Is the virtual team a thing of the future?
Richard Branson certainly seems to think so; he once asserted that “one day, offices will be a thing of the past”.
Our own experience of running Career Matters as a remote team has proven to us that one thing is for sure; the way teams operate is changing.
As much as the traditional office-based team continues to dominate the workplace, virtual teams, also known as geographically dispersed teams or remote teams, are growing in popularity thanks to the range of benefits they offer both employer and employees.
What does a Virtual Team Look Like?
A typical remote team? There’s no such thing. Just as office-based teams vary, so do virtual teams.
Sales teams predate the modern virtual team in some way but have operated remotely for many years. In markets where a personal touch makes the difference between a sale or no sale, we find distributed teams of salespeople, each with their own territory and set of targets work on their own, checking in with the wider team on an occasional basis.
Then there are the Global corporations who slot virtual teams into their existing structure, taking their pick from an expansive talent pool. Virtually co-ordinating product launches, technology implementations and process improvements, many of the team will never meet face to face. Working in a virtual team like this provides a way to facilitate career development for talented staff members whilst ticking off the to-do list in a cost-effective way.
But with changing lifestyles and technological advances, increasing numbers of businesses operate as entirely virtual enterprises.
The consultancy model is well-suited to operating virtually.
It made sense to operate Career Matters as a virtual business – hiring team members across the UK, allows us to easily meet client needs across the country. And as a team of people who choose to work flexibly and focus on outcome vs. hours, remote work suits our ethos.
It’s an increasingly common theme. Buffer, the US-founded social media scheduling app, are 100% virtual. Joel Gascoigne, founder and CEO believes it’s what gives them an edge, allowing them to capitalise on multiple time zones whilst keeping his team motivated.
The Benefits of a Virtual Team
Well-managed virtual teams benefit both employer and employees.
A virtual team can make good business sense. Without the cost of running a head office, lower overheads are an obvious draw. And thanks to a lack of logistical constraints, you can take your pick from global and national talent.
Employees benefit too. Those with caring responsibilities – to children or ageing parents for instance – can balance their work around demands that become tough to manage in a traditional environment.
Skipping a commute in favour of exercise, a hobby or family time means employees with better physical and mental health.
Nimisha Walji has worked as a Freelance Project and Operations Manager for 8 years.
“I love it,” she says. “It allows me to travel and offers a sense of freedom. It does not suit everyone though – it takes ownership and proactivity”
Nimisha’s point is valid – there are issues with remote working. A lack of connection can affect motivation and poor communication may result in project slippage or duplication.
A concern for presenteeism can mean your employees work harder and feel more stressed than if based in a traditional environment. And how do you know your team is doing the work they should be doing? What if you don’t find out until it’s too late?
How Can You Build a Successful Virtual Team?
There are many examples of successful remote teams. But what do they have in common? What can you do to give a new virtual team every chance of success?
1) Successful Virtual Teams Invest in Technology
Virtual teams aren’t impossible without tech but they are a good deal better for it.
To run a successful virtual team, you must invest in quality hardware. Insist on and pay for internet & phone providers with reliable service records. And pay for the necessary software, especially malware detection. Your team will only be as good as the tools they have to do the job.
Working as a marketing manager for an online fashion retailer, Sara works flexibly to fit work around her family.
“A range of technology is so important. Instant messenger works for quick questions, webinars mean no-one gets left out of important presentations and tools such as Google Hangouts mean I can have a similar level of discussion with my colleagues as if I were speaking over my desk to them”.
Invest in technology support as well. Nothing destroys productivity better than IT issues, and remote workers shouldn’t be expected to fix IT issues any more than office-based teams should. Use a proven IT Support provider to help keep your team working.
2) Trust Is Essential to Successful Remote Relationships
Trust is the bedrock of any successful relationship. Even more so if you don’t work side by side.
Rebecca Newenham runs a virtual support agency and believes trust is intrinsic to success:
“My business is built on trust and without it I would have no business.” she says. “From the moment we interview a new team member we need to feel 100% confident that the person can work remotely, is happy to be given a brief and action it on time and to their best ability”.
Rebecca’s approach is echoed by other businesses, including Career Matters, who operate on a results basis instead of an hourly basis. You need to know your team is self-motivated and productive working on their own.
