The Future is Now: How to Build and Manage a Virtual Team
As the world is becoming smaller and smaller in this modern age of globalization, cloud technology and connectivity, the number of organizations working with virtual teams is rapidly growing. From ambitious start-ups to large multinationals, many companies today rely on a remote workforce that is geographically dispersed, often operating within different time zones. It goes without saying that the benefits of remote work are evident for both companies and employees. But leading a virtual team also brings challenges. How do you build a strong remote team culture? How do you manage virtual teams effectively? In this article, we’ll share some tips and best practices for remote team management.
- Intro: Working from Home: What’s not to Love?
- The Difference between Remote, Distributed and Virtual Teams
- Benefits of a Virtual Team
- Challenges of a Virtual Team
- How to Build a Remote Team
- Next Step: Managing a Remote Team
1. Intro: Working from Home: What’s not to Love?
During the pandemic, many people experienced the benefits of working from home. No more being stuck in morning traffic with a cold coffee to go on your way to the office. Gone were the days of endless meetings, when a single email would have been just as sufficient. That colleague dropping by your desk to ask a ‘quick’ question? Long queues in the company restaurant, while you still had that report to finish? That belonged to the past. Instead of all that: a better work-life balance, increased autonomy, and more flexibility to get the job done. What’s not to love?
While working from home surged in popularity among employees, employers also started to take note. Not just because of the positive sentiment within their workforce but also because they noticed higher productivity levels and saw overhead costs drop considerably.
All you need is an internet connection
While COVID-19 accelerated the process of organizations transitioning to a remote or hybrid work model, virtual organizational design is not new. Even before the pandemic hit, many corporations (including Fortune 500 companies like Dell, Salesforce, and Apple) gravitated towards a virtual working environment. In a tweet published in 2014, Sir Richard Branson already claimed that “one day, offices will be a thing of the past.” Some successful start-ups and scale-ups even started off fully remote and still are today: they don’t have headquarters, corporate offices, or even a hybrid working environment. Instead, their teams can work from absolutely anywhere – all they need is an internet connection. These companies realized you don’t necessarily need a physical office to be successful, and because of their global perspective and international clientele, they increasingly started to work with virtual teams from all over the world.
At Buffer, we’ve experimented with new elements of work: titles and no titles, managers and no managers, office and no office. We don’t work on a fixed schedule or from a fixed location. Everything we do is 100% remote first, to create that feeling of inclusivity and equality across the board.
Courtney Seiter, Inclusivity Catalyst at Buffer – Social Media Management Platform
2. Distributed, Remote & Virtual teams: What’s the Difference?
Remote teams, virtual teams, and distributed teams: these terms are often used interchangeably, but there are some differences.
- Distributed team: this team model is based on all employees working in separate geographical locations from one another: different cities, regions, countries, and often different time zones
- Remote teams: like distributed teams, employees work from different locations. The difference is that there is an office where people meet and collaborate physically, but they also have the option to work from home, their favorite cafe, a co-working space – anywhere really
- Virtual team: this term is not so much about where people work, but how. They can be distributed all over the world, work remotely or come to an office occasionally. Still, they always communicate and work together using digital technology and tools for virtual team project management
3. The Benefits of a Virtual Team
Whether fueled by the pandemic or this past decade’s rapid technological and global developments, it’s quite clear to see that virtual and remote teams have become the ‘new normal’ and are here to stay. Statistics show that:
- In the United States, the number of people primarily working from home tripled between 2019 and 2021.
- In Europe, numbers are similar. Approximately 5.5% of employed people aged 20–64 worked remotely in 2019. The share of people usually working from home in 2021 reached 13.5%
- In 2022, 16% of companies in the world are 100% remote
- 75% of global workers believe remote working is the new standard
- According to a study by Buffer, 99% of people would choose to work remotely for the rest of their life, even if it was just part-time
- In that same study, 95.3 percent of people who started working remotely due to COVID-19 said that they would recommend remote work, and that number jumped to 98.3 percent when looking only at people who were remote workers before COVID-19
According to Matthew Hollingsworth, former Head of Operations at We Work Remotely and founder of Align, an agency for Remote-First Executive Recruiting:
“These metrics give a pretty clear picture of how remote work has become the new standard. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that we now have a workforce who understands that many jobs can be done from anywhere and will expect their employers to offer remote-friendly work environments. It is fundamentally shifting how we think about work, likely on a permanent basis, and we will all be better off for it.”
