Best Practices for Managing a Virtual Team
Virtual teams are becoming increasingly common in companies across the U.S. and around the world. According to recent data from Global Workplace Analytics, the population of remote employees grew by 140% between 2005 and 2016 — which is nearly 10 times faster growth than the rest of the workforce and the self-employed population. In the U.S., about 4.3 million employees currently work remotely at least half of the time.
This shift towards remote work offers many advantages for both companies and employees. Remote employees enjoy greater freedom and flexibility, while businesses benefit from access to stronger talent, increased productivity and lower overhead costs.
However, leveraging the advantages of virtual teams does not come without its challenges. Businesses must adapt to changing workplace dynamics and implement creative strategies for effective communication among virtual team members. Virtual team managers may also face new hurdles toward enforcing employee accountability and cultivating a positive work culture.
This article offers advice for tackling these virtual team challenges head-on, as well as outlines best practices for managing remote teams successfully.
What Is A Virtual Team?
A virtual team is a group of employees who work remotely, or telecommute, from different geographic locations instead of working in the same office. Virtual team members may be dispersed throughout a city or state, across the country or even around the world. Virtual teams rely on communication technology, such as phone, email, video conferencing and file sharing, to transfer information and collaborate on projects. Virtual teams are also known as distributed teams, geographically dispersed teams or remote teams.
What Are Virtual Teams Used For?
Virtual teams are being used for temporary, part-time and full-time work across various industries. While the software, information technology (IT), marketing and media industries dominate the remote workspace, virtual teams can also be found in finance, healthcare, accounting and almost any other industry that uses electronic technology to complete work tasks. Companies often contract virtual project teams to complete short-term projects or fill gaps during periods of increased demand. Other businesses operate entirely with full-time remote employees and distributed teams.
Companies also use virtual teams to access international talent and reach global markets. By building teams with remote employees, businesses can acquire the top talent in their industry no matter where that talent is located geographically. As businesses become more globally focused, they can use remote teams to provide more direct access to international markets and to collaborate more efficiently with clients based in foreign countries.
What Are the Advantages of a Virtual Team?
Virtual teams provide value to companies by allowing access to the best talent, lowering overhead costs and offering greater flexibility. Here are the primary advantages of virtual teams for both businesses and employees:
- Access to top global talent: Because remote employees can collaborate from anywhere in the world, companies can build remote teams composed of the very best talent available. Businesses can access international and domestic employees with the right expertise and knowledge to tackle any project or fill any role.
- Possibility of temporary contracting: Virtual teams allow companies to contract talent when they need it for short-term projects or during peak seasons. Instead of supporting full-time staff, companies can cut expenses by building temporary virtual teams.
- Greater appeal to top talent: Companies offering flexible remote work positions are more likely to attract and win top talent. According to the Workforce 2020 survey by Oxford Economics, 44% of employees said a flexible work location was important to them, and 42% said having a flexible work schedule was an important work benefit.
- Increased employee job satisfaction: Working remotely provides greater flexibility for employees and a better work-life balance, which may boost job satisfaction. According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, 99% of remote employees plan to continue working remotely for the rest of their careers, indicating a high level of job satisfaction.
- Reduced overhead costs: When companies have a smaller internal team, they can have a smaller office building, which lowers rental and utility expenses. Remote employees often pay for their own Internet and devices, reducing the onboarding expenses of hiring new employees. For a global company, having a virtual team can also lower travel expenses. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that companies save an average of $11,000 per employee annually when employees who can telecommute work remotely at least half of the time.
These financial and operational advantages of virtual teams help companies create a strong and agile workforce. Businesses can leverage the benefits of remote teams to increase scalability or expand into new markets.
What Are the Challenges With a Virtual Team?
Despite the distinct advantages of a remote workforce, virtual teams also pose several challenges that companies must address for successful implementation and management of virtual teams in the workplace. These are the primary challenges of virtual teams:
- Effective communication and collaboration: Virtual teams face many hurdles to effective communication, including different time zones or work schedules, multiple modes of communication, unclear communication protocols and loss or confusion of data and information. The 2019 State of Remote Work survey reported that collaborating and communication is the third biggest challenge among remote employees. Virtual teams may also face greater security risks when sharing documents and data electronically.
