When the concept of remote and virtual work first began to emerge, many people doubted that it would really play out. After all, we assumed that in order to keep our team members productive, we needed to provide them with support, management and organization in the same environment.
However, the world of work has evolved.
Today, thanks to the rise of things like cloud computing and the app economy, people can complete complicated tasks from virtually any environment. We can communicate face-to-face through video calls, answer customer queries from a distance and even collaborate online. Work is no longer a place we go to, but a process that we can access anywhere.
As a result, 50% of the U.S workforce is set to be working virtually at least some of the time this year. At the same time, organizations are rapidly embracing the idea of complementing their workforce of traditional employees with freelancers, contractors, and part-time virtual staff.
The question is, what are the positives and negatives of this new approach? Should we be plowing full steam ahead into the virtual landscape? Or are there hurdles that we need to overcome first?
What Is a Virtual Team?
A virtual team, otherwise referred to as a “remote team”, is a collection of specialist individuals who can work from any location with an internet connection. Your virtual team doesn’t need to be in the same room as their colleagues to get things done. These individuals use things like file-sharing tools and messaging apps to work together on complicated projects.
Virtual teams work best in environments where processes are mostly digital. For instance, it’s difficult to build a team of engineers that needs to physically interact with machines and allow them to work virtually. However, marketing experts, who can easily access all of their email tools, analytical services, and more on the web, are primed for a virtual environment.
Virtual teams need a specific collection of tools to operate properly in their digital environment. From a robust connection to the cloud, to a powerful selection of communication services, these components help your workers to deliver the same degree of productivity, regardless of whether they’re connecting from a coworking space, a café or their own home.
The Advantages of Virtual Teams
Remote working requires business leaders to overhaul their corporate environment, turning physical tools for work, like phones and computer systems, into digital services that can be accessed from any environment. While not every team will thrive in the virtual environment, there are benefits for organizations that can make the experience work, such as:
1. Greater Productivity
Initially, a lot of people assumed that virtual working would decrease productivity, because employees would have too many distractions outside of the office. However, research has shown that remote workers consider themselves to be more productive.
What’s more, they’re often a lot more committed to getting their tasks done and proving that they can be trusted to work without micromanagement.
In one particularly in-depth study from Stanford, researchers learned that not only were virtual workers outperforming their colleagues by 13%, but they also had 50% less turnover. Remote employees were more likely to concentrate better and put in a full day of work.
2. Higher Cost Savings
Virtual teams don’t just deliver more, they also slash your overhead costs. Companies save on renting small office spaces, which can translate to significant savings in the right environment. There’s also a lot less expense to worry about when it comes to things like electricity and heating.
Allowing employees to work virtually reduces the need for all kinds of overhead expenses. It also means that companies generally spend more money on flexible software for productivity, and less on hardware that needs to be ripped out and replaced every few years.
3. Improved Employee Happiness
Team members who work virtually aren’t just more productive, they’re also a lot happier too. While organizations frequently worry about their virtual employees becoming isolated and unhappy, research shows that this isn’t the case. 71% of virtual employees report being happy in their workplace, compared to only 55% of their co-located counterparts.
Virtual employees can access better control over their work/life balance and spend less time on the exhausting commute to and from work. These more satisfied employees are more likely to go above and beyond for their employers, and less likely to leave their careers for a new job.
4. New Hiring Opportunities
In a traditional work environment, businesses are restricted to hiring the talented individuals that just happen to be close by. This means that they could be missing out on excellent opportunities to leverage new skill sets. Indeed, many employers find it very difficult to identify and recruit the qualified candidates they need when they’re limited by location.
Alternatively, with a virtual team, it’s easy to hire staff from any environment, as you’re not restricted by geographical boundaries. You can even hire people who just join your team for a short period of time, such as contractors or freelancers.
The Challenges of Virtual Teams
Of course, though remote workers have a lot of exciting benefits to offer the right employers, they also have some challenges to consider. Not every company is well-suited to a remote or virtual workforce. Some issues to think about include:
- Trouble Maintaining Company Culture
Drafting company culture documents is fine, but it’s hard to build in-depth relationships between employees that never truly meet. Employees that spend too much time relying on email and instant messaging to connect with their team members can sometimes begin to feel isolated.
This is why remote workers need to ensure that they’re working extra hard to make culture feel real and significant to their employees. Video conferencing tools and regular team building exercises are essential for ensuring the flow of communication in any team.
- Maintaining a Watchful Eye
Keeping an eye on things like employee morale, energy levels, and productivity is one of the core functions of any business leader. However, it’s very difficult to do this if you’re communicating via the occasional phone call or email message. You might not be able to tell if someone on your team has trouble from a distance.
Virtual team managers need to work hard at ensuring that their employees are engaged. Additionally, it may be necessary to implement strategies that make it easier to track the work that employees are actually getting done each day.
- Communication and Collaboration Can Be More Difficult
Even with tools like instant chat apps and video conferencing tools available to help streamline everyday conversations, communication can be complex for virtual teams. After all, not only do you need to make sure that you have the right services in place to allow people to communicate in the way that they prefer, but you also need to consider scheduling challenges.
Many virtual teams have people working from different time zones, which means that team leaders need to be extra careful to ensure that any scheduled meetings or important interactions are accessible to everyone.
Creating Successful Virtual Teams
In a lot of environments, the positives of a virtual team can significantly outweigh the negatives. The key to success is making sure that you have the right elements in place to empower and support your virtual workers – wherever this might be. This means:
- Implementing management strategies: Virtual team members need the freedom and autonomy to get things done on their own schedule. Remote workers work best when they’re free to decide how to work. However, you can still keep track of their performance by asking for regular updates or assigning specific deadlines for tasks. This can help to keep everything running smoothly.
- Offering the right communications tools: There’s nothing more important than the right communications and collaboration tools in a virtual team. Companies need to go beyond basic instant messaging and email options. Video conference software can help employees to maintain more intimate face-to-face connections. At the same time, videos can also provide more context in a conversation when used correctly.
- Providing collaboration apps: Aside from communications tools, your employees also need services that they can use to collaborate. This includes file sharing solutions on the cloud, and software that they can use simultaneously with their coworkers. Screen sharing systems might be necessary in some environments too.
- Providing support and motivation: Just because remote teams don’t need to be micromanaged, that doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from support. Providing regular feedback and giving your virtual teams access to the assistance that they need when they need it can be crucial to keeping them working at their best.
Remember, simple things like “trust” can also go a long way in a virtual team. As difficult as it can be as a manager to rest assured that your employees are going to be working hard every day, you need to believe in their professionalism and drive.
Trust them to deliver the results that you need and listen to them when they tell you what kind of tools and solutions, they need to get their work done. This way, your virtual workplace will continue to evolve and improve over time.
Sam O'Brien is the Senior Website Optimisation & User Experience Manager for EMEA at RingCentral, a global UCaaS systems provider. Sam has a passion for innovation and loves exploring ways to collaborate more with dispersed teams.