Indeed, the benefits of working with remote and virtual teams are quite attractive:
- Virtual teams are more productive: 77% of workers report greater productivity while working offsite because they have fewer interruptions and are better able to focus in an environment that is quiet and comfortable, like their own homes
- Remote employees feel happier: employees experience higher levels of work happiness as they are able to create a healthier work-life balance, feel less stressed, and can spend more quality time with their loved ones
- Remote teams have higher retention rates: because of their improved work-life balance and flexible work options, employees tend to be more loyal to their employers if they have the option to work remotely. Also, working with virtual teams means companies don’t need to let go of their best people if they decide to move cities (or even countries)
- Remote companies are more attractive: global businesses without a single corporate headquarter are found to hire new talent 33% faster than others, especially since millennials and Gen-Z highly value this flexible working model
- Remote companies have direct access to a worldwide talent pool: businesses can hire the best people without being limited by geography or a local talent pool
- Remote work reduces overhead costs: high overhead costs like renting an office and everything that comes with it (cleaning, restaurant, utilities) are cut down
- Remote organizations have lower recruitment & labor costs: as remote-first companies can tap into a global talent pool, it makes it easier and faster to find the right match for an open position. Job interviews are mostly done virtually, which saves time and money when recruiting the perfect candidate. What’s more, a globally distributed workforce can also lead to a significant decrease in labor costs. While salaries can remain competitive, hiring workers in foreign countries often involves lower wages and less payroll tax.
- Virtual teams perform better in terms of equity: with a lack of headquarters or corporate offices, chances are the risk of unequal power balances is smaller. There simply is less room for shady company politics and unfunded biases. Remote teams ideally keep everyone on the same playing field, which gives people a fair chance to be treated equally. This opens many doors, also for people who live with disabilities and have difficulties coming to the office.
- Diversity representation is improved: virtual team members likely have a variety of cultural backgrounds, lifestyles, and experiences. Working in a network of digital nomads exposes team members to new ideas, traditions, and schools of thought
- Working with distributed teams allows companies to explore new territories: new, promising audiences are easier accessible when you have people on the ground that have knowledge of the local market
We intentionally use, adopt, and develop tools, processes, and systems that set everyone on the team up for success, no matter where they’re located in the world.
This allows the team to structure their days to align with the hours they’re most creative and efficient and to make sure they have time and space to enjoy time with friends and families and enjoy their hobbies and interests.
Janet Mesh, CEO & Co-Founder of Global Integrated Marketing Agency Aimtal
4. Challenges of Working with Virtual Teams
Though the benefits of working with virtual teams are paramount, it also poses several challenges. Early in the pandemic, a study done by Harvard Business Review found that 40% of leaders were unprepared to manage remote employees, and 41% struggled to keep their remote team members engaged. It turns out, they were having trust issues. They questioned if their employees had the necessary tools, knowledge, and skills to work from home efficiently. They also wondered how to keep tabs on their staff when they could not simply walk across the office to check in with them.
Now, almost three years after the 2020 Harvard study, the tables have turned. Overall, remote team managers feel more confident they can motivate their staff, trust people to do their work autonomously, and let go of the idea of constantly monitoring them. Especially since productivity data showed that remote employees working perform better and more efficiently.
However, there are some remote team challenges companies are still facing today. This calls for a different mindset. Here are some things to consider when countering those issues.
1. Managing a remote team requires a decentralized leadership style
Managing virtual teams takes a different approach to authority. In a virtual team setting, micro-management, controlling day-to-day activities, and checking individual performance regularly does not work. Also, virtual teams tend to perform better in flat organizational structures that apply an empowering ‘people-first’ approach. As a result, leaders need to be able to delegate work, encourage autonomy and stimulate creativity. This calls for a decentralized and participative approach to leadership, often seen in the coaching, supporting, or democratic leadership style.
You might also like: Types of Leadership Styles: Which is Best for you and your Organization?
2. Virtual team communication is different from face-to-face
Virtual team managers often state that one of the biggest challenges they face is communicating their ideas and thoughts to the team. The way people respond or think is not always clear in a virtual setting, because it’s difficult to detect body language, non-verbal cues, etc. Then, there’s also the lack of informal, face-to-face encounters in the office. To gain trust and mutual understanding, successful remote team management is all about checking in regularly with individual team members, asking the right questions, and being very clear when giving instructions, setting goals, and sharing information. When working with distributed teams, leaders should also be aware of cultural differences, respect diversity, and tackle language barriers by offering those team members language support.
3. Remote work can lead to isolation
People not used to working remotely may initially experience feelings of isolation and loneliness – especially those who live alone. It might sound trivial, but interacting with colleagues, even briefly in the hallway or staff restaurant, are important contact moments that make people feel seen and appreciated. In a virtual environment, colleagues are spread out across different cities and even countries, with technology being their only form of communication. Today, many people work with team members they have never even met in real life. Building deeper connections with colleagues this way is difficult, and it can be tough to build trust. If not managed properly, this feeling of disconnection can become the basis for employee health challenges and motivation dropping. To build a sense of belonging among employees, it’s therefore crucial to invest time and effort in remote team activities.
