Telework and remote positions have never been more prevalent in today’s increasingly virtual world. Virtual workplaces and teams can create a variety of advantages for businesses and employees alike.
However, they can also introduce new challenges. Learning how to optimize for virtual working teams can take time and some trial and error.
In addition, though best practices can help guide this effort, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for solving every problem you might encounter with virtual working arrangements.
It takes open communication, discipline, and experimentation to determine your team’s best practices and needs. However, this process is well worth that effort and can yield massive improvements over time for your virtual team and its level of productivity.
Here are some of the things you need to know to begin unlocking the potential of your virtual work teams.
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Potential Pitfalls of Virtual Teams
For several reasons, virtual teams can present challenges requiring different handling than in a more conventional workplace arrangement.
Virtual teams usually spend little time together in the same physical space. Because of this, several work team realities that in-person teams don’t deal with or can take for granted need to be rethought.
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When virtual teams aren’t managed well, some of the problems they can experience include the following:
Weak Team Cohesion
Being a part of a virtual team that does not encourage real connections and relationships between its members can create a silo effect that can erode any sense of camaraderie or mutual ownership.
Virtual teams don’t have the same organic opportunities for creating connections among their members. There isn’t a water cooler, shared office space, or carpool commute that can often contribute to in-person team cohesion.
Therefore, alternate ways of connecting and getting to know each other better need to be prioritized by being built into your regular work rhythms.
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Lack of Accountability or Responsibility for Team Performance
Suppose a team does not establish connections between its members, emphasize a common goal, or establish the individual’s relationship to the team’s overall performance.
In that case, virtual team members will likely have a weak sense of shared ownership and commitment to team responsibilities.
This means that when push comes to shove — perhaps a project must be finished on a tight deadline, a mistake must be rectified, or a busy season requires overtime effort — it will be much harder to expect the above-and-beyond performance necessary to meet team requirements.
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Higher-Friction Channels of Communication
Many virtual and remote communication platforms are available to today’s virtual teams. However, despite steadily improving, today’s workforce is becoming more accustomed to various forms of virtual communication.
Many employees still find zoom meetings and slack channels lacking or more difficult than in-person interactions and communication.
This can sometimes cause stifled communication between members of the team. This could cause anything from minor disadvantages to significant problems depending on the type of team and industry.
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Benefits of Virtual Teams
Of course, the flip side of some of the disadvantages mentioned above is some of the reasons that virtual teams can be so advantageous. Here are just some of the benefits of working virtually (especially when that remote team is well-functioning):
1. Time Expenditure and Efficiency
By working virtually, team members can gain a distinct advantage over employees that work in more conventional, in-office arrangements. They don’t have to commute to work and deal with associated stresses and complications.
They also don’t have to spend the time it takes to make commuting happen. This leaves more employee time and capacity each day for actual work activities.
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2. Effective and Efficient Communication
Operating in virtual teams can greatly help teams limit what happens in a conventional office that’s unproductive. While interaction and conversation can benefit a team’s cohesiveness, too much gossiping or chit-chatting can negatively impact productivity.
This can be particularly true for members of teams that are easily distracted by other teammates chatting or being noisy in the office.
Virtual team settings can help employees more effectively tailor their workspace to be conducive to their work environment needs.
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3. Creativity and Unique Team Dynamics
Because creating meaningful connections and rhythms has to happen proactively for virtual teams, this can promote a high level of creativity and tolerability that conventional office settings don’t often attain.
Needing to think outside the box can often give way to better-than-average ideas and more robust systems.
With the proper management and encouragement, many virtual teams create even stronger cohesion and dynamics than conventional, in-person counterparts because they prioritize putting time and effort into their culture.
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4. Access to Prime Candidates Outside a Geographical Reach
As countless organizations are discovering in our increasingly global world, the benefits of brick-and-mortar locations and shiny office spaces can sometimes be drowned out by their limitations.
One significant example is that hiring an in-person team limits you to candidates located within a reasonable distance of your location.
When hiring for a virtual team, your reach broadens massively. Caveating for time zone differences and visa bureaucracy that can complicate international hiring, you could hire someone on the other side of the world for a virtual team if that person is the right fit for your needs.
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Strategies for Improving Your Virtual Team and Optimizing for Performance
So how do you build a virtual team that takes advantage of all the benefits a virtual team format offers while limiting the downsides that can come with telework arrangements and remote employees?
Here are a few of the most vital strategies worth considering as you develop your virtual team’s structures and performance.
Strategy 1: Reimagine the Workweek Schedule
Virtual teams can allow a massive increase in flexibility. This creates an ideal scenario for exploring alternative work schedules that might benefit your team members. A number of different workweek frameworks exist and have been tested in different contexts.
From every other Friday off, to four-day workweeks, to moving towards completely task-based or project-based requirements and abandoning time-based expectations, the sky’s the limit when creatively reimagining how work should happen for your team.
Approaching this question can benefit your team when you consider their needs. If you can, bring the question to the group and find out what your people need.
Do you have employees that have kids or that are caretakers? Do you have team members who coach a sport or want to take up some out-of-work-hours hobby that could be considered?
Do you have employees in different time zones? How can you better reimagine your team’s work week to suit each member’s needs and natural productivity rhythms?
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Strategy 2: Prioritize Creating Strong Team Bonds
As mentioned above, when a virtual team does not emphasize creating relationships among its members, the team culture is liable to remain superficial and plastic.
