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Succeeding with Virtual Teams




"Remote work is the future of work."
– Alexis Ohanian, Reddit

 

Work teams have become a truly global phenomenon. Increasingly, people are working in “virtual” teams composed of members who are dispersed across different locations, time zones, and even countries. How can you succeed with virtual teams? Check out the practical tips below!

In one sense, this is good news. Virtual teams can function around the clock, sending work back and forth across countries to take advantage of the differences in time zones around the world. Additionally – and somewhat surprisingly to many – virtual teams can outperform traditional co-located teams. A study from Aon Consulting found that virtual teams can improve employee productivity, with some organizations seeing gains of up to 43%.

The benefits of virtual teams to organizations, managers, and team members are many and include better ability to recruit and retain talent (no need to relocate), expense reduction (less office cost), work life balance, higher employee engagement (work anywhere at any time), broader and more flexible working hours, higher productivity, and “greener” work (less commuting, digital versus paper).

However, there are also challenges to virtual teams. Difficulties for team members include effective communication, setting clear goals/direction/priorities, establishing trust, leveraging social connections, and development limitations. A common factor is the tendency to be “out of sight, out of mind.” Virtual employees do not enjoy the same “organic” (naturally occurring) connections that co-located teams experience regularly. Virtual meetings often leave time only for essential business and omit time for socializing and building relationships. And because they report to leaders who do not have frequent opportunities to observe their performance and see their skills in use, team members may be overlooked for challenging assignments and development opportunities.

Team managers also encounter challenges with virtual teams, such as managing deliverables, connecting and communicating with team members in a timely manner, keeping virtual team members on track, keeping everyone working together as a unified team, and fully engaging virtual team members. In leading virtual teams, the management issues are the same but the gaps are magnified. For example, managing performance virtually is much more difficult. Similarly, dealing with team conflict is significantly more challenging. And team meetings can be a headache when compounded by distance and time differences.

Engaging virtual employees can be particularly daunting. Consider, for example, a sampling of the Gallup 12 engagement levers and how these impact virtual team members.

  • Opportunity to do what I do best. The best opportunities may not reach far flung team members, particularly where urgent matters arise that must be handled quickly and are assigned to someone just down the hall.
  • Cares about me as a person / I have a best friend at work. Relationships are often easier to develop with those who interact frequently face-to-face.
  • Encourages my development / Opportunities to work, learn, and grow. Despite the best of intentions, remote team members often miss out on development and growth opportunities extended to others.

Particular attention and intentional focus are required to overcome the natural tendency to overlook the needs of those who lack the same organic connections and opportunities to interact.

For leaders, attending to four key areas of virtual management – processes, tools, results, and mindsets – can bridge the gaps described and heighten the success of virtual teams.

  • Processes. For virtual team members, focus on a more collaborative structure for team meetings, a commitment to regular 1:1 check in times, and a balanced focus on performance and development needs. Consistency is more important than frequency in these contacts.
  • Tools. Ensure that all team members are kept fully in the communication loop and have the information needed to perform. Make certain that everyone has access to and knows how to use effectively all the technology tools and resources available. Avoid the problem of limited access or functionality in remote locations; use tools that are fully functional for all.
  • Results. Set clear goals and expectations with well-defined roles and responsibilities, metrics and timelines.
    Then manage and hold people accountable for results rather than activity.
  • Mindsets. Foster a sense of virtual community and team spirit. Be planful, intentional, and deliberate in finding creative ways to interact in ways that bridge distance and time differences. Go overboard in building an environment of trust and respect.

The trend toward more virtual teams likely will continue and perhaps will accelerate more rapidly than ever. Succeeding with virtual teams is not a matter of luck. Rather, success results from careful planning and a concerted effort to manage the unique aspects of today’s virtual teams.

Dee Oviatt is Senior Training Consultant at ATW Training Solutions. Dee can be reached at dee@atwtraining.com or by calling 515.727.0731.


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