Workana CEO Tomas O’Farrell unpacks the seven issues that virtual teams need to overcome the tyranny of distance.
By Tomas O’Farrell
Virtual teams are far from being a workplace fad. It is the future for enterprises of all sizes. According to World Bank data, about 15 percent of the Singaporean workforce consists of freelancers and the self employed . This is not because they can’t find permanent employment, but because Asian professionals, and the rest of the world, are growing to prefer flexible and independent work options.
Remote workers, freelancers and contractors enable companies to remain competitive in an intensive, global marketplace. At the same time, this carries difficulties as well as opportunities. These difficulties convince some companies to retain traditional business models that prove less efficient rather than face the challenges of adapting to a new, innovative, flexible work dynamic.
In order to embrace virtual teams in your organisation, it is important to understand the difficulties most commonly faced, and their underlying causes, as well as possible solutions. This will ensure that your organisation is able to realise the numerous advantages that come from being open to remote working such as:
- The economy – particularly in relation to physical workspaces, electricity, and hiring
- Greater employee satisfaction
- Increase in productivity from workers who can better manage their schedules, focus without the distractions commonplace in traditional office settings and who tend to need fewer sick days; and
- Access to a larger talent pool across geographical areas.
Virtual teams are especially vulnerable to communication, trust and performance problems when key elements such as leadership and technology are less than optimal. However, various studies have narrowed these general issues down to seven key problems that virtual teams must overcome to be successful:
Lack of communication
Both traditional and remote working teams are equally capable of having communication issues. When lack of communication plagues remote teams, we are quick to blame the distance, which creates resistance and mistrust towards this mode of work.
To avoid communication issues in virtual teams, leaders must confirm that remote workers have good written and oral communications skills before hiring them. This will ensure that these workers can share complex ideas in an organised manner and, absorb large amounts of information.
Leaders must also promote a communication culture in which team members receive constant feedback and understand how to communicate with each other.
Organisations must also invest in technology to cover some communication and project management needs as well as optimise task flow.
Lack of commitment and mistrust
Similar to communication, low commitment levels from colleagues and mistrust can affect the morale of traditional and remote teams alike. When these situations arise, leaders often decide to cancel remote working arrangements, stop hiring freelancers and push all their staff back into the office.
Experts advise leaders to encourage habits that lead to feelings of trust, connection, and shared purpose instead.
The best ways for leaders to close the trust gap in remote working teams are to keep a clear mission, encourage collaboration and team building, and develop remote leadership skills.
Obsolete or inadequate technology
The success of virtual teams relies on utilising technology appropriately. When technology is inadequate, or collaborators do not manage these tools, a whole series of communications and performance problems may surface.
Organisations must train staff in the use of technology, invest in the right technology, ensure that the team has all the tools they need to be the most productive, and stay up-to-date on the latest technologies to help virtual teams work better.
Businesses also have a tendency to require virtual teams to follow inadequate or ineffective procedures, rather than taking the necessary time to adapt its processes to the unique dynamics of virtual teams. This results in a significant loss of time, motivation and productivity from team members.
Focusing on meeting objectives effectively, and not on processes, is vital to keep in mind when adapting traditional work models to virtual teams. Businesses should also constantly optimise and monitoring of internal processes to cancel or replace steps that are inefficient.
Lack of productivity and time mishandling
Many companies view home-based work as a threat to their control over employees’ productivity. Of course, there will be individuals who do not use their time assertively when they are not under a permanent monitor. However, this is more the exception than the rule, especially when collaborating with freelancers who are used to working virtually.
If an employee is not managing their time appropriately, managers should set clear objectives and deadlines to measure their work progress and ensure that tasks are fulfilled on time and correctly. Leaders should also seek to institutionalise best-practices to minimise activities that would reduce the team’s productivity.
Organisations need to also be vigilant about the signs of burnout from employees. Not reading those signs may lead to the risk of his losing motivations, commitment or even resign.
Geographical, cultural or ideological barriers
Diverse virtual teams can contribute to innovation and growth, but these differences, such as language, time zone, or cultural, can also pose particular challenges. To equalise teams with members who may not be native English speakers, have prospects sit for a professional exam on the language in which they will need to communicate.
It is also important to provide training and courses for them to improve their communication skills on technical aspects or use experienced translators.
When colleagues are in different time zones, set up delivery schedules with deadlines marked on fixed days and hours. Organisations must also establish a clear code of communications for the team that is based on respect, openness, and empathy.
Managers should also develop close relationships with colleagues so that they can feel comfortable about sharing the cultural difficulties they may be facing.
Lack of leadership
This is one of the main problems virtual teams encounter. While many project managers or leaders can be great with face-to-face interaction, they may not have developed the required skills to be strong leaders of virtual teams. Great managers all appear to deliver frequent and consistent feedback, rely on face-to-face or verbal communication whenever important subjects need discussion, and have outstanding communications skills – all important skills for effectively managing virtual teams. These leaders also promote team bonding to help members get to know each other beyond chat and the mere exchanging of files.
There are many advantages to hiring freelance or remote workers, but no work arrangement is exempt from challenges. Before giving up on the promise of virtual teams, organisations should stop to develop the best practices that will allow them to achieve the greatest value from remote employees.
(Ed. Featured image courtesy of INDVSTRVS.)