Delegation is an essential leadership skill, and delegating to a virtual workforce is especially challenging. Because Reputation Capital is a fully decentralized business with remote workers in multiple time zones, we all do a lot of virtual delegating as we work on our projects. Interested in learning from others who do the same, I talked to other leaders at remote companies to see how they handle virtual delegation. Here are some valuable tips.
Understand Your Process
It’s hard to tell someone else how to do something if you don’t fully understand it yourself.
When other people take the reins on a project, ensure that they know enough to see the task through, says Dave Davis of Redfly Marketing. He’s been managing virtual teams for 14 years and says that understanding your process is especially important for a new project, because everyone is eager to not make waves or look stupid.
“Even with a proper structure in place, you’d be surprised how many people will wait until halfway through a project to admit that they don’t understand something,” he says. “Rigorously testing the knowledge of a particular individual or team’s task at hand in an informal way at the beginning of a project can quite literally save a project.”
Clarity is key, agrees Alfredo Atanacio of Uassistme, a firm that provides virtual assistants and other professional services to companies including Rep Cap. “Clarify your expectations of working with someone remotely, and based on that you can delegate tasks that can be done virtually, provide the necessary training and you and your assistant will be ready to have a fulfilling virtual-assistance experience.”
Match the Communication Tool to the Task
Know when to use instant messaging versus email versus a phone call or a face-to-face meeting.
At Rep Cap, we IM each other throughout the day, but there are times when a phone call or face-to-face meeting is better. A new project or something that deviates from our usual process may merit a phone call.
“Call, email and chat as much as you can early in the project to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that they all know what they’re doing,” says John Jonas, owner of Replacemyself.com and Onlinejobs.ph.
Atanacio says that lack of communication is the most common mistake when it comes to virtual delegation, because issues that arise need to be addressed correctly and quickly.
In a recent survey led by online project management technology advisory firm Software Advice, 38 percent of respondents cited communication as the key issue when working within a virtual team.. “It’s important, then, that team leaders and managers help decide which communication channel will be used for assigning and communication about tasks,” says Noel Radley, project management researcher at Software Advice. “That way virtual team members know where to go to get a shared view of the work that needs to be done.”
Be prepared to navigate different preferences, she adds. “We learned that team members of different ages prefer different communication channels, such as younger workers preferring email and older workers preferring phone. Failed communication or collaboration may be solved by helping team members discover the best channel for communication, and offering methods to bridge the gap between team members with diverse communication preferences.”
Don’t Skimp on Background
Context matters. Document everything — it creates a chain of communication that everyone can reference. “If everyone spends some time documenting their efforts and challenges, a good project manager can spot discrepancies and misunderstandings early on,” Davis says. “Everyone wants to jump into a project as soon as it’s cleared but delaying that gratification temporarily to get everyone on the same page makes everything run smoother.”
We use Basecamp as a project management tool and we upload emails, documents and other files so everyone can access them when they need to. Whether it’s a simple spreadsheet or a full-on project management app, Jonas recommends having the digital equivalent of an office whiteboard accessible to keep the team on track.
Break Up Projects
Just because another person can’t help you do an entire task doesn’t mean they can’t help you with part of it.
If you’ve got a full team, share the load. We cross-train so that any of us can step in on a project if someone else is suddenly unavailable. Being flexible with tasks and who can do them ensures your business is ready to pivot if something changes.
Ultimately, it’s about learning to trust your employees. “When working remotely, you can’t walk by their desks and see if they’re being productive,” says Andrea K. Rozman, owner of Your Gal Friday. You have to take that leap of faith. You have to believe that once you hand them the work, they will do it, and get it done on time. If you don’t trust your team members, why do you have them working for you?”
I couldn’t agree more.
Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Reputation Capital. Before launching a content marketing firm in her home state of Louisiana, she spent more than 10 years working as a traditional journalist, primarily at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column, worked as an editor in the business news department and worked at email newsletter publisher SmartBrief.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.