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.What Does Working Remotely Mean?
Remote work can mean a number of things in today’s multi-faceted workplace. It may include employees who work for the same company but are located in different offices in other parts of the world. Working virtually may also apply to team members who are based in the same location, but spend all or a portion of their time working from home.
The consistent feature of remote work, of course, is physical separation. Whether the team members are separated by something as small as a few office floors or as vast as an ocean, they face the same challenges that come from not being face-to-face with their fellow team members every day. The majority of their interactions are managed over various communications tools, such as email, collaborative software, workplace chat platforms, project management software, or video conferencing. While virtual teams can (and should) meet in person on occasion, the majority of the work is completed by team members in isolation from one another.
The Benefits of Working Remotely
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.
Working virtually has a number of advantages for employees as well. It provides them greater schedule flexibility and allows people to have access to opportunities that might not be possible due to their location. The option to work remotely can also benefit those who might have difficulty working in a conventional office setting for a number of reasons or can’t afford to leave their home or families for an extended period of time each day.
Challenges for Virtual Teams
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. These teams have different needs and face different pressures than conventional teams, and if organizations fail to appreciate those differences, they will have difficulty forming and managing them. Challenges range from technical issues like communication problems and scheduling conflicts to concerns over accountability and managing conflict.
Simply organizing and launching a virtual team is no guarantee of success. 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 performance across an organization.
3 Tips for Working Remotely
1: Encourage Proactive Behavior
Successful virtual team members are dynamic, self-motivated, and accountable. 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 with little 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 guidelines in place and leverages technology to ensure that information is being shared. Simply relying on email is probably not be sufficient, so organizations should consider investing in project management software, shared sites, 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. This 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 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, which can result in a performance plateau. 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 seamlessly as possible, organizations need to think about how to encourage proactive behaviors and promote communication and trust so that team members will succeed in a virtual workplace.