Between 2012 to 2016, the number of employees working remotely rose from 39% to 43%, according to research from Gallup, and employees working remotely spent more time doing so. Simply put, employees are going home, but they’re still working. In fact, they may be working a lot more and more productively.
In a world filled with collaboration tools, communication devices, connectivity apps, and handheld digital computers, workplace experts are debating the nature of and need for traditional physical offices. More and more teams now include contractors, freelancers, and other remote workers, making online collaboration critical. But in the rush to explore the future of work, could we be losing something vital that only an in-person team can provide?
The fact remains, virtual work teams offer a number of advantages and potential challenges. To generate success, employers need to feel comfortable and competent with online collaborative tools, understand the workplace psychology of space and distance, and know how to nurture specific team dynamics.
Virtual Teams in the Workplace
The advent of advanced workplace technology in the 1950s, including optic fiber and computer modems, allowed teams of people separated by time zone, geography, culture, or language to work together toward a common goal. Personal computers in the 1960s, cell phones in the 1970s, voicemail in the 1980s, and the internet in the 1990s each advanced the ability of disparate people to work together as a team. By the late 1990s, according to Management Study Guide, major technology firms such as Sun Microsystems were experimenting with virtual teams. Along about 2007, virtual work had crept outside of the Silicon Valley laboratory and across industry lines. Today, remote teams, virtual workplaces, and hybrid work environments have become de rigueur in business settings.
Alec Newcomb, founder and CEO of ScaledOn.Com, began his virtual team in 2013 since he found it hard to source technical talent in Vermont. “There were very few of us committed to remote work,” Newcomb said, “and the collective wisdom was that we were on a fool’s errand that would surely end in disaster.” For Newcomb, the experiment proved successful. He attributed that success to being clear about his company’s approach, hiring people who want to work remotely, and investing in the systems for success.
Virtual Teams vs Traditional Teams
When virtual teams first originated, the idea was usually called “work from home.” In this model, salespeople or office administrators took one or two days each week to work out of a home office. Some companies feared that productivity would suffer and assumed that employees who were not under the watchful eye of a supervisor would fail to deliver. This fear proved unfounded, however. Virtual teams can often outperform traditional ones. “An extensive study of 80 software development teams with programmers from the United States, South America, Europe, and Asia proved that virtual teams can lead to increased efficiency and better business results,” Harvard Business Review reported, “but only if they are managed to maximize the potential benefits while minimizing the disadvantages.”
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Advantages of Virtual Teams
- Lowers Costs: Virtual teams slash overhead costs. Companies save by purchasing or renting smaller office space; reducing the costs to heat, cool, light, and secure a property; minimizing insurance costs for the site; and reducing expenditures for food, snacks, and office parties. Virtual collaboration tools have democratized entrepreneurship, allowing nearly anyone with a good idea to build a disparate team for far less money than in the old days.
- Increases Employee Happiness: Most employees love working from home. The flexible schedule, additional time with family, ability to work while traveling, and the chance to take care of errands or housework during breaks make off-site employment an attractive carrot when recruiting talent. According to Zenefits, a human resources company, about 73% of employees with flexible work arrangements somewhat or strongly agree that these arrangements increase their satisfaction at work.
- Improves Productivity and Efficiency: Economics professor Nicholas Bloom conducted a study for CTrip, China’s largest travel agency, to determine what productivity boosts working from home might engender. Bloom found that work-from-home employees worked a full shift longer each week than their in-office counterparts. That’s six days of work for five days of pay.
- Purposeful Meetings: Conventional wisdom dictates that meetings are most companies’ biggest productivity waster. When people are expected to show up in a physical office every day, it’s easy to call or attend meetings that have little purpose. Virtual meetings, however, require purpose and planning. If managers are going to the extra trouble to pull your team together, they’re more likely to do it for a valid reason.
Challenges of Virtual Teams
- Lack of Communication: Unless a company provides the necessary tools and training, team members will not be able to talk with one another. Work will either get duplicated or left undone. Regular meetings and collaborative project management tools can solve this challenge, though.
- Lack of Social Interaction: Part of building a workplace culture comes down to having fun together. Workers on a virtual team can’t poke their heads into each other’s offices for a few minutes of banter. Emailing a coworker, hosting a team meeting, or setting up a Slack channel for fun and conversation can help people get to know one another in a digital workspace.
- Insufficient Tools: If corporate leadership does not provide an online team with all the collaborative tools it needs and train the members how to use those tools, the experiment will fail. The good news is there are several affordable or free tools available.
Tools for Online Collaboration
The benefits of virtual teams are only as strong as the technology that enables them to work together. While the specific software and platforms change over time, companies can expect to invest in technology for design, communication, documentation, time tracking, file sharing, and project management.
Some of the best and least expensive collaborative technologies in use today include both communication tools and project management tools. Communication tools keep employees talking to one another while project management tools allow each team member to have a bird’s-eye view of the whole project.
- Slack: Slack primarily serves as a communication tool. Team members can use it to chat, ask questions, or get help.
- Skype: Skype provides face-to-face and voice communication. It’s simple, easy to install, and familiar to most office workers.
- GotoMeeting: GotoMeeting is just one of many virtual meeting platforms that enable teams to huddle up without using more burdensome communication technology that requires an IT staffer to set up.
Project Management Tools
- Asana: A tool to help organize and track work, Asana was one of the first web-based project management options. Users can create a project, assign it attach documents to it, specify deadlines, and even communicate in the software.
- Trello: Trello uses a series of moveable notecards to show each member’s tasks. The cards include a deadline with helpful pings to let employees know when a task is about to expire.
- Com: Monday.Com is a popular tool that helps workers stay on top of their assignments, communicate with their supervisors and colleagues, and see what’s coming up ahead.
You don’t have to invest in the latest communication technology to enjoy the advantages of virtual teams. When used regularly and purposefully, basic communication tools such as conferencing calling and email can keep a geographically disparate group feeling like a team and working collaboratively. After all, the best communication technology is the one your team will use well and often.
In the workplace of the future, managers will recognize the advantages of virtual teams and employees will need to get comfortable moving seamlessly between in-person and online work. Emerging professionals need technological know-how along with the skills to work through the challenges of virtual teams. To learn more on this topic and other emerging trends in business, consider earning your bachelor’s degree online with Malone University.
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