How to Manage a Digital Team

Let’s say you’ve landed a promotion at your company, or expanded your start-up — and now, you need to manage a whole new team.

It’s a daunting task, particularly in a digital age where your colleagues are a whip-smart bunch of data crunchers, social media wizards, or master programmers. How can you ensure your team collaborates effectively and puts out great products while feeling inspired and valued at work?

It can be a juggling act, but experts — including Barbara Marcolin, an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, and DJ Miller, a lecturer at UBC’s Sauder School of Business and Consultant for start-up companies — say there are a few tried-and-true tips for managing digital teams effectively.

Focus on Communication 

Communicating effectively is a key skill when it comes to managing a team, particularly in the digital and tech sectors where employees are often young, highly-motivated, and yearning for new challenges.

“I’m not a big fan of having a hierarchical style where I’m telling everyone what to do, and they go and blindly do it,” says Miller. “I want to surround myself with smart people who understand corporate objectives.”

One piece of that communication involves using digital tools to promote discussion among your digital workers — such as popular online collaboration tool Slack, or board-based app Trello.

But Marcolin says there’s also an offline piece that’s crucial: Meeting team-members regularly in-person to understand their professional goals, and a bit about their personal lives, too.

She says these face-to-face interactions should go beyond formal performance evaluations.

“Feedback is essential, all the time, in every meeting. Performance reviews are great in terms of how you’re doing… but any sort of feedback, as fast as you can get it, is good,” she says.

It’s also a chance to listen and figure out what you have in common with your staff.

“Having people who are your partners in business — even if you are the President, Chief Operating Officer, whatever — treating people with respect and knowing what their objectives are is a key benefit,” says Miller. “It breeds loyalty, and it breeds hard work.”

It also helps to understand the kinds of things that your employees are working on and the challenges they face on a daily basis. In many cases, this may involve brushing up on your basic digital skills but it can often be as simple as getting a better sense of what not to say to a Developer (or a Designer).

Set Clear Goals

No matter how many bright, driven workers you have on your team, someone needs to steer the ship and set clear goals for the company.

It’s some cases that’s a mission statement, in others a long-standing corporate philosophy. But on a practical level, Marcolin says it’s all about goal-setting and “prioritization techniques.”

“Figure out what their priorities are in the team,” she says. Then, brainstorm your key goals, and determine the top priority and secondary priorities for the company so people know where to focus their efforts.

Maybe for the next fiscal year, that means your team is laser-focused on launching a new app — while chipping away on other long-term goals like a website redesign or future project launches.

“Let people’s skills shine to get projects done,” Marcolin adds. “You have to work with the strengths of the team.”

Everyone should know what their objectives are, and how those objectives fit into the bigger picture, Miller echoes.

Without that, you can expect your team — no matter how talented — will start floundering when it comes to hitting targets.

Offer a Work-Life Balance

There’s no such thing as 9-to-5 in today’s digital age, with workers glued to their smartphones and global companies collaborating around-the-clock.

But that doesn’t mean your company should be all work and no play.

The office environment should be an enjoyable space — and there is a reason tech powerhouses like Google and Apple offer perks like free lunches or on-site gym facilities: It attracts the best people and makes them want to come to work every day.

Sure, not every young company can afford those frills. That’s why Marcolin says team-building time is essential to keep your team thriving and engaged, whether it’s a holiday party or regular after-work drinks. “Teams who do more of that often perform better,” she explains.

She also recommends offering work-life balance by understanding your modern, digital workers are likely more inclined to want flexibility, be it work remotely some days or set their own hours. And to retain good people, Marcolin says it’s worth it to consider those requests.

“Anybody who hasn’t worked in the digital space doesn’t know they don’t always come into the office,” she says. “Someone could be working on code at two o’clock in the morning.”

Hire Right

Before you go setting goals or giving feedback, you need to make sure the team you’re managing has the right people on it.

“Hiring is everything,” says Miller. “Some companies get desperate to the point that they’re on-boarding anyone, and that’s a dangerous thing.”

It’s all about seeing the goals and mechanism of your business and deciding what types of personalities and skills will work well to support your objectives, he explains.

And that means being a tough interviewer who’s looking for the best while weeding out anyone who doesn’t seem like a fit. Sometimes that can also mean long after the hiring phase is over.

“If you hire five people, you’ll probably have to fire one of them,” Marcolin warns. “I’ve heard people start companies who said, ‘I had to fire my best friend.’ It’s probably the hardest thing to do but you have to think of the team and project and what you’re trying to do.”

Maybe someone’s heart just isn’t in it, and they don’t feel like a culture fit with the company, or they envisioned doing deep data analytics but it’s just not a big part of their role.

If there are any weak links like that, particularly in smaller companies, the whole team is in “jeopardy,” Marcolin says.

The bottom line? Be smart about who you’re bringing in in the first place, even if it takes longer to do so.

“I’m a true believer that these companies that have very arduous hiring policies, they’re benefitting from getting the right people on the bus — and the wrong people off the bus,” Miller says.

Put an Emphasis on Reskilling

Effective hiring policies and processes are essential, but the importance of reskilling has also become increasingly clear. Reskilling refers to training initiatives that change the skill sets of existing employees for new roles. It differs from upskilling, which develops existing employees’ skill sets so that they can stay in their current roles and improve their productivity.

According to the World Economic Forum, it is now cheaper to reskill current employees than to hire new ones. What’s more, reskilling also contributes to a culture of learning, which can pay dividends on the employee retention front.

According to the Consumer Technology Association, high-skills training and professional development programs to hone soft skills are among the top benefits for retaining employees’ services over the next five years. This is particularly important in the tech sector, which is among the industries with the highest turnover rate.

“The computer games (15.5 percent), Internet (14.9 percent), and computer software industries (13.3 percent) drove tech turnover the most — but those rates pale in comparison to the churn you see within particular occupations,” according to Michael Booz, writing for the LinkedIn Talent Blog. “User experience designers had extremely high turnover at 23.3 percent, with both data analysts, and embedded software engineers at 21.7 percent.”

While these numbers illustrate how quickly demand for these skills is growing, it also makes clear that the organizations need to be focusing on employee retention – and it always starts with management.

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