Do Employees Need Training on Managing in a Virtual Workplace?

A recent study shows managers’ performance suffered during the pandemic when most were operating virtually for the first time. They turned inward and became task-focused at the expense of relationship building, the study found.

I have learned how to cope with virtual meetings. When in-person meetings became uninteresting and unbeneficial to me, but I couldn’t leave, I would play with my pen and daydream. Virtually, it’s better because I can turn my computer’s microphone off and work on other things. Unless you’re sharing your screen, no one can tell in a virtual meeting with more than a couple other people if you’re continuing to pay undivided attention, or whether you’re working on other things.

When managing a virtual workplace, leading a virtual meeting is a skill that may need to be taught. This could be part of a larger course on virtual management. Knowing people can more easily stray into focusing on other tasks virtually, managers may need to learn to be more selective in the meetings they call, and limit participants more strictly. A meeting imparting important, interesting information to just two people versus a dozen is likely to have attentive, interactive participants.

An article in Forbes last week synthesized a recent study on how managers differ in their performance in a virtual workplace compared to the old-fashioned, in-person workplace most of us knew prior to March 2020. The study, synthesized by Julian Birkinshaw, a professor from London Business School, found that managers’ performance suffered during the pandemic when most were operating virtually for the first time: “The evidence suggested managers were as motivated and committed to doing a good job as ever. But the virtual working environment appeared to have a harmful effect on their effectiveness. They turned inward, they became task-focused at the expense of relationship building, and they were finding few opportunities to develop new skills.”

It’s hard to build relationships with people who are not in-person, isn’t it? In some cases, however, it can be a relief, providing a cover for personality conflicts that are harder to smooth over in-person when the person is in front of you for nine hours a day. There are many people I can have positive texting and e-mailing relationships with but who I may not be able to deal with nearly as well under long-term, in-person exposure. On the other hand, there are some people I find irritating in written form, but I find nearly charming over the phone or in-person. Managing virtually requires learning how to change modes when needed in interacting with people. The way you speak to some people in-person may not work as well in written form, or even over the phone. You can see a person’s expressions somewhat in a virtual meeting, but it doesn’t come across the exact way it does when a person is sitting across the table from you. Plus, there often are graphics and other competing images on the screen that take your focus away from the person you are speaking to, not to mention the need for the person speaking to look into their computer’s camera rather than into their colleague’s eyes.

The study also found that onboarding new employees posed difficulties, as did performance remediation: “Managing poor performance was also more difficult: ‘You cannot challenge a person so well over Zoom…you tend to hold back.’ There were also low scores for innovation and creativity. In sum, the picture that emerged was a shift in emphasis toward personal reflection and task-based action, and away from the more human and relational aspects of work,” Birkinshaw writes of observations from the study.

When a new employee starts with a company, it’s typical to take the first few months to observe and judge whether the newbie is a good fit. Sometimes this is formalized as a probationary period, but in all cases, it exists informally. What happens when you hire a person, who is pleasant and fits in with the limited engagement of a virtual environment, but does not come across nearly as pleasant and easy to interact with in an in-person office? By then, the first few months have passed, and the person is an entrenched part of the work team.

Should there be training programs for virtual hiring and onboarding? How do you tell if a person is a good cultural and personality fit when you only have interacted with them virtually? Now that vaccines are available, there is value to asking fully vaccinated employees to meet in-person, even if only at an outdoor café or picnic table, to interact with a job candidate and then with the new employee. The risk for fully vaccinated people—and even the unvaccinated—in interacting outdoors is so small and the benefits so great in evaluating job prospects and new hires, that I believe it’s well worth it.

I heard of a new employee hired at one company who may not be a good cultural fit. A few months after joining the team, she forwarded her colleagues an article from a news source most of them found questionable and even worrisome. She does her job well enough, but is this a person they want to interact with long-term in-person?

The virtual environment can be sufficient for getting solitary work accomplished, but in managing others and developing even oneself, it’s a poor substitute for in-person interaction. “In sum, virtual working is stifling some key aspects of personal development for managers. As one person said, ‘many aspects of career management are on pause’ in his organization. Moreover, the aspects of development that require intense personal interaction and challenging new experiences are much harder to address,” Birkinshaw writes of further observations from the study.

Could the right training program address these challenges? With a high percentage of the population still not fully vaccinated, and with new COVID variants spreading, a virtual work environment may be required longer than we expected. A training program with modules on virtual hiring, onboarding, and employee development may be the bridge needed to emerge stronger than ever from the pandemic.

Has your organization created and rolled out training programs on managing in a virtual work environment?