- Lack of impromptu information exchange: Remote employees cannot share information in the office hallways or over their cubicle walls. When quick answers are needed, remote employees must reach out via other communication channels like text or phone calls, which may delay the response. Virtual team members also miss out on casual interactions and water cooler conversations.
- Poor accountability: When employees are not monitored in an office setting, it can be more difficult to notice if employees are not performing as they should be. Those managing remote employees may find it challenging to enforce good accountability or to discipline employees when necessary. A lack of accountability can lead to low productivity or missed deadlines.
- Lack of trust in management: Gaining employee trust and respect can be more challenging in a virtual environment without face-to-face interactions. If employees do not trust their managers, they may not be as invested in the company or its vision, resulting in lower quality work.
- Employee isolation or loneliness: Although the majority of virtual team members enjoy working remotely, this style of work can lead to feelings of isolation or loneliness. According to Buffer, 19% of remote employees cited loneliness as their biggest struggle of working from home. In companies with both internal and virtual teams, remote employees may feel left out of the larger company culture.
When transitioning to a virtual workspace, employers must address these challenges of managing virtual teams. With the right strategies in place, companies can overcome these challenges and build successful remote teams.
Best Practices for Managing a Virtual Team
When managing a remote team, employers and supervisors must implement strategies for effective communication, regular collaboration and efficient sharing of information. The best virtual team managers will cultivate a positive work culture and a sense of community among virtual team members. When managing virtual teams, use these best practices to build a strong and effective remote workforce.
1. Choose the Right Team Members
A successful virtual team starts with team members who are independent, trustworthy, accountable, self-motivated and high-performing. When hiring remote employees, look for candidates who demonstrate reliability and strong communication skills.
Behavioral assessments are an effective way to screen potential virtual team members to see if they are a good fit. Companies can also test the compatibility and performance of candidates through initial short-term projects. Before officially bringing new virtual team members on board, companies can hire them for a small project to observe their productivity, work style, and work quality.
2. Choose Effective Technologies
Effective technology is another essential pillar of a successful virtual team. All virtual team members must be able to share documents and data quickly through compatible and secure technologies. Collaboration must be streamlined through integrated communication technologies that provide clear video, audio or text. When team members are dispersed around the globe, productivity tools, time tracking software, and project management systems help employers keep track of virtual team performance. Here are a few essential technologies for managing remote employees:
- Communication technologies
- Document sharing platforms
- Project management software
- Collaboration and prototyping software
- Attendance and time tracking software
- Scheduling tools
Technology for virtual teams must be compatible, fast, streamlined, secure and efficient. Without the right technologies in place, remote employees cannot collaborate and communicate as needed and work performance declines.
3. Establish Operating Procedures
Employers must establish a code of conduct for virtual teams that includes how to submit projects, how to track attendance, how to interact with other team members and other basic operating procedures. These written protocols can be used to measure employee accountability and performance and to determine when discipline is necessary. Here are a few procedures that should be outlined in a code of conduct for a remote team:
- Assigning and submitting work
- Providing status and progress updates
- Tracking attendance and timeliness
- Submitting time off requests
- Policies for regular work hours and holidays
- Procedures for conflict resolution and discipline
- Ongoing training and support resources
One of the most important operating procedures for a virtual team is setting regular work hours, especially when team members are working from different time zones. To ensure effective collaboration and enable quick problem solving, team members’ work hours should overlap for at least a few hours each day.
4. Define a Communication Plan
An effective virtual team communication plan is one of the biggest factors influencing the success of remote teams. The communication plan should include clear protocols for which technologies will be used for communication between team members and when each technology should be used. For example, email may be the preferred method for general communication, while a video conferencing software may be used for meetings and reviews. When team members need answers more quickly, they may rely on an instant messaging application or a phone call.
A communication plan for remote employees should also define technologies and procedures for sharing information, data, documents, and spreadsheets. Employees should have a clear understanding of when and how to provide feedback on collaborative work. Managers should also set expectations for frequency and timeliness of communication and updates.
