Offices don’t look anything like they did many years ago.
Today, there are no cubicles, and meetings look a lot different, too. Rather than people cramming into a conference room and huddling around a projector, meetings today have several team members tuning in from remote locations via video conferencing. What else is different? Quick phone chats have turned into quick Zoom calls. Emails have turned into slacks.
Overall, teams are becoming more and more agile and less confined to a physical location. That has led to a few different types of teams that can exist in the modern workplace. There are fully in-office teams, which are slowly dissipating with the growth of remote work. There are hybrid teams, where team members work either in-office, remote, or switch between the two. Finally, there are virtual teams.
What is a virtual team?
A virtual team, also known as a distributed or remote team, refers to a group of employees that work together from home offices or coworking spaces. Virtual teams rely on communication technology such as video or voice conferencing software, email, and messaging applications in order to collaborate efficiently.
In this article, we’ll explore the benefits and challenges of virtual teams as well as how to successfully build and manage them.
The rise of virtual teams
Over the past 10 years, there has been a significant increase in remote workers, teams, and companies in the United States. In 2014, London Business School predicted that more than half of employees will work remotely by 2020. In 2019, that percentage jumped to 69%, surpassing that prediction with ease.
Over the years, more and more companies have adopted a relaxed work from home policy. It’s becoming the norm to expect some of your work to be done remotely (if you choose to, of course). This is good news for anyone who faces problems with productivity while in office.
Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom researched and found that remote work can increase overall productivity. The report stated that employees working from home found it easier to concentrate and were less inclined to take a sick day.
Remote work benefits employers as well. On average, employers save $2,000 per employee each year on real estate costs. Organizations that allow remote work see 25% less turnover than those that don’t. They also see shorter hiring cycles, largely due to the bigger pool of applicants and the ability to offer flexible options.
Now, the American workforce holds the option to work remotely close to their heart. Gallup research shows that 54% of office workers say they'd leave their job for one that offers flexible work time. It also found that job engagement increased when employees spent some time working remotely and some time working in a location with their coworkers. Higher employee engagement means better performance.
For those managing virtual teams, understand that you’ll face a unique set of challenges and benefits, but overall the benefits outweigh the difficulties. For example, research has shown that employees who work remotely at least once a month are 24% happier than those who never do.
How to build successful virtual teams
A lot of factors play into the creation of a successful virtual team, and there’s no one right way to do it. Before you begin to build a remote team, there are a few stepping stones you should address first.
1. Bring the right people together
The first step in building a functioning virtual team is to make sure you’re hiring (or training) employees who are equipped and willing to transition to remote life. If an employee thrives in office, you’re doing them a disservice if you onboard them onto a remote team. Additionally, make sure you’re selecting people that have great communication skills and feel comfortable working independently.
When you’re building your team, make sure to assess team size. It’s easier for everyone to communicate and collaborate with teams of 10 or fewer rather than a remote team of 30. Managers of remote teams should be scheduling virtual 1:1 meetings with their direct reports every week to ensure that every employee has the time they need to discuss wins and concerns.
In some cases, remote employees can begin to fall into the trap of social loafing. They may assume that because there are so many team members working on a project, they can step away or spend less time working. Moral of the story, stick to smaller teams when building a completely remote team. This will give them the ability to communicate with everyone on a regular basis, improving the team bond.
2. Appoint the best leadership
A team is nothing without a great leader. Managers who lead remote teams (especially if it’s their first time doing so) will need to keep a few things in mind.
First and foremost, keep communication open and transparent. No one likes to be left in the dark on projects or topics they keep a close eye on. Remote managers should get used to explaining why a meeting is called, what needs to get done, and how it affects team OKRs. This isn’t a one-time thing either. Repeated explanations of goals and projects will help your team better understand how they should be contributing.
Additionally, teaching your team how to speak with care can make a huge difference when talking over slack or email. Instead of saying, “We need to change x,” set an example for the team and say “I think it’s best if we change x because of this reason. What do you think?” This opens the conversation to collaborating whereas the first instantly shut down any creativity.