This causes your team to miss out on developing solid and trust-based connections or moving past pleasantries to deeper patterns and habits that would allow the team to better know and support its members.
Virtual settings don’t make relationship-building easy. However, virtual teams that persevere and make team cohesion happen despite the remote work barriers often solidly outperform their in-person counterparts.
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Strategy 3: Equip Your Team Members with the Technology They Need
This may seem like common sense. Some organizations do a good job of proactively ensuring their virtual teams are well-equipped with the technology and devices they need to connect and work efficiently and effectively.
However, this can sometimes be overlooked, creating stress, inefficiencies, and frustration that could be completely avoidable.
If you lead a virtual team, take a poll, and assess your team members’ technological inventory. Does each member of your team have access to high-speed internet? Do they have quality cameras and audio equipment for video calls?
Are they all proficient and comfortable using tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or your video platform of choice? Do they feel confident facilitating conference calls, virtual client meetings, or presentations? Do they all have the software licenses they need?
Since this area can often be a bit easier to manage when everyone is working in the same place or on company-owned computers or devices, the technological needs of virtual teams can sometimes fall through the cracks, especially when hiring new members.
Make it an annual or onboarding process to take stock of your team members’ technological setup and ensure everyone has what they need to perform well.
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Strategy 4: Develop Strong Communication Amongst Global Team Members
Because virtual work environments and the connectivity of the world today make intercultural work teams much more common, it’s essential to be proactive about introducing cultural awareness to your team and encouraging strong communication skills with different types of people.
These skills are beneficial even if your team is mainly homogeneous. They can become hugely beneficial or even imperative if (when) your team expands to include people of different demographics, cultural heritages and backgrounds, and origins.
These skill sets don’t have to be complicated, and working on them doesn’t have to be time-consuming. This process can start quickly. One tactic is simply setting aside a bit of space and time to get to know the current members of your team more personally.
Even teams that look broadly similar might be surprised at the variety of backgrounds, heritages, and perspectives represented amongst the group.
When this isn’t incorporated into a work environment, the diversity you may have represented among your team members is often never known, acknowledged, or celebrated.
Two reasons incorporating some team-wide acknowledgment of diversity and identity can be beneficial. First, it can help your team be more collectively aware of the variety of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives it contains.
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This allows your team members to know each other better, to be known, and to gain an appreciation for different types of people.
Second, it allows your team to develop skills necessary for relating to people of different demographics and backgrounds outside your team. Whether or not your team is externally facing, it will likely interact with stakeholders of different origins at some point.
This could look like vendors that work with you, contractors you employ, consultants, other internal departments or teams within the organization, or clientele now or in the future.
It is almost inevitable in today’s business landscapes that your team will eventually interact with people of other backgrounds.
Proactively developing awareness, communication skills, and environments to practice these basic skill sets can benefit your team greatly and improve its effectiveness in various tasks and settings.
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Strategy 5: Encourage a Strong Work/Life Balance and Non-Technological Activity
Though this isn’t a priority of every organization, the business world as a whole is slowly trying to crack the work/life balance riddle.
Companies use various approaches to promote healthy living and lessen the pressure, demands, and unreasonable expectations many employees have languished under in some work environments.
These can range from health club reimbursements to offering yoga on-site to implementing policies to protect off-hours and weekends.
For virtual teams, encouraging work-life balance is just as important (and arguably more so). An additional layer affects virtual teams that aren’t a factor for in-person workplaces: virtual teams usually mitigate the need for a commute.
In doing so, they often remove an organic opportunity for their employees to engage in healthy activities during their regular routines, including being outdoors, walking, breathing fresh air, moving from place to place, and more.
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Because of this, employees that work in virtual teams often need to be more proactive about incorporating regular physical activity, movement, and outside time into their schedules.
Encouraging your team to be proactive in these areas might look like holding social activity challenges or contests once a quarter, making an outdoor or physical activity photo board in your virtual workspace, or incorporating a segment into a regular meeting to chat about what fun things each team member did over the weekend.
Encouraging healthy activities and a solid work-life balance will improve your team members’ quality of life and help them perform their best at work.
Similarly, virtual teams can more easily fall into the trap of letting work creep into personal time. Because there isn’t a physical office where work occurs and each team member likely does their work at home, it can be much harder to separate “work time” from “home time.”
If you manage a virtual team, respecting your team members’ need to unplug and get away from work is vital.
Encourage your team members to set themselves to offline status during non-work hours. Discourage any expectations amongst team members that teammates should respond to needs, emails, or texts when they’re not on duty.
Talk to your team about the importance of getting away from work so they can return refreshed during the workday.
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If you are a virtual team member and feel like work expectations are expanding into personal time or threatening your work-life balance, talk with your manager about this concern.
Your productivity is boosted when you regularly disengage from work responsibilities and can be undermined when expectations keep you constantly wired in or worried about after-hours demands.
If you meet any resistance, plenty of scientific evidence proves these realities. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your needs.
These ideas can be a great starting point if you are part of a virtual team. However, the only limit to finding ways to improve your virtual team’s experience and performance is your creativity and collaboration.
This begins your virtual team journey towards better productivity and a healthier, more fulfilling professional experience. Let’s get to work.
Hello Friends! I am Himanshu, a hobbyist programmer, tech enthusiast, and digital content creator.
With CodeItBro, my mission is to promote coding and help people from non-tech backgrounds to learn this modern-age skill!