Remote work, or telecommuting, has taken off dramatically in the last few years. A study by IWG shows that 70% of people around the world work remotely at least one day per week, with 53% of people telecommuting for over half of the week.
Telecommuting has come about because of huge improvements in technology that allow remote collaboration and communication, and due to the fact that there are huge benefits from working outside the office. These include a better work/ life balance for employees, lower costs for employers, environmental benefits, and a wider talent pool of employees to hire from.
The rise of remote work shows an automatic correlative rise with virtual teams. But what is a virtual team?
It’s a group of people who work together on a collective goal, completing individual work, but are not physically together. Instead, they work all over the world and communicate using technology.
In other words, a virtual team is basically any kind of office team or department, but taken out of the office and potentially spread all over the world. Thanks to modern technology, including lots of communication and collaboration programmes, having a virtual team has never been easier.
However, despite the rise of such teams in the workplace, there are quite a lot of virtual teams challenges that must be faced, to be able to communicate effectively and normally. These issues can include, but are not limited to: communication difficulties, cultural differences, motivation issues, less office culture and less trust for employees.
However, there are plenty of ways to manage virtual teams in the workplace and overcome all of these issues. Let’s look into what makes a good virtual team!
Possibly the most important thing to consider when managing a virtual team is communication. It’s true that communicating with someone in the office - in person - is always going to be much more effective than speaking online, but thanks to modern technology, virtual conversations and video collaboration have become a lot easier.
Use of video conferencing software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams has increased dramatically in recent times, which has prompted companies like Google to bring out competing software - their platform is called Gmeet. The competition in this field means that companies are more likely to improve their software and add extra features to make it feel like employees are ‘in the room’.
For virtual team leaders, it might be a good idea to use an interactive display in their place of work. These function like tablets, with applications including video calling software, but are much larger and must be mounted to the screen. This will enable the team leader to see everyone in more detail, which will more accurately mirror lifelike situations and subsequently help them to pick up body language, just like in an office.
One of the huge advantages to virtual teams is that people can be hired from anywhere. The best people around the world can be allocated to a certain role, without the geographical constraints that come from needing to go into an office every day.
As teams hire remotely, they may be taking on people who live in completely different countries. This can cause cultural differences, which can be a big problem in the workplace.
But the solution comes back to planning and communication; the virtual team leader should take the time to get to know each employee and their culture, and work out, ahead of time, some cultural differences that might occur. If there is something that is non-negotiable, like turning up on time for meetings, then the team leader must make sure that this is very clear in the hiring process.
A successful virtual team will be completely understanding of people’s cultures and accept that sometimes everybody in the team may do things that others don’t understand.
The jury’s out on whether people are more or less motivated from home - and indeed, it can very much depend on the person. A study by Stanford reported that there was a 13% improvement of performance in people working from home, but many virtual team leaders worry about distractions at home causing a lack of motivation, which subsequently leads to less trust in their employees.
Again, communication is key here. Talking to your virtual teams about your expectations can really help, as well as daily and weekly debriefs to make sure everyone is staying motivated. If any issues arise, video calls are really helpful to discuss them further. It’s also a great idea to use collaboration apps or platforms, like Asana or Monday, to allocate tasks and track progress.
The camaraderie that comes with being in a workplace with people is something that is hard to replicate in the virtual world. Loneliness when working alone is definitely something that many people struggle with, with Finder reporting that 19% of people have admitted to this. Loneliness can cause mental health problems, so it is very important to tackle this early on, or even before any staff members have reported feeling lonely.
A successful workplace team must find a way to replicate office culture, but online. Starting a meeting with a five minute chat about non-work related topics is a great first step. Arranging team building activities over conference calling software is a fantastic way to keep the office culture going and help employees fight against loneliness.
Team building activities could include:
For these activities a piece of hardware that is able to provide high quality imagery and function well with different programmes, like an interactive display, is hugely beneficial to the team leader.
A successful virtual team is glued together by communication, collaboration and acceptance that this is a different way of working - but one that does have many advantages.
The most crucial thing to consider when troubleshooting a virtual team is any communication issues, whether they be physical (the issue of not being able to talk to people as well online as in person) or psychological (not knowing if someone is battling with loneliness, cultural difficulties or lack of motivation). With the importance of good communication being laid out from the start, a virtual team will become much more successful and effective.
Especially at the beginning of a virtual team’s establishment, it is of great importance that check-ins are frequent and the leader is aware of what tasks their employees are currently doing. However, it’s also vital that this isn’t an overkill - check-ins certainly shouldn’t be more frequent than they would be in a physical workplace!
Establishing a strong workplace culture and friendship is fantastic too. It’s important to talk business a lot of the time, but virtual teams will be much more responsive if they are also given the opportunity to socialise with their employees - just as people have in the real world.
Hiring virtual teams can be challenging, and while there are multiple benefits - including the wider talent pool available, lower business expenses, less carbon emissions, more work life balance for employees and more - there are several virtual teams challenges that must be addressed in order to create a successful one.
Knowing about, and planning for, issues that might come up when managing remote teams before they do is also highly beneficial to making sure that a virtual team is operating effectively. Keeping in check with employee’s statuses and remembering that behind each computer is a person - even if it is someone who the leader has never met - is a great way to ensure the smooth operation of any virtual team and increase productivity, profits and business success.