Virtual teams have become a fact of business life, so what does it take to make them work effectively?

Typically, when people are in one location, creating a healthy work culture that drives the business forward can have its challenges. So, add some distance between colleagues and forging a positive work environment can become even more difficult when you are working remotely or part of a virtual team. 

Technology enables people to work in increasingly flexible ways – and companies, for the most part, are embracing its potential.

When employees are culturally diverse and geographically spread, it can be daunting to manage. However, keeping everyone working together and on the same page is an important part of employee engagement and a company’s route to success.  

Remote working and telecommuting are on the rise in many countries.

Studies have shown a range of benefits from cutting down on vehicle emissions to saving companies money on desk space to providing more flexibility to the workforce.

Virtual teams are commonplace. But, while they offer flexibility, increased job satisfaction, and higher productivity, virtual teams also come with a number of challenges that, if not addressed, can undermine goals, relationships, and team effectiveness.

Working in a virtual team presents many potential points of friction. When you can’t see your colleagues face-to-face, and you can’t have the social interactions that build relationships and rapport, it can be difficult to establish trust. If it isn’t managed correctly, this lack of trust can undermine everything that the virtual team is trying to achieve.

Communication challenges.

Another major challenge is communication, especially when a virtual team includes members from different countries and cultures.

Communicating by email, virtual meetings, video conferencing or telephone can be difficult, and lack the tools to be able to build trust and engagement.

Effective communication is important within a virtual team. Open, honest communication not only helps you avoid misunderstandings, but it will also increase a team’s effectiveness.

An important part of communicating clearly is knowing how to listen. Always use active listening skills when someone else is speaking, and give them your full attention. Not only will you understand them better, it’s also a sign of respect and courtesy.

Meeting virtually.

Tools such as Skype, Zoom, Webex and other virtual meeting platforms present different communication challenges. Keep in mind that your team members’ internet connection might not be as fast as yours, so speak slowly and clearly.

Try to speak as if everyone is in the room with you, and encourage people to ask for clarification if they miss something, or if the sound quality is poor. Also, try not to interrupt when others are speaking.

If you work in a global team, learn good cross-cultural communication skills to avoid unintended or embarrassing mistakes with team members from different countries.

“Virtual hygiene” covers the basic rules of set-up and delivery, including such obvious points as finding a private space to work uninterrupted, putting a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your office door and, if you are working via webcam, making sure you have an uncluttered ‘professional’ background behind you.

The second element – “virtual etiquette” refers to the set of principles or working approach that you for example as a facilitator, bring to the meeting to create engagement and enable productive collaboration. 

Appropriate virtual etiquette might include a brief ‘Check In’ time at the start of any virtual meeting, where participants take it in turns to share their mood, and perhaps a personal insight or achievement.

It might also highlight the importance of focus, turning off distractions such as muting mobile phones and giving full attention to whatever is taking place on the computer screen ahead, and of enabling spontaneous, free-flowing and inclusive conversation where people do not need to ask permission to speak, but may ‘chip in’ freely to share their thoughts.

Relationship building.

When you work in a virtual team, you have to make an extra effort with relationships. An important part of establishing relationships with teammates is building and maintaining trust.

Trust evolves differently in virtual teams, colleagues build trust through reliability, consistency, and responsiveness – this is called ability-based, or task-based trust.

To build trust, start by keeping your word. If you agree on a deadline, or you make a promise to call a teammate, follow up on what you say. When you demonstrate your integrity and work ethic, your team members will learn that they can rely on you.

Respond promptly to emails and other requests. A quick response shows your teammates that their needs are important to you.

Last, be sensitive to your colleagues in different time zones. If a meeting is scheduled early or late in their region, keep in mind that they might be less vocal or engaged than other team members.

If possible, schedule important meetings and deadlines for times when you’re both in the office, and don’t expect an immediate email response from a colleague who isn’t yet at her desk.

Coping with Isolation.

It’s normal for professionals who work virtually to experience feelings of isolation. You might also feel as if your organisation has “forgotten” you if you often work remotely.

If you are experiencing these feelings, take active steps to combat them. If your organisation has a blog or forum set up to connect and support virtual workers, spend time using these platforms.

Make an effort to engage and socialize with others outside of work. Meet a friend for lunch, or join a group focused on a hobby that you care about. There are also many forums and online communities devoted to virtual workers; making connections on these sites can help you to build a network of friends and colleagues who understand your situation.

You might also feel disconnected from your organisation when you work virtually. This is especially true if you’re left out of the decision-making process. Or, maybe you feel that your standing or reputation in the organisation has been diminished since you are not there every day.

Check in with your boss regularly with project updates, and suggest improvements or future projects that might be valuable to the organization.

Communicate your values into everything you do.

Your company values determine how people treat one another and behave when there are no explicit rules.

Often remote employees receive most of their communication in writing which can lack emotional context.  If your actions are consistent with your values, then it is easier to know how to interpret written messages and how to respond. 

Not only is this a good practice to keep remote employees in the fold, it helps perpetuate the kind of culture you want rather than leaving it to chance. 

Conclusion.

Your culture is built by every interaction that you have with employees, freelancers, consultants, etc.  Often virtual employees miss the daily activities and engagements that build relationships and affinity for co-workers and the company.  

The traditional office is not dead, but it is changing, encompassing new ways of working. 

There’s a whole world of opportunity for consultants to work together remotely and Brainping is a valuable network for you to access if you are interested in joining the ranks of independent IT consultants or have a small firm of consultants yourself.

Learn more about Brainping, and why it makes sense to join, meet like minded consultants and keep up to date with the latest assignments.

Image source: www.freepik.com