Remote, but Not Isolated: Developing and Leading Virtual Teams
May 19, 2020 in Keeping Up with Human Capital
By Catherine Neale
Every month we dive into what we are all so passionate about here at FMP: human capital management. The current events are influencing topics within industrial organizational psychology that are increasingly necessary to examine and discuss, such as virtual teams. Virtual teams are on the rise, especially due to organizations’ responses to the global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. This blog will focus on the background, development, and management of virtual teams and will give actionable tips for optimizing organizational outcomes in the current environment.
How do Conventional Teams and Virtual Teams Differ?
Teams are the interdependent collection of individuals who work together toward a common goal and share responsibility for the team’s success. Team members have identifiable roles, clearly outlined tasks, interdependence within team members, and an understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While conventional or collocated teams consist of individuals working in physical proximity, virtual teams are comprised of geographically dispersed individuals who communicate electronically. These two types of teams are extremely similar in processes, but virtual teams rely on electronic communication and technology to interact, which can exacerbate difficulties experienced by a conventional team.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Virtual Teams
Virtual teams come with both advantages and disadvantages. It is up to the organization to decide what will be the most beneficial for their particular climate and needs. Some of the advantages of virtual teams include:
- Savings by reducing travel, relocation, and office space costs.
- Employees have control over their time and can conduct their work based on their unique lifestyles. This can lead to higher levels of job satisfaction and productivity.
- Organizations allowing employees to have a flexible schedule, the ability to work in different locations, and the ability to take necessary breaks increases the perception that the organization cares about the employee.
- Greater availability of talent as organizations can leverage employees regardless of their geographical location.
- Knowledge sharing across geographic boundaries and organizational units.
Virtual teams also come with several disadvantages including:
- Technological issues and costs. Technology needs to be available to maximize communication; this can be costly and has the potential to fail.
- Communication issues due to misunderstandings and lack of clarity when communicating virtually.
- Lack of team bonding as there is increased potential for feelings of detachment from other team members, difficulties in creating trust and shared responsibility among team members, and high levels of social distance between members.
- Management and leadership problems. There are challenges in controlling, monitoring, and managing virtual teams and difficulty in developing adequate practices to undercover and resolve conflict.
- Potentially lower team engagement due to outside distractions, a lack of connection with team and organizational goals and values, and a lack of obligation to other team members.
- Many remote workers suffer from isolation and will potentially not have the relationships with coworkers or leadership to ask for help or bring awareness to the issue.
Best Practices for Developing a High Functioning Virtual Team
As an organization is it important to know how to overcome these challenges to maximize the advantages of virtual teams. Below are best practices and tips for developing a high functioning virtual team.
- Commit to a communication plan. Oftentimes virtual teams can have less communication than conventional teams so it is important to have clear and regulated standards addressing when and how the team will communicate. Having standards that outline the expectations in terms of professionalism and participation will go a long way.
- Identify the right communication technologies for the organization. Virtual teams depend on having appropriate communication technology to connect and support the members in ways that develops trust. It is important to find technology that will foster team building and friendships; going beyond emails and phone calls is a must.
- Foster and develop trust. Team members have to trust their leaders, their peers, and the organization to be effective. Trust must be established quickly based on initial interactions and will be reinforced based on on-going experiences. First impressions are vital.
- Allow flexible work hours. Employees working virtually will often have factors influencing their availability to be online. Being flexible and allowing team members to designate their own work hours will help them navigate different time zones and improve work-life balance.
Tips for Leading a Virtual Team
If you are a leader of a virtual team, there are strategies you can use to maximize team cohesiveness and productivity.
- Come up with a management strategy. Identify the tasks and processes, who is handling the different parts of the projects, the next steps, and how each individual team member is impacting the goal. Having this in writing will aid in allowing all team members to be on the same page from the beginning and have something to reference as work continues.
- Check in, but don’t micromanage. Having virtual, video standup meetings daily or bi-weekly where employees can share their goals and tasks for the day/week will allow you to see what your employees are doing without them feeling micromanaged.
- Encourage trust and communication. Be available to your team members in a formal and informal way. Allowing and encouraging social interaction and sharing of feelings between team members will help build relationships and trust between employees.
- Be creative with team bonding. Virtual team building will go a long way in fostering relationships between team members. Virtual happy hours where team members can talk about their lives outside of work or fun quizzes and games can show employees that the organization cares about the team members as individuals.
Virtual teams are allowing organizations to be more efficient, effective, and flexible, especially in the current climate. It is important to implement strategies early and often to capitalize on the advantages (and mitigate the disadvantages) of working in a virtual environment. Remote work doesn’t have to be isolating!
What tips do you have for working on virtual teams? Share your thoughts with us on LinkedIn!