with other issues being taken into consideration but with the right structure, self-discipline and responsibility by everyone concerned, this way of working can be highly productive and lead to sustainable success.

Key points:

* Remote working can prove very efficient.

* It requires self-discipline and self-motivation.

* Virtual teams are not for everyone.