With so many communication technologies available, it’s essential that all virtual team members are on the same page about which channels to use and when to use them. Defining a clear communication plan greatly reduces the risk of important messages getting lost or information becoming jumbled.
5. Create a Regular Team Meeting Schedule
Holding regular meetings with all virtual team members ensures everyone is on the same page, establishes a sense of routine and helps keep remote employees accountable for their daily work tasks and ongoing projects. Managers should create a defined meeting schedule based on the size and nature of the virtual team. Teams that collaborate frequently might meet daily for a briefing, while teams that work primarily independently may meet just once a month or at the start of a new project. Smaller virtual teams may also be able to meet more frequently than large companies or departments.
When hosting meetings for remote teams, keep the meeting short and focused. Avoid monologues and stay on topic. For the most effective team meetings, managers can send out the agenda in advance so team members can prepare any questions or comments they have before the meeting. Assigning a moderator for virtual team meetings also helps keep the meeting on track, especially for larger groups.
6. Provide Regular Feedback
In a virtual setting, managers may not be able to offer feedback as immediately or frequently as with internal teams. One-on-one meetings between managers and remote employees provide an opportunity to give constructive and congratulatory feedback more regularly. Managers should meet with each employee weekly or monthly to review their performance and suggest areas for improvement. Individual meetings are also a great opportunity to check-in on each employee’s workload and offer support when needed.
7. Set Clear Expectations
When transitioning to a virtual team, it can be tempting to micromanage by monitoring employees too closely and requesting status updates more frequently than necessary. However, by setting clear expectations and establishing benchmarks upfront, managers of virtual teams can manage effectively without smothering their remote employees. When employees have a clear understanding of the expected deliverables and how long each task should take, they are more likely to produce good work on time. Project management and productivity tracking software can assist in ensuring that employees stay on task and complete projects by their assigned deadline.
8. Establish Protocols for Making Decisions
When collaborating virtually, team members should have a clear understanding of which decisions they can make on their own and which decisions require approval by supervisors. Without established protocols for decision-making, employees may waste time waiting for approval they did not need or may take an action they were not authorized to perform. Clear procedures for decision-making empower remote team members to take ownership of their responsibilities and improve overall company efficiency.
9. Provide Managerial Accessibility
In an office setting, employees can easily connect with their managers for questions, feedback, and support simply by walking to their office. Virtual project teams do not always have the same accessibility to their supervisors. A best practice for managing remote teams is to designate times when managers are regularly available to virtual team members through virtual office hours, an open chat room or by connecting with each employee daily. Managers of remote employees can also share their calendar or use chat statuses to inform employees when they are available to talk.
When employees feel their manager is more involved in day-to-day operations, they are more likely to stay accountable to their work tasks and produce higher quality work.
10. Create Space to Build Team Culture
The most successful virtual teams will be those whose members are invested in the company vision and excited about the work they are doing. When employees feel that they are striving to achieve a shared vision together, they will work more efficiently and produce better work.
To create a strong team culture among remote employees, managers can provide opportunities for team members to communicate informally and get to know one another. Chat rooms are often an effective platform for virtual teams to share updates, highlight achievements and discuss topics both relating to work and their outside interests. Remote teams can celebrate their achievements together to create a strong community and company culture that encourages collaboration and engagement.
Manage Your Virtual Team Effectively With Consolidated Technologies, Inc.
If you are ready to implement these best practices for managing remote teams, Consolidated Technologies, Inc. (CTI) is here to help. We offer complex and customized solutions for unified communications (UC) so your virtual team can collaborate effectively, communicate clearly and work more productively. Our UC solutions streamline your chat, voice, data and other services so your remote teams can work smarter. As an award-winning UC provider, CTI can deliver the right UC solution and intelligence tools for your unique business needs.
CTI also offers cloud communications that empower your company to share, chat and collaborate more efficiently and cost-effectively. By eliminating costly on-site servers, maintenance contracts, bulky hardware, and time-consuming software upgrades, our cloud communication solutions let you focus on what matters most — running your business.
As the leading managed IT service provider in the New York area, Consolidated Technologies, Inc. provides reliable solutions for managing virtual teams successfully. Contact us to learn more about our technologies for virtual team communication and managing remote employees.