5. Tips for Building a Remote Team Successfully
When as a company, you’re in the process of transforming to a hybrid, remote or virtual work environment, you might feel overwhelmed. Where to start? The below tips will help in that first, crucial phase of building a remote team:
Tip 1: Optimize the remote onboarding process
Onboarding new hires in a virtual work environment is just as important as ‘live’ onboarding. It’s actually not that different, but it is crucial to create a digital onboarding strategy next to the traditional onboarding process. For instance: give new employees easy access to digital files, and set up online meetings where they can virtually connect with their manager and new colleagues. Make their first day as unforgettable as you would in a physical office: a virtual team lunch is a great idea to welcome a new team member.
You might also like: How to Create a Successful Onboarding Process
Tip 2: Set communication guidelines
Communicate clearly to the team when and how they can contact their managers and other team members. This is especially important when working with employees in different time zones. Also, make sure they know which medium to use in any given situation. If something is urgent and they’re looking for a quick answer, an e-mail probably isn’t the best idea. For a structured group discussion, try a video call. When working on a project together, use a remote team project management tool. Writing down these guidelines will make communication much easier, especially with all the technology available today.
Tip 3: Set clear expectations
People who work from home have more freedom and flexibility in scheduling their day. Therefore, it’s crucial to set clear expectations. Not only about tasks that need to be completed but also, for example, the hours when they are expected to be online. Is it necessary for employees to be available during official business hours, or is there more flexibility? Do they need to give daily updates? Make sure the team knows what to do and when to do it. When expectations are not set clearly, people will never meet them.
Tip 4: Ask team members for input and create a feedback culture
When establishing communication guidelines and setting expectations, asking team members for their input makes sense. After all, they know best how they can do their work most efficiently, which communication methods they prefer, and what tools they need to get their jobs done in a virtual environment. When the process is set, make sure to establish a feedback culture. This will help to monitor what works well and what procedures or methods have room for improvement. Next to that, setting up short surveys and one-on-one check-ins will help management and HR understand how engaged employees are and how teams are doing.
Tip 5: Invest in remote team collaboration tools
Invest in smart team collaboration tools and use them wisely to save time. Plenty of software platforms out there optimize internal communication, coordinate teamwork, and help create digital offices. Slack, Asana, Notion, and Gsuite (including Google Docs and Google Sheets) are some of the most popular ones. For video calls, there are the usual suspects like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. By now, most people will feel confident working with these tools, but always make sure there’s technical support when things don’t function as they should.
6. Next Step: Managing a Remote Team
When the above ideas for building a remote team have been applied, it’s now time to lead those virtual teams effectively. Here are some best practices for managing a remote team.
Tip 1: Respect differences and include everybody
With remote team members scattered over the planet, some will be more expressive in a virtual team meeting than others. Some may be shy or think it rude to take the central stage because of their cultural background. Some cultures thrive under a democratic leader, while others respond better to a more authoritative approach. In a virtual team, it’s evident that individual members have differences. If you’re not careful, there is a risk of people feeling excluded. The team leader must therefore look for ways to bridge those differences and build unity so that everybody feels respected and included.
Read more: Diversity Management in the Workplace
Tip 2: Invest in virtual team bonding
Virtual team-building activities will help the team integrate and create mutual understanding. The best online activities spark curiosity, help people feel included in the company culture, and connect. More importantly, through virtual team building, companies can create an environment that allows people to feel comfortable being their authentic selves. Teambuilding activities can include setting up a virtual book or movie club, hosting an online cooking class, or even silly 5-minute games on Zoom.
Check out our blog on 7 Best Ideas for Virtual Team-Building Activities
Tip 3: Schedule virtual team meetings regularly
Even if having official meetings in the office isn’t part of a company’s culture, it’s surprising how much is actually discussed throughout the day when everybody works in the same place. Weekly or daily check-ins to discuss day-to-day activities will make remote employees feel more included. It is also an easy and quick way to get everyone up to speed. These virtual team meetings don’t have to be long but allow people to share what’s happening. 15 minutes at the beginning or end of the workday can do wonders for remote team engagement.
Tip 4: Focus on remote team wellness
Generally speaking, the shift to hybrid and remote work models has positively impacted employee well-being, but it also brought new challenges – especially on a mental and social level. Without face-to-face contact, there’s a risk of people feeling alone and isolated. And although most remote employees experience a better work-life balance, some do lose sight of their boundaries: they check their mail on the weekend, work until late, and struggle to manage their time efficiently. To release feelings of stress and anxiety, it’s vital for remote leaders to:
- Give emotional support: do regular check-ins to see how people are feeling and support those who seem to be struggling. Listen attentively and be ready to read between the lines.
- Give access to wellness programs: ensure that mental and physical support is accessible to everyone, either through external or corporate programs
- Lead by example: set a good example by not calling or emailing employees outside working hours. This helps people realize they don’t have to be online all constantly
- Focus on output: make it clear that remote work it’s not so much about the input (how many hours they work), but it’s the output – the result – that counts
At Lepaya, we help organizations create a culture of continuous learning and build stronger teams by offering innovative learning experiences through our Power Skills training.
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