The idea of allowing managers to handpick the players on their teams from around the globe would appear to be the holy grail of productivity and that oh so elusive competitive edge. It would also seem to be a godsend for employees, both salaried and contract/freelance. It allows them to compete for and land the most sought-after contracts from employers without the confines of a given geographic location.
While it has always been more or less possible to work remotely for a certain segment of the workforce, the internet has opened up an entire world of possibilities for building a talent pool without boundaries. It would seem to be the “perfect wave” for employer & employee alike, but do the challenges of virtual teams outweigh their apparent advantages?
What you’ll find below is an insight into navigating the challenges of building and maintaining virtual teams.
The Rise of The Virtual Team
A recent study from Stanford University revealed that working from home “had showed an astounding productivity boost among the telecommuters equivalent to a full day’s work.”
The study showed that the remote workers actually worked a true, full eight-hour shift (or more) as opposed to the inevitable sickness, lateness and early departures of onsite staff. There were also indications that the workers found the environment more comfortable, and less distracting, and thus were able to achieve deeper levels of focus than their office coworkers.
Other research corroborates these findings, and indicate more than 60 percent of companies are offering some form of telecommuting benefits.
So, the question begs: in the face of all these apparent work from home advantages, why are blue chip companies like IBM and Wells Fargo scaling back their remote work opportunities?
What Challenges Virtual Teams
It appears that in actuality, things aren’t always so shiny on the telecommuting side of the fence.
While remote work can be a boon for some employees, other employees report acute feelings of isolation and disconnection.
The possible lack of physical interaction can lead to depression and other mental illness, exacerbate feelings of being shunned, or even outright paranoia, where workers reported fears that coworkers where talking behind their backs or even lobbying against them on projects.
These are the main areas riddled with pitfalls for team members working remotely:
- Morale & culture
- Work/Life balance
Common Challenges: Lack of Communication
Differences in communication styles can create disarray and destroy productivity.
If the virtual team landscape is global in nature, disparate time zones can create bottlenecks, lags and cause expensive delays.
Without a well-defined communication structure in place, the organization breaks down, collaborative efforts fail and crucial details go untended.
Solution: Drive Detailed Communication At All Times
Advocate and encourage detailed communication and strict accountability at all levels and at all stages of a project.
Require explanations for inordinately long response times to in-play tasks, maintain an email trail on important correspondence between team members, and establish and enforce deadlines for follow up and implementation.
Solution: Make the Most of Every Meeting & Video Call
A remote worker does not have the same opportunities to reach out to coworkers and superiors when clarification of a task is needed. Therefore, it is crucial to get as much useful information as possible from every meeting and call.
Try to have a list of questions ready beforehand and note any problems encountered over the course of your assignment.
If a connected office-based team has a meeting without you, make sure you get notes, minutes or updates, even if they don’t involve your task directly, just to remain on track with all parts of your project.
Solution: Build Trust
The only way a virtual team can function properly is if each member of that team shoulders the responsibility both for themselves and for their position in the workflow of the project. This is done by personal ensuring any communication thread they are a part of remains up to date and following up or bumping any email that may be lagging.
Establish best practices, like taking ownership to make sure all participants have access to the meeting agenda and notes at 48 hours in advance so they can prepare.
This results in confidence throughout the team because each member can trust that everyone is on top of all correspondence.
Common Challenges: Scheduling
With a global workforce, there are invariably going to be numerous and wildly differing time zones in play. With everyone on such vastly differing schedules, meticulous attention to scheduling and deadlines is a must. Setting up meetings and conferences can be a challenge, along with ensuring attendance, attention, and participation.
Even when properly adhered to, the dissimilar ti
me zones can create jet lag type conditions among team members when a meeting or deadline has been placed in what amounts to the middle of the night or inordinately early in the morning for that individual.
There is simply no alternative for the relative passage of time among virtual team members, and some level of compromise and cooperation will be needed to get over this all too common hurdle.
Meetings are an important part of bringing teams together, and it may be that regular meetings may need to follow a floating schedule so that no one person shoulders all of the burden.
Establish Common Work Hours
Make clear that there are common, daily work hours when all team members are expected to be working, or at least available for meetings, deliverables, correspondence and other aspects of day to day workflow.
Common Challenges: Morale & Office Culture/Team Spirit
Whereas some people thrive in the inherently insular environment of a telecommuting position,
others don’t handle it nearly so well.
Establishing a sense of office culture is both extremely important and among the most daunting of virtual team challenges.
Any team, even a virtual team, will struggle to function cohesively if the members are wholly unfamiliar with each other. Conversely, tasks will move much more smoothly if team members are at least somewhat acquainted with the person on the other end of the email trail or voice/video meeting. Even a remote team should feel enthusiastic about their tasks and their job.
When discontent and lack of motivation begin to set in, it can be hard to regain that momentum.
Solution: Build Your Team
Maintain departmental message groups and ongoing conversation across chats and social media if appropriate. Swap life or family stories and recent weekend activities, share news about the various interests and hobbies among the team members.
Encourage bonding, and conversation among coworkers. Find ways to come together within that unlimited virtual space in such a way that it allows the team to interact and become familiar with each other.
Common Challenges: Work/Life Balance
Finding the right mix of life and work is an ongoing challenge for us all, but never more so than when working with virtual teams. Particularly when working from a home office or environment, the line between tending to our secular work and tending to personal affairs and responsibilities can easily become blurred.
Being on a virtual team challenges members to establish boundaries on a working landscape with no inherent boundaries. The distractions of family members can quickly pull a remote worker away from their task, and sorely inhibit their productivity.
The ease and availability of the comforts of home can easily become a productivity killer as well. After all, at home, we know exactly where all our favorite stuff is! All those familiar cues can take us out of “work mode” and into “leisure mode,” and further stymie our productivity.
Solution: Get Out of The House!
Thanks to the increasing availability of coworking spaces, remote workers no longer have to compartmentalize their home lives, or be relegated to cutting through the ambient noise and constant distractions of a local coffee house.
Shared workspaces can offer the comforts and amenities of a professional office setting while allowing telecommuters to retain their autonomy.
From whitewall rooms to conference settings, to unconventional train car configurations, shared spaces allow remote workers to move away from their living area to a space designed to facilitate what they do.
Solution: Establish Boundaries
If actually moving away from your living area isn’t practical for whatever reason, be sure to establish an area that is designated strictly off-limits during specific work hours just as if you worked away from the home.
You will need the cooperation of the people in your living space whatever their individual roles, in that they must respect this very important boundary. During this time, you must remain unavailable for any but the direst of emergencies.
Leave Work When You’re Done
You wouldn’t normally remain at the office for hours after the end of your day. Remote workers, however, may have a tendency to never really shut off, and over time that can be a real drain on one’s enthusiasm and motivation, even if the job itself is an enjoyable one.
They check emails, read documents, and perform tasks that they would otherwise handle the following business day. Don’t be afraid to disconnect at the end of the day!
On weekends, check emails once a day then get back to your life. Once work is done shut down and invest in the things that mean the most to you. Enjoy a hobby, or get a new one.
Don’t let a remote position become an isolation booth. Rather, let downtime be a chance to recharge your batteries and refresh your faculties so that what you do doesn’t become rote and overly mundane.
This list of common challenges of virtual teams is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list. In the course of a remote workday, any number of unforeseen obstacles may present themselves.
The mark of a successful virtual team is their ability to navigate these complications and remain on track to accomplish their goals with a minimum of disruption. By maintaining these and other best practices, virtual teams can function every bit as smoothly as any onsite unit.