With their increasingly global reach, pharma companies have access to a more diverse array of ideas than many other industries. Virtual teams make it possible for them to capitalize on those resources, bringing together people from across the organization to take on major business challenges with a fresh perspective.
Adopting a remote work strategy also offers the promise of greater efficiency. When GSK reviewed its workplace performance, it found that only 35 percent of work activity was being done in its conventional offices, which took up 85 percent of its available space. In response, the pharma company eliminated 1,300 desks and shifted more employees to working remotely.
Building virtual teams that work in pharma can be challenging, however. To create teams that will be productive and efficient, companies should follow a few simple strategies.
5 Key Ways to Building Successful Virtual Teams in Pharma
1: Build Trust
Nothing is more important to virtual teams than a foundation of trust between team members. People need to know that they can count on the rest of the team to follow through on commitments and complete their work. Since remote teams are often separated by distance and time zones, it can be difficult for their members to form the relationships necessary to build trust between one another.
Effective virtual teams tend to focus on task-related trust. As team members demonstrate accountability over time, they learn to rely on each other to contribute toward the team’s goals. This process can be helped along, however, by utilizing specific team-building activities such as kick-off meetings, virtual office parties, or even setting aside time for conversation before or after meetings.
2: Invest in Collaborative Software
While email may be sufficient for personal and professional correspondence, it lacks the functionality needed for effective collaboration and coordination. Virtual team members need to have easy access to the resources and other tools related to their work if they’re going to be productive. Without a software suite in place to keep everyone focused on specific goals, remote teams are liable to be disorganized and complete tasks inefficiently.
Pharma companies looking to implement virtual teams need to be sure they have the infrastructure in place to accommodate a remote workforce. Project management software helps to organize larger initiatives and break complex tasks down into smaller parts that can be completed quickly and easily. There are a variety of programs to choose from, so pharma teams should select one that makes the most sense for the organization as a whole. In some cases, the company may want to integrate the software suite beyond the team level, making it easier for the entire organization to collaborate across departmental lines.
3: Establish Communications Standards
One of the biggest virtual team challenges is the need for clear expectations when it comes to communication. Although remote employees have an array of communications tools at their disposal, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, having so many options can create confusion at best and misunderstandings at worst. For instance, just because an employee can send a Slack message at any time doesn’t mean the recipient should be obligated to respond immediately, especially when accounting for things like time zone differences.
While communications standards can be established informally within a team to keep track of how different members prefer to communicate (video or telephone, long or short messages, tolerance for humor, etc), this doesn’t eliminate the need for more standardized norms across an organization. The pharma giant Merck, for instance, established a system of acronyms for all digital communication, marking messages with labels such as 4HR (Four Hour Response) or NNTR (No Need To Respond). This system greatly cut down on uncertainty and facilitated faster, more effective communication between team members.
4: Select the Best Candidates for Remote Work
Virtual teams aren’t for everyone. Some employees struggle to perform in a remote workplace environment where the burden of accountability falls solely upon them. They may possess all the technical skills needed, but they may not take initiative or lack sufficient motivation to operate in a virtual environment. Strong virtual team members possess good communication skills to help them collaborate with others and relay information effectively.
OnPoint’s virtual team research has found that the three most important characteristics of a remote employee are strong interpersonal skills, initiative, and flexibility. These skills are also important for managing virtual teams, along with being able to resolve conflict effectively, influence others, and manage accountability from a distance.
5: Have a Plan to Assess Progress
Companies sometimes make the mistake of treating virtual teams like a “set it and forget it” asset, organizing employees and turning them loose without any plan for evaluating their performance. Like any other aspect of an organization, remote teams should be carefully monitored and assessed over time to make sure they are performing up to expectations. When the team is not meeting expectations for one reason or another, active steps should be taken to fix the problem rather than simply waiting for things to improve.
Due to the challenges imposed by distance and communication gaps, virtual team members can become disengaged and unproductive when trust breaks down or conflict goes unresolved. Collecting frequent feedback from team members can help to identify areas for concern. These problems usually coincide with poor performance and low accountability, so organizations should act quickly to get teams back on track, perhaps switching up team roles, shuffling membership, or bringing in new leadership as part of an overall reset.
Virtual teams have the potential to help pharma companies leverage their globally distributed resources to solve pressing issues facing the organization. By incorporating a wide array of perspectives and bringing new voices to the conversation, they can develop innovative solutions to problems and face future challenges with greater flexibility with virtual teams that work.