We live in a world, which is becoming more and more globally connected. As the technologies allow unlimited collaboration at the distance, virtual work had picked up significantly in the last decades and today nearly everyone works virtually, in one way or another, at least among the knowledge workers. Its popularity grows continuously and only businesses that are ready to embrace this trend, have a chance to be relevant in the near future.
The current COVID-19 pandemic brought virtual collaboration to the spotlight and appeared to be the fastest accelerator of corporate digitalisation. Apart of the pandemic, what has been driving this trend? And what are the opportunities, that evolve for businesses and organisations, as the world grows closer in the digital wirelessness?
Get the right people. The most important advantage of virtual teams is the ability to get the right people on board. When you see no geographical boundaries on finding the best staff, putting together a global team of experts with exactly needed skills, know-how and capabilities or attitudes, you just can better concentrate on your strategic goals and move faster in the right direction. Looking beyond a certain geographic area, it is easier to find people who are passionate for the business you are in. And if they are – a great piece of their motivation is intrinsic. So, to keep your staff motivated, all you need to do, is to let them contribute.
Benefit from diversity. Cultural diversity with a wide range of backgrounds among the team members has the potential to foster creativity and enhance the range of skills.
Cover multiple times zones. You can even work around the clock, offer more part time options, or split-shift arrangements and expect higher customer satisfaction, as happy employees are more service oriented.
Scaling the business made easier. Many talented employees nowadays are looking for jobs offering higher flexibility and ability for a better work-life integration and less commute. Simply adding the term “work place flexibility” to the job listing might attract candidates, that wouldn’t be interested otherwise. Once on board, you can expect better employee retention. If you have hired the right people for the job and allow for flexibility in where they do their work – why would they want to leave?
Good for the environment. Transportation is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. If some of the commuters travelled less or shorter distances, we all would breathe better.
Amid all the benefits, many traditional organisations are still finding virtual collaboration a challenge and struggle to tap into its full potential. But what exactly is the difference? The truth is, strong virtual teams rely on the same principles of teaming and collaboration, as the collocated teams do. Strong leadership, aligned expectations, well established processes, and clear rules of the game do the job. However, what an onsite team needs for the best possible performance, becomes essential in a virtual team.
Any team would greatly benefit from a process that regulates the way the work is done, whether it is making decisions, keeping the deadlines, planning the next step or handing over the work results. For an onsite team however, much of the ambiguity can be smoothed out by going next door to clarify, or by noticing the confused expression on the face of your colleague. This all is done quickly, often unnoticed. Having unclear processes in a remote team can cause a great deal of frustration and time loss. Unnoticed for a while, small errors can eventually grow into big problems.
Unclear communication is not fun neither in the office, nor remotely. But unclear, ambiguous, unstructured message can cause a real frustration on the receiver’s end. Written communication makes a substantial part of the information exchange when working at a distance, a much greater part than it does for the collocated teams. And a written word is more prone to ambiguity and misunderstanding.
The ability to form deep meaningful personal connection and develop trust is another challenge of virtual teams. The feeling of alienation and “being cut off” from the information are frequent experiences reported when working remotely. These can quickly lead to low engagement, emotional disentanglement, suboptimal performance and poor goal achievement.
What are the keys to strong, high performing and engaged virtual teams? How can any team go virtually and achieve great results while taping fully into the potential of distributed work?
1. Manage the team dynamic. First of all, any team working remotely should invest into getting to know each other and building a good relationship among the team members. Just as any other team, they go through forming, storming, norming and performing. However, it is not unusual, that a virtual team gets stuck in the forming stage by keeping the cool psychological distance. This way, they cannot achieve the stage of commitment and emotional engagement within the group.
2. Create the environment of trust. Trust is the single most important component on a way to virtual excellence. Trust affects virtual teams to a greater degree than it does the local teams. This means, that high trust will lead to greater benefits in a remote team compared to a local team, but the adverse effects of a low trust environment are more exacerbating. Investing into trust pays off big time.