Finally, it’s essential to establish trust with your team. Let them know you’re there for them and that any information they disclose in a 1:1 stays in that 1:1. Consider holding a meeting where team members open with updates from their personal life rather than jumping right into work. Remote workers are less likely to participate in casual office banter considering they really can’t do so from different locations. Take time to get to know your team and show them that work can be fun too.
It is imperative that you act as an example for the team. Responding with respect and empathy will set the tone for everyone and establish that open and honest conversations are valued.
3. Communicate at the right time
As you add employees to your remote team, take the liberty of making their first few weeks with the company memorable. Instead of sending a quick Slack message announcing their employment, consider flying them out to company headquarters and meeting with them in-person. Doing so can prove to them that you take them seriously and are excited to have them join the team.
If you’re able, try to get the entire team physically together a couple times a year. While remote workers are great at working independently, you should put in the effort to bring everyone together, maybe even working in the same office for a week. Working remotely can get old fast and in-person events can be something all employees look forward to.
When you work remotely, a work anniversary or big milestone can feel insignificant. Make sure that as a leader, you keep track of anniversaries, birthdays, and important milestones your team may be reaching. When someone receives a handwritten birthday card or a one-year anniversary plaque, they feel valued and important. Appreciation can go a long way and reignite the motivation to continue working hard.
4. Use the right tools
No remote team can succeed without the right virtual team technology. Without the proper tools, meetings feel more annoying than helpful. If you’ve ever been the remote person on a call where people in the room didn’t know how to join and even gave up, you likely felt that you weren’t valued in the conversation. Even with phone conversations, without that crucial visual context, it’s extremely difficult to read the room, know who is talking, and have your voice be heard.
With this in mind, video conferencing hardware and software are essential for remote teams to effectively communicate. By giving everyone a face and a voice, you can have natural conversations that help with brainstorming, planning, strategizing, 1:1 meetings, and virtual team building.
Next, your team will need a messaging software. Slack is one of the most popular at the moment, and any messaging platform should do the trick. The idea behind an instant messaging platform is that remote teams can quickly communicate without having to send emails or set up video calls for every little ask.
When considering a messaging solution, make sure it has the ability for individual conversations, group conversations, and channels or rooms to allow for day-to-day banter surrounding a given topic. Many teams will have channels for different purposes like a marketing channel, general channel, fun and games/silly conversation channel, and more. Providing the space for conversation is a simple remote team building strategy that doesn’t have to break the bank.
How to manage a virtual team
So you’ve hired the right people, created a strong foundation for communication, and equipped them with the best tools. Your virtual team is good to go, right? Wrong. It takes a while to build a great virtual team and in order to keep everyone productive, it’s imperative to create a healthy work environment. As you begin managing your virtual team, consider using the following tips.
1. Promote remote team building
As mentioned before, remote team building won’t happen naturally, it requires effort on your part as a virtual team manager, as well as buy-in from your team. Some ideas for team building are a daily video stand-up, a weekly meeting on Mondays where the team can share what they did over the weekend, or a morning Slack conversation.
Some other ideas are creating random pairings of teammates for video coffee calls. Once a week or once a month, everyone is randomly assigned a coffee partner and they can set up time for a 30-minute meeting to get to know each other.
This works well if folks on your team may not interact with each other naturally or if you are part of a larger remote organization. This will give your employees a chance to get to know people in a way that mimics bumping into people in the office.
2. Build remote culture (it’s different than in-person)
Building culture isn’t easy at any organization. Dharmesh Shah was a champion for building and defining culture at then-small HubSpot. He explored what was important to the leadership team, employees, and managers, and outlined what that culture meant and how to implement it.
For your team, gather some opinions on what is important to folks. Do people feel like they hardly know their teammates? Do they feel like they don’t know you all that well? By working with your team to build out a culture, you will create an open and honest environment where sharing is caring and people feel heard.
