Back to Insights

Are You Cut out for a Virtual Team?

We are all part of a generation that is seeing everything move online, so it comes as no surprise to hear that HR practitioners from diverse industries are increasingly supportive of virtual or remote work arrangements. Along with numerous scientifically rigorous findings that show the {nolink}benefits{/nolink} of virtual teams, there are many tools available to promote self-awareness and help employees understand how they can get the most out of virtual working. Being part of a virtual team does require greater self-awareness than working in an office, and some would argue more self-discipline. Instead of simply working agreed hours in a group setting, you are the master of your own destiny, and you need to know what time of day you work best and in what setting. And of course you need to have the self-discipline to make that happen. What follows is an overview of some key considerations to take into account when thinking about joining the virtual workforce.

Location Matters

One of the most obvious and important factors that remote employees need to consider is their location for work. By not being restricted to the traditional office environment, the savvy remote employee should choose a location that will increase the focus, productivity and/or creativity needed to get the work results they desire. Whether that location is home, the local coffee shop or a shared workspace with other independent workers, it is important for remote employees to understand what works best for them. It is equally important for the organisation to trust their employees to experiment with this for optimal results. As a Stanford University study on billion-dollar NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel company Ctrip shows, giving employees the option to work from home can have positive outcomes for both employees and the organisation, and is a key factor in productivity, retention and motivation.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

A transition from the usual buzz of an office, complete with colleagues and the constant stream of conversation flowing in all directions, to a virtual and therefore more distributed environment might raise concerns around the ease of information sharing. However, the quality and frequency of communication need not suffer in a virtual environment, in fact, it can flourish. When a team is not sitting together it demands smart, concise and timely communication. When done well, a sense of camaraderie and community similar to that of a traditional office environment can develop. In their book, Uniting the Virtual Workforce, Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly present practical lessons for improving working with virtual teams by understanding and measuring both physical and psychological distance. The list of virtual team technology tools is continually growing and includes everything needed for greater collaboration, file sharing, team meetings, video conferencing and instant messaging, to name a few. With applications like WhatsApp, Dropbox, Hangouts, Skype, and the Internet in general, it is not difficult for these teams to stay in close contact in spite of not being in the same building.

Be Strategic with Flexibility

Of course working remotely delivers a sense of freedom and flexibility, which is certainly a benefit, but even that can take some getting used to. Organisations should encourage employees to take advantage of the flexibility to get re-focused and re-engaged during the day. There have been countless studies on the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain. Dr. John Ratey, author of “Spark — The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” says that exercise improves your brain in the short-term by raising your focus for two to three hours afterwards. Virtual employees have no shortage of exercise options, and should experiment to determine what combination of work and exercise results in their greatest productivity levels.

Have a Plan B

As anyone who works remotely will appreciate, it pays to have contingency plans in place for those unpredictable occurrences, and for their part organisations need to make allowances for this. Virtual employees should be prepared for a day when a fire drill in the building where they live and work disconnects the broadband connection for 36 hours. As they happily enter the local coffee shop to resume work, they can silently acknowledge other remote workers who have snagged the best corner seats away from the noise, and right next to the power outlets. Organisations can also research various ‘co-working’ options available in convenient locations for their virtual employees. This is typically a shared office space used by many engaged in independent activity for various companies. This type of environment can be a good alternative on days when the typical work-from-home employee wants to enjoy the synergy that can happen when working alongside others.

Get the Balance Right

It takes time and effort to get the balance right when working remotely, and this also applies to knowing when to call it a day. Particularly for those who live and work in the same space, it can be difficult to put boundaries in place. The temptation to check e-mails or phone messages or just follow up on ‘one more thing’ can be intense. Add to this a team that is distributed across time zones, and it becomes even more important to manage this aspect well. Organisations need to be mindful of this and help their virtual team members to achieve greater balance. The MIT Sloan Management Review article “Set Up Remote Workers to Thrive” focuses on strategies to help managers and organisations to address some of the challenges of remote work to prevent longer working hours and resulting burnout.

Final thoughts

For organisations considering this type of flexible work arrangement, it is important to select people who like to work independently, and of course, it needs the full support of the organisation. Companies must be prepared to support distributed employees with enabling technology, as well as taking the time to make employees feel as valued as they would be in a traditional office. Another key benefit for organisations is the talent pool this can open up – as physical location becomes less important, they can hire the best talent regardless of where they are located. With a bit of effort, a happy and inclusive distributed work environment is certainly possible, and it can result in a happier and more productive team.


Keep up with the latest HR insights and updates.
Sign up

Recent Posts