The growing threat of a COVID-19 pandemic has pushed businesses to consider their remote working policies and so now more than ever, we need to understand how best to motivate, engage and create a high-performing virtual team.
This is not only relevant for this point in time but also more generally as despite the movement towards virtual teams, there are many questions that remain unanswered. Many questions that, if we are to fully benefit from virtual teams, we should be working to understand.
Unsurprisingly, almost two decades later, a 2018 global survey revealed that 89% of respondents work in a virtual team that is at least somewhat (32%) or extremely (56%) critical to their role. As companies engage with globalisation and digitalisation, collaborating with others across a physical distance is becoming more common. Virtual teams seem to benefit everyone; employees enjoy flexibility and employers can benefit from expert knowledge held by individuals all over the globe.
Despite the movement towards virtual teams, there are many questions that remain unanswered. Many questions that, if we are to fully benefit from virtual teams, we should be working to understand.
First and foremost, we need to understand what we’re referring to when we say ‘virtual teams’. Does it refer to teams that are solely virtual and have never had face-to-face interaction? Or, does it refer to those teams that sometimes use digital platforms to interact when working remotely? The truth is, researchers are still to agree on an all-encompassing definition of ‘virtual teams’. Most definitions share three key characteristics:
These characteristics help understand the boundaries within which we speak about virtual teams but it is clear that as these teams become the norm we need to understand how to work with teams that fit along the spectrum of virtual teamworking.
A recent global survey revealed that 96% of team leaders think they are effective in leading global virtual teams whilst only 58% of team members feel that their leaders are effective in managing them. This is worrying.
To maximise virtual team performance and benefit from the advantages it can bring, such as knowledge sharing, they need to be managed effectively. Assessing and hiring effective leaders from the start is vital for the success of your organisation. Leaders need to develop the digital dexterity to drive teamwork, virtually track performance and identify how individuals’ strengths can help each other in their team.
Leaders also need to learn how to meet their team’s innate psychological need for social interaction in a virtual manner; this is not always easy. Naturally, it is more difficult for virtual team members to establish rapport and trust, especially if they are being forced into remote working because of health risks such as COVID-19, but there are some things leaders can do to help the team perform well:
Leaders need to develop the digital dexterity to drive teamwork, virtually track performance and identify how individuals’ strengths can help each other in their team.
Understand that individuals prefer to work in different ways. There may be some people more suited to remote working than others and by understanding this you could maximise productivity from the outset but more importantly, you can make sure that your team is engaged and happy. Explore these preferences with individuals either by using personality assessments or if this needs to be done more urgently, speaking to them to understand how best to support them during this time. Exploring factors such as an individual’s need to work closely with others, belong to a team and other role specific needs and preferences can be an effective way to understand how suited they are to remote team working.
When employees are working together in an office environment, personal interactions naturally occur throughout various points during the day, in a virtual environment this is more difficult. If employees are pushed into virtual team working this can have an adverse impact on their engagement as they may feel lonely which could result in lower productivity. To combat this, leaders may react by solely focusing on task-performance, however, to boost morale you should encourage communication through voice and video calls as this will allow people to show and read emotions as well as speak in real-time.
It is important to be clear that working as a virtual team is different from working with people in close physical proximity. Be sure to clearly define roles and share a team vision and strategy. Studies predict that over half of virtual teams will fail to meet their strategic or operational objectives because of a manager’s inability to lead a disrupted workforce.
Working with a global team creates the inevitability of individual and cultural differences that need to be managed effectively to minimise miscommunications. It is important for managers to recognise that they are distant from the local context of their team member. This distance, and so lack of situational knowledge, could naturally result in managers overestimating the role of personality over situational explanations for a virtual team member’s behaviour. Consequently, managers may be distracted from identifying the root cause of issues and this may prevent them from modifying practices to avoid reoccurrences. Managing this can be as simple as being aware of your biases and ensuring that you’re challenging your preconceptions. Also, actively look for situational evidence to allow yourself to get a full picture of what is happening.
Despite some of their challenges, it is evident that virtual teams are here and that they are not going anywhere, they may possibly even become more popular. And with good reason, virtual teams allow businesses to capitalise on the knowledge, skills and abilities of employees around the globe. The current health threat of COVID-19 has emphasised the benefits and challenges of virtual team working at a time where this is front of mind for many businesses. This article has touched on some ways that potential issues can be managed. It is important to remember that every virtual team is different and so comes with its own strengths and development areas, and therefore its own unique set of challenges and development opportunities.
As a manager it is crucial to be fair, honest and curious about your team members; these fundamental qualities are key in managing virtual team members’ needs, which must be tailored just as you would for a non-virtual team.
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