“As soon as my business expanded, I knew that I couldn’t keep tabs on the team 24/7 and I haven’t ever wanted to step on their toes…I am a huge believer in matching the client with their perfect assistant based on both skill-set and personality. I let that relationship develop and we watch from the sidelines with monthly touch points”.
Think about the people you invite onto your distributed team; whilst it may not be practical to hire people with proven remote experience, they should be motivated enough to work alone and have the necessary maturity to deliver to goals and build relationships.
3) A Strong Virtual Team Has Clear Structure & Support
One of the big reasons for the reliance on office-based teams is the way they benefit from the subtler aspects of human communication.
Albert Mehrabian formalised something we’ve known for millennia; that interpersonal communication is more than just the words we speak. He claimed that intonation and body language account for 93% of communication.
So it stands to reason that integrating with one-another and appreciating each other’s boundaries is challenging in an environment where non-verbal cues aren’t readily available. Add a range of cultural styles and you face a situation where norms and expectations are different without the ability to clearly express how this might be the case.
The solution? Set out guidelines at the start and regularly reinforce them. As an experienced freelance project manager, Nimisha agrees:
“it’s crucial that we set up accountabilities, clear work-flow structures, communication and reporting methods and deadlines from the start”.
Think about including the following:
★How the project status is communicated and shared
★When team members are and are not expected to respond and send emails
★Holiday and weekend working expectations
★Details of rotating meeting start times to allow for different time zones
★Email, messenger and video call etiquette
★File naming and storage guidelines
Although a list of “rules” may seem to fly in the face of the freedom of remote working, remember the maxim “freedom lies just beyond discipline”. Spend time setting and achieving the ground rules and you’ll be on your way to great things.
4) A Successful Virtual Team Communicates with Intent
Virtual teams can flux between too little communication and too much. It was Mark Sandborn who smartly observed that so far as teams are concerned, “silence isn’t golden. It’s deadly”. But what about too much? With a concern for presenteeism and a wish to be seen as collaborative, communication can unwittingly result in overwhelm.
Successful remote teams actively discourage synchronous communication. And here’s why.
Expecting and relying on immediate responses plays havoc with virtual teams. It requires constant availability – an issue for anyone in a different timezone or with interests outside the team. The constant notifications and need for responses create stress and reduce productivity.
Working as a freelance copywriter, Laura knows the hazards of instant messengers only too well:
“I had one client who expected me to be permanently available on Whatsapp. He’d ping me questions and ideas all day long – it would disrupt my flow and meant my output was way below what it should have been. Fortunately, as our relationship developed, he became less Whatsapp-happy – perhaps it was a way for him to develop trust in our relationship, but for me, it was just too much.”
Shifting to asynchronous communication or “intentional communication” as coined by Bruce Daisley in his book “The Joy of Work”, moves from a reliance on instant messaging and emails to help your team become more deeply connected.
Bruce sums up intentional communication as an approach where:
“People take turns to respond at a time that suits them… Your interventions, when they do come will have more impact”.
It’s a shift in this age of instant communication and may not work in all situations, but even a small shift towards this communication style can result in better outcomes and healthier, happier teams.
5) A Successful Virtual Team Builds a True Connection
Investing in time with your team is the best time and money you’ll spend. An annual meet-up will do more to build connection and fire up enthusiasm than all the video conferences combined.
There are other ways you can build meaningful connections. With over 70 team members spread across the globe, Buffer work hard at building a connection, with multiple tools they refer to as “virtual watercoolers” where they hang out, sharing GIFs, emojis and as they put it “goof about”.
Not sure that’s quite right for your business?
A Facebook group or Twitter hashtag creates community and gives distributed teams a place to let off steam and share their wins and woes. And it’s not just the big guys who have the best ideas.
Sune Nightingale runs a family business. With a team that’s been working remotely since the 90s, he was keen to impress the importance of a personal connection. Additional to setting out clear goals and regular catch ups he said they’ll “post occasional music and silly pictures to the group chat as we work, as well as industry-specific news and insight, philosophy and other topics to get the brain going”.
He added, “I’ve really no idea how people get stuff done in their offices with all those distractions and chatter”.
Ready to Build a Winning Virtual Team?
Virtual or not, a successful team works for everyone involved.