After a lengthy and notable career with a large employer, Manu had enough of the 9 to 5 office based work life. The team was great, the work was interesting, but it was time for something different. Too young and energetic to retire, Manu imagined a role with more freedom and more time working from home. But did such a role exist?
Initially, what came Manu’s way were part time contracts, still office bound and not quite right. Then it happened. Manu landed the kind of role that enabled the flexibility of working on a laptop from anywhere with an internet and mobile phone connection. Manu joined the growing number of people who now work on a virtual team with its many advantages. Admittedly some of those challenges aren’t for everyone.
Virtual teams come in many shapes and sizes. Some have members over a widely dispersed geography, others are essentially several people who work from home within the same community giving them the opportunity to spend some time connecting in person with colleagues and enjoying the benefits of social interaction.
"Feeling disconnected from co-workers and the employer is one of the greatest challenges that virtual workers and employers have shared with me over the years."
Employers enjoy the reduction in costs associated with reduced office space and the corresponding benefit to their talent acquisition strategy. It enables a recruitment strategy that is not bound by proximity to their bricks and mortar operation.
However, many managers have commented to me that engaging a geographically dispersed team can make communication, teambuilding and trust very challenging. It requires the more demanding work of managing metrics and indicators as opposed to attendance and the appearance of productivity. It also brings the hiring challenges of ensuring the selection process identifies people who can be effective, productive and engaged when others would feel isolated, socially detached and unmotivated without the buzz of a busy team around them.
Whether you are working virtually or managing those who do, here are my top 3 ideas gathered from many years of talking about virtual teams in my workshops and consulting practice.
1. Clarity is key. Clear procedures and expectations for employees and supervisors; clear communication protocols so everyone knows when to email, when to text message (with or without emoji’s), when to call/skype and when a face to face is required; and clear ways to track progress and commitments so everyone knows what people are working on, what their challenges are and how others can help, especially when the work is interconnected.
2. Out of sight, not out of mind. This is especially critical when some members of the team are together in one location and other members are dispersed. Regular check-ins, one on one’s, virtual/live team get togethers, informal chats are all possible when it’s a priority for the virtual worker, their supervisor and colleagues. These practices work well when systematized and prioritized because if left to happenstance they fall off and create a breeding ground for people being disconnected and disengaged. Virtual workers have the same and some would argue a heightened need for feedback so being very deliberate and thoughtful about engaging everyone is crucial. Committing to being connected is the key and it works well when everyone shares in that commitment.
3. Leveraging virtual team technology. Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams, team chat app Slack, team task planning calendar Teamweek, online meeting software GoToMeeting and document collaboration tool Google Drive are just some of the many tech tools that are simple, cost effective and a must to enable virtual teams to be at their best.
Working virtually is not for everyone or for all employers due in part to the nature of the work and what people need from their work. In my view, it’s a viable option many more employers and workers should consider. Working virtually can help alleviate the gutting of our rural communities, overcome restricted talent pools for some employers and help with work-life balance. In many instances the challenge is breaking with old habits and an antiquated view of how work needs to be organized and managed. Manu’s new-found relationship with work and technology is living proof that working virtually is not only workable, it is here to stay.