3. Get the right people. The remote lifestyle is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you are in a position to choose people to make your remote team, make sure to attract those adaptable and flexible, with strong self-discipline, good communication skills and reliable judgement. Be clear on what your value proposition is – this way you will attract people, who are already passionate about what you do.
4. Set goals. Be clear on what you want to achieve and unite the team behind the goal. The team members should not only cognitively know the goal, but they should embrace it with the emotion and the sense of personal commitment to achieving it. It is the leader’s role to connect it to the level of personal values. Further, the strategic agenda, time horizon, budget priorities etc. should be well understood by the team. This understanding can become essential, when people are working remotely and need to take their own judgement about the tactical priorities within their roles.
5. Create transparency. Transparency and clarity of the roles help to grow trust. But they also give the sense of security and of orientation in the remote team. Work together with the team to define tasks, roles, interdependencies and modes of communication. The most important is, that everyone in the team feel inside the information loop and understands the processes and the priorities. Develop ways to make the work visible, which means, that it should be easy and encouraged for people to share their contributions with the rest of the group.
6. Agree on tools. If the team relies on technology for its collaboration, it is important to get the technology right. Firstly, work on efficient team processes: reporting, on- and offboarding, task allocation, information sharing, knowledge accumulation among others. Secondly, choose the tools to support your processes. Given the abundance of tools on the market, it is worthwhile spending time and effort to find the tools that match your way of work. Clear and understandable dashboards have the potential to render the effort to prepare traditional reporting redundant. Technically supported workflows will save valuable work time and reduce the risk of human error. Messaging and file sharing will keep the team up-to-date. One thing, that should not be forgotten: Implementing the tools is only the first step, but only training the people to use the tools as designed and intended, lets the added value fully unfold. It is not only about the right tools; it is about the right tools thoroughly applied.
7. Align expectations. Be clear on what kind of culture you want in your team to prevail. Appreciation and feedback are important for people to engage and feel valued. The side effect – open and respectful communication can prevent conflicts and misunderstandings. It has the potential to create psychological safety and help turn mistakes into learning opportunities. Involve people in goal setting, make the goals interdependent, so people can work together and engage with each other on a deeper personal level. Align personal development paths with the strengths, as well as with the priorities of the individual team members.
8. Create optimal work conditions. For seasoned remote workers personal self-organisation is just part of the game, but for people new to virtual collaboration, this issue is one worth a mention. Advise your team members to have a dedicated work place (home office is not the only possibility, it might be a nearby co-working place, a regional corporate hub or a public library). Talk about having the daily routine and closing off at the end of the day. Give the team the flexibility to arrange their schedules – as much or as little, as seen appropriate – every corporate culture is different. Make sure, that the tools are accessible and people have the knowledge to apply them. Teams are made of humans – remember to check-in regularly on how everyone is doing and get involved with people on personal level. People will be more open and engaged if they feel more connected to the organization and to the team. Create fun and insider content for the team to strengthen the bond via traditions, anecdotes, celebrations.
9. Evaluate performance. You only can manage what you can measure. The best way to motivate your remote team is by setting motivating objectives and measure the output, not the time spent. To be able to measure it accurately, define your key performance indicators (KPIs) according to your business specifics. It is important to set the KPIs, that would actually help to measure the team’s performance and personal contribution, and not simply producing flashy statistics. Enhance your reporting with elegant dashboards to decrease the data preparation effort. Once you have the data, review it in the light of the goal achievement and be ready to take action – support and encourage, offer help, or raise the bar.
If your team or your organisation is going through a challenging journey to more flexible, trustful and professional remote work environment, be sure, your effort is worthwhile taking. Well organised distributed work allows businesses to grow as efficient, effective and highly performing companies, able to compete in today’s increasingly globalised world. It becomes more a necessity than a privilege on order to remain relevant and successful in the business of today and tomorrow.
You have an inspiring virtual work success story? Feel free to share it in the comments.