Work In The Web Era: Are We Ready For Virtual Teams?

Getting Ready For Virtual Teams

Technological developments are ushering in a new era of work. Cloud computing has changed not only the way we collaborate, but where, when, and how we’re able to work. The ability to clock in from any corner of the world has given rise to a new professional culture that’s less about where you are, and more about what you can offer.

The ascent of remote working is fostering a more open, and more competitive, market; as candidates are no longer so bound to their geographical location, there’s potential to attract the best talent, no matter where they’re based. The use of virtual teams can free organizations from geographical shackles not only when it comes to hiring the best talent, but streamlining logistics, fostering collaboration among colleagues, and nurturing innovation.

Remote Work Virtual Teams

These advances in computing are slowly but surely loosening the leash on the modern workforce; according Nigel Frank’s 2017 Technology for Business report, a third of employees now work outside the central office at least once a week. The report also highlighted a swathe of benefits being derived from the use of virtual teams, from increased retention, to faster hiring.

Nevertheless, when big change begins to shake the foundations of what we know and how we do things, new developments are not always as quick to catch on as professional hyperbole might have you believe. Especially for those businesses and industries not traditionally on the cutting edge of evolution, it often takes time before business come to view these developments as anything but a fad.

Take the cloud, for example; SaaS and serverless computing have been offering sound advantages to businesses for years, but it’s taken time for initial resistance to be worn down. Even now myriad perceived obstructions, from security to data ownership, are preventing many businesses from embracing digital transformation.

In the aforementioned report, tech professionals were asked about their experience using virtual teams, and how they perceived the benefits and drawbacks of remote work. How a company benefits from remote work will, of course, depend on their circumstances, and the results of the survey seemed to reflect this; minimized travel costs, improved productivity, and better collaboration across global offices were all lauded as top perks in reasonably even volumes.

When it came to the difficulties of telecommuting, however, tech pros much more unanimous in identifying the roadblocks that they were coming up against in pursuit of the exemplary next-gen Workplace, with issues such as fostering team spirit and adjusting to a more hands-off approach to management chief among the hindrances flagged up by remote work adopters.

It seems that businesses currently using virtual teams face some consistently troubling obstacles that prevent them from taking full advantage of flexible working. So, how close are we really to the cloud-enabled, location-independent workplace of the future that we’ve been promised; and what wrinkles do we need to iron out before we get there?

Building team relations

Fostering good relationships between team members is an absolute no-brainer for those in a management position, but many leaders overseeing virtual teams find that building connections between remote workers is a major challenge.  Nurturing positive associations between team members is an essential aspect of creating happy, engaged workers who are willing and able to collaborate to get things done.

For those working in a traditional office environment, building team relations might mean catching up on the latest Game of Thrones episode around the refrigerator, grabbing a drink on the way home from work, or making conversation in the elevator; when you share the same space, opportunities to chat and bond are naturally more bountiful.

Remote workers don’t have as much opportunity to have a casual chat or grab someone’s attention when they need it, so managers of remote workers should endeavor to create those chances as much as possible. Since your team won’t physically see each other every day, it’s important to replace that contact with something else that helps your team get to know, like and trust each other; a digital water cooler, if you like. This could mean playing an online game together, having a social thread where your team post pictures of their pets or their favorite YouTube video, or hosting a weekly video catch-up where people can share what they got up to at the weekend.

Employee isolation

Closely tied to building team relations, one of the most significant challenges for remote workers is feeling isolated; although working from your home office in your Disney pajama pants every day might sound like a dream, workers who telecommute can quickly find themselves counting the hours until the mailman arrives just so they can speak to another human being face-to-face.

Even if your remote workers are office-based, if they’re not located in the same space as the other members of their team, it can be easy to slip into feeling out of the loop. Remote workers should be considered as much a part of their team as any onsite counterparts, and care must be taken to avoid an out of sight, out of mind attitude creeping in.

Having a free-flowing chat open throughout the day may seem counter-productive, but having a channel for casual, real-time communication — even if it might stray off-topic at times — is vital for helping remote workers feel included, and connected to their teammates. Encouraging non-work related chatter with remote workers can actually boost productivity in the long run, as telecommuters will be more present, more engaged and more involved in the day to day operations of their team.

Lack of specialized leadership training

Though rapidly on the uptick, virtual teams are still a relatively new concept for many organizations, and as is often the case with swift changes in the workplace, training tends to lag behind.

Though remote-working is likely to become the norm in the near future, right now, we’re still working out the kinks, hashing out best practices and procedures as we go. Confronted with a new type of worker, requiring a new kind of management, many leaders are encountering skills gaps when it comes to efficiently managing, optimizing and sustaining virtual teams.

In an office environment, managers communicate in a variety of ways. Emails, phone calls, conference meetings, and impromptu catch-ups on the way to the bathroom make up a rich tapestry of back-and-forths between leadership figures and their teams. With remote workers, those passing chances for clarification or a quick check-in aren’t there, so special efforts need to be made to strike the right balance between frequent, inclusive, and fortifying communications, and micromanaging.

Finding the tools

Virtual teams’ disproportionate use of written digital communications can work to your advantage; having thoughts, ideas, and processes in writing means that you can quickly build a library of ideas and conversations that will help your team be more efficient, provided you use the right tools.

The market for cloud collaboration tools is booming, with software makers clamoring to cash in on the rising percentage of off-site workers, and the subsequent demand for platforms to facilitate them.

In an ideal world, you’d find an app that encompassed project management, communications, file sharing, and time tracking all within one platform. The reality, however, at least at this point, is that remote workers are likely to use an assortment of channels to complete work and stay in touch with colleagues, and which channels are best for your team will depend on your circumstances. Whichever tools you choose for your virtual team though, keeping on top of user adoption is essential; a platform is only as good as its users, especially when you have team members flung across various locations.

Trust issues

If anything will stand in the way of progress when it comes to the free-flowing future of work, it’s trust. Taking advantage of these developments and utilizing the opportunities they afford means placing an enormous amount of stock in those who are using it.

Trust will play a key role if remote working is to become a mainstream staple of the modern workplace. For this radical move away from bricks-and-mortar workspaces to take off, companies must be able to loosen their grip a little, and have confidence in their team to work on their own terms.

The most crucial thing managers can do to make sure they stay ahead of the curve is to be pliable, and not allow themselves to miss out on the best talent, merely because they’re reluctant to change the way they operate.

As with any shift in cultural and professional norms, there’s apparently a fair way to go before businesses far and wide truly embrace the opportunities that these advancements in cloud business technology offer, and adopt remote work as the new standard.

We haven’t seen such a rapid upheaval of working standards for a long time, and despite being faced with changes in both the workforce and job market, it will take time before decision-makers see the potential payoffs, and we begin to find more widespread uptake of this new way of working.

Even the big hitters of the tech world are not traveling in the same direction — IBM recently issued a widely maligned ultimatum to their remote workers that they must return to the office or lose their jobs — but remote work is becoming more normalized, even expected, and companies not embracing the concept will find themselves losing the best talent to companies with more flexible work-life policies.

By James Lloyd-Townshend

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