3. Meet in person
For virtual teams, it doesn't matter where in the world you are and choose to work, but relationships will be strengthened with occasional face-to-face interactions. While the benefits of remote work are extensive, the idea of having dinner as a whole group outside of the small box of your laptop at home can’t be replaced.
If you are able to meet as a group prioritize getting to know you activities, strategy and brainstorming, and team building. Anything that can be effectively done virtually can be saved for later. If budget is tight, HR experts recommend that virtual managers go to their direct reports in the case that the whole team can’t get together.
Some team-building ideas for your quarterly meetups are:
Artistic activity (pottery-making or painting class)
Virtual happy hours
Let your team let loose, and working relationships will improve.
4. Trust your remote employees
This should go without saying. Many leaders are still coming around to the idea that remote work does not mean less work. The Harvard Business Review conducted a study with that found that when employees were able to work remotely, they completed 13.5% more calls from home, saved the company $1,900 per employee over nine months, and on top of that their job satisfaction increased.
The many myths around remote work have since been debunked: remote workers are more productive, happier, and cost less than traditional office workers. When 3,000+ global employees were asked their primary reason for working remote, the top response was productivity and focus.
5. Check in with regular career growth conversations
Remote workers can feel out of the loop with career growth conversations. Imagine your colleague trying to have a conversation about compensation with his remote manager, and their connection is slow. Their audio is breaking up the whole time while he tries to discuss why he deserves more money. Needless to say, these circumstances aren’t ideal.
Remote managers can have an unintentional bias to prioritize those they work with most closely, and thus might be more prone to having career conversations with those they most often communicate with. If you are a remote manager, make sure you regularly check in on your team’s growth and progress toward goals (and check your connection before you start the conversation).
6. Use calendars and keep them up-to-date
One major issue for remote folks is not knowing where team members or managers are at a given time, if they’re working, or offline, and why they aren’t responding to Slack or email. As a courtesy to your team, make sure your calendar is up-to-date. Even if you are going to be away from your computer for lunch, make sure to share that so your team members can quickly see that you’re busy and that you’ll get back to them later in the day.
Benefits of virtual teams
Managing a virtual team can be an immensely rewarding experience but it can also have benefits that help the organization as a whole.
Increased productivity. Virtual team members can save time and money when they work from home. No commute and no monthly commuter fee.
Larger talent pool: Not being confined to just local talent can open the doors to add the most experienced people to the team.
Better personal flexibility. Remote workers can set their own schedule and work when it’s best for them.
Decrease in office costs. Remote workers don’t need to utilize office space, allowing organizations to use and pay for a smaller and less expensive space that accommodates in-office employees.
A longer work day. Because remote employees can be located internationally and work in different timezones, companies can operate on a 24-hour schedule rather than a 12-hour schedule.
Challenges of virtual teams
While working on a virtual team definitely has its benefits, there are a fair amount of setbacks that managers will need to be aware of going forward.
Poor communication. When you can only converse with colleagues over video conferencing apps and slack, it can be hard to understand their tone. Even over video, it’s a challenge to pick up on body language and facial expressions.
Technology issues. If remote employees are having problems connecting to the internet, it can slow the entire team’s progress until the issue is resolved.
Lack of management. If a manager becomes relaxed in their management style, employees can find it difficult to communicate effectively. If the manager isn’t constantly checking in, the team member may find it difficult to reach out if they have a problem.
One of the biggest challenges for distributed teams is building team culture. When your team isn’t able to go for drinks after work, have lunch together, or engage in office chit-chat, it makes team building activities more of a concerted effort. Virtual teams require purposeful and deliberate team building, which comes from the top down.
As a virtual team manager, it is your responsibility to make sure that your team doesn’t become totally isolated in their remote work environment. For hybrid workers, impromptu video meetings can help to engage with colleagues around the country in a way that feels natural and parallels bouncing ideas off of coworkers in the office.