• November 15, 2017

Wilson & Associates Monthly Newsletter, November 2017

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    Virtual Teams:  What They Are and How They Work    

    By: Laura Kilgore   

    What are Virtual Teams?   

    As all Houstonians are acutely aware, back in September Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 52 inches of rain on the city, causing severe residential and business flooding (chron.com). Among those affected were many corporate campuses whose employees had no alternative but to work remotely until renovations from flooding are completed.  

    A virtual team is any group of people who are working toward the same goal but from different geographical locations. What was once known as “telecommuting” or “telework” has been rebranded over the past ten years with new labels like, “distributed work,” “workshifting,” and “smart working.” More and more large corporations are seeing the benefits of having employees work remotely, not only for their employees, but also for business.  

    GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com published statistics in June of this year that state that 25% of the current workforce works from home with some frequency and up to 90% of the workforce would like the freedom to work remotely. It seems the ideal work arrangement for many employees would be to work from home 2-3 days a week. This would allow for schedule flexibility and the chance for distraction-free work while maintaining the benefits of face-to-face collaboration. That’s where virtual teams come into play.  

    When a team suddenly switches from ‘in-person’ to ‘remote’, certain things have to change for them to remain on-target. You can’t keep doing what worked before and hope that it keeps working. Many managers and employees who are adept at forming tight-knit and efficient teams when gathered together in one office might be surprised by the shift in relationships when a team goes remote. The traditional office management models don’t work with this radically new team format, and there are several challenges that will likely show up right away if they’re not accounted for from the start.  

    Up next: Challenges that Virtual Teams Face, followed by Advantages to Virtual Teams  

    Continue reading the full article on our website


    Challenges that Virtual Teams Face   

    1.  Communication   

    Communication is bound to break down at some point when your team is geographically scattered. When team members don’t take advantage of available resources or are not trained on how to use them, there are going to be problems. With today’s advanced technology like instant messaging, mobile phones, video chat, and even fairly-easy travel, it is possible, and even easy to experience clear, reliable, and steady communication within virtual teams.  

    2.  Working Relationships   

    A team that works together face-to-face will naturally form working relationships that strengthen the team. When employees feel like they’re part of a team, they tend to work harder, respond faster, and really invest themselves in the project. This is much harder to achieve when working with a virtual team.

    Even with clearly-written emails and consistent phone meetings, the lack of face-to-face interaction can damage relationships when tones are misheard and sarcasm is misconstrued. Communication expert Dr. Albert Mehrabian has calculated that up to 55% of communications is non-verbal (NonVerbalGroup.com). Without facial expressions and body language, miscommunication can quickly lead to disconnection and division in a remote team. Because of this, it is especially important for virtual team members to work to improve their verbal and written communication skills.

    3.  Accountability   

    Some executives are skeptical about the productivity levels of team members who are working from home. While some may struggle with a lack of oversight, these challenges can also be overcome. Clear accountability, regular check-ins (both on the managers’ and employees’ sides), and online deliverable status boards can help keep team members on track without straining relationships by micromanaging.

    4.  Resources   

    Another common challenge that virtual teams face is the reduced access to important resources like onsite IT assistance and fast internet speeds. With so many employees working remotely, bandwidth can become overloaded by the number of people using teleconferencing and network resources. Because of this, certain features of communication, like screen-sharing, are no longer available or become too inconsistent or unreliable to use. While virtual teams find ways to make do, these disruptions to efficiency are far from ideal. Post-Hurricane Harvey learnings like these may even prompt some companies to invest in a larger network.

    In our next newsletter, we’ll address some practical things team leaders can do to counter these problems before they start.

    Advantages to Virtual Teams   

    While many companies were forced by the catastrophic flooding to embrace the idea of remote employees, many are seeing benefits to telecommuting. Companies like Apple, Xerox, and Dell have thousands of remote positions and have frequently encouraged employees to work remotely. There are several reasons for this.

    1.  Budgetary Benefits   

    Companies of any size always have to keep an eye on their bottom line. One great way to save and tighten up the budget is by having employees work remotely, saving thousands annually on the electrical and equipment costs of office space. When employees aren’t using company electricity for lights, computers, projectors, printers, and coffee makers, the company saves a lot of money.

    2.  Increased Productivity   

    While this may sound counter-intuitive, companies that employ remote workers actually report a higher productivity rate than those whose employees meet on-site. A study done by Professor Nicholas Bloom and published in the Harvard Business Review found “that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office did.” The company where the experiment was performed learned that those remote employees were able to fit a whole extra workday per week into their regular working hours. Employees who work remotely are also much less likely to call in sick or take personal days or extra vacation since they can easily access their work wherever they go.

    3.  Happy Employees   

    Employee happiness contributes to increased productivity and reduced employee turnover. Because remote workers can work during the hours that they are naturally more productive, can spend more time with their families, and have no stressful commute, they tend to be happier. Happy employees will be more inclined to put more personal effort into their work so they can maintain the position they have with the company.

    Conclusion   

    Because of their benefits to productivity, even in-office teams can take advantage of some remote resources. Instead of spending time sitting in a meeting that only minimally effects a team member, that employee can access the meeting online from their desk and still be productive with their time. They can participate in the meeting where it’s relevant to them without being discourteous or distracting by working during the face-to-face meeting. Using shared Outlook calendars, project management resources on SharePoint, and instant messaging will even help face-to-face teams meet goals and maintain communication.

    The advantages and disadvantages of working remotely will differ for each company, team, and individual, but research has found the benefits to be significant, and the challenges to be surmountable.  In subsequent articles we will discuss practical ways to overcome the disadvantages along with ways to ease the transition if your team is transitioning to more remote work.

     

    Check back next month for our follow-up article, Virtual Teams: Guidelines for Team Leaders   

    “As we discussed in our previous newsletter, managing virtual teams has both its challenges and benefits. In this article, we’ll explore some specific guidelines for managers of virtual teams that can help streamline the transition from face-to-face to remote. Many management tactics can be transferred to the virtual world, but will just look a little different.”


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