Virtual teams have fundamentally changed the way organizations achieve their business goals. The shift to geographically dispersed employees has been in full swing for decades and shows little sign of slowing. In fact, according to Gallup research, 30 percent of employees in 2016 spent 80 to 100 percent of their time working remotely. That figure has almost certainly increased since then.
The ability to build teams based primarily upon existing needs and necessary skills, regardless of location and availability, has allowed companies to address challenges more effectively. With this flexibility, even large organizations are able to adapt to market changes quickly while still leveraging their extensive resources at a fraction of what such coordination would have cost in the past.
Making the transition from a traditional, colocated workplace where people can build relationships based on personal interactions to a virtual, remotely located workplace is not without its challenges. In fact, OnPoint’s research has found that 27 percent of virtual teams are not performing up to expectations. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that, when executed correctly, can shorten the adjustment period and significantly increase efficiency across an organization.
Here Are Three Key Components of Adjusting to a Virtual Team:
1: Encourage Proactive Behavior
Successful virtual team members are dynamic, self-motivated, and responsible. They see obstacles as challenges and relish the opportunity to build appropriate solutions. Since much of their work will be done on their own, they need to be able to manage their time and efforts without heavy-handed oversight. While team members shouldn’t be discouraged from seeking guidance or clarification, they should be encouraged to take ownership of their tasks and make their own decisions whenever possible.
At the same time, virtual teams still need effective leadership to provide direction and to inspire people to collaborate productively. Like any other team, people need to know what roles they are expected to fill and which goals should be prioritized over others. While leadership can define roles and responsibilities, virtual teams work most effectively when leaders are able to step back and let team members decide the best way to reach their goals. This fosters creativity and collaboration, allowing the team to bond over task-related assignments.
2: Promote Communication
Establishing good communication is crucial for any team’s success, but it’s absolutely vital for a virtual team. Since team members generally won’t spend much time together, work different schedules, and may even be located in different time zones, it’s critical that any virtual workplace puts detailed guidelines in place to ensure that information is being shared. Simply relying on email will probably not be sufficient, so organizations should consider investing in project management software or virtual workplace chat applications. Technology should be used as a tool to facilitate communication, interaction and replicate the characteristics of a face-to-face interaction.
Virtual team members also don’t have the benefit of nonverbal cues (such as body language and certain visual aids), so regular communication is critical. Leading from a distance requires being clear about expectations, routine checks for comprehension, and a quick turnaround time to answer questions and clear up misunderstandings. In the beginning of a virtual transition, this likely requires regular phone calls or video sessions with individual team members.
3: Build Trust
Teams rely on strong relationships to be effective. If team members don’t care about their peers, they are less likely to be invested in the team’s success, resulting in lower productivity and reduced engagement. When teams have relationships based on trust and respect, it’s much easier for virtual leaders to promote collaboration and accountability. They’re also more likely to resolve conflicts productively, which can lead to positive outcomes rather than the kind of lingering resentment that can cripple morale.
Getting to that level of trust, however, is a big challenge for virtual teams. For remote employees, there is a tendency to slip into an "out of sight, out of mind” attitude. Unlike a physical office, virtual leaders needs to be much more deliberate about encouraging the interaction between virtual team members to create meaningful social bonds. This is especially important during the initial team formation; organizations should use strategies like in-person kick-off meetings, regular video conferencing, and virtual hangouts to help team members get to know each other.
Making the transition from predominantly face-to-face teams to virtual teams has the potential to greatly enhance productivity, but it doesn’t come without challenges. To make that shift as seamless as possible, organizations need to think about how to encourage proactive behaviors and promote the communication and trust team members will need to function effectively in a virtual workplace.