Virtual Offices are Workplaces of the Future (And the Future is Now)
“One day, offices will be a thing of the past”, Richard Branson, Entrepreneur and Founder of Virgin Airlines
Indeed, today’s offices goes beyond the boundaries of a brick and mortar physical office. We are on the brink of the fourth industrial revolution and the business world is constantly being disrupted by digital transformations. In order for businesses to thrive in this ever changing environment, many have already set up or are looking to form virtual teams for some aspects of their business. Virtual teams consist of working professionals who work from home full time or part time, people who work from remote locations and those who may work outside the office (such as at coffee joints, libraries, etc). Virtual teams allow companies to cast a wide net for expertise and maximise limited resources.
But how do you manage people who are not physically in the same office or country?
How do you maintain accountability with an employee in a different time zone?
These are just some of the challenges associated with virtual teams.
First, you need to ensure you have the right mix of skills and abilities on your team. Not everyone is suited for remote work. Working on virtual teams is not suitable for those who need a lot of supervision. Virtual teams require people who are self-motivated and possess self-discipline, as everyone need to stick to their schedules and ask for help when the need arises. In addition, building good work relationships without the benefit of face to face contact requires people with high emotional intelligence. Recruit those who will be resilient working alone under pressure. Also, you want people who are open-minded to new technology and be competent in the tools you use. A final tip is to keep your virtual team small, preferably less than 10 people. A study from UCLA shows that smaller teams are more productive. In fact, communications might be harder to maintain and result in breakdown and confusion among team members.
More than any factor, information technology has enabled the proliferation of virtual teams. The first step is to assess what your team needs and resources available. Think in terms of communicating, content creation, sharing of content and costs:
How will you conduct meetings? By phone? By teleconferencing?
What will be your primary means of communication?
How secure will the various channels need to be?
Which files types will you use?
Will you need access to any shared databases?
What security features will you need to protect the files?
How much storage capacity is required?
Will content be stored in a hard disk or cloud (Dropbox? Google Drive?)
Will you need different access levels and permissions for files?
What is the budget for all technology including purchase, maintenance and storage?
What costs will the individuals bear and what costs will the organization bear?
The most important thing is to seek feedback from your team and capitalize on what they already know how to use. Once you have decided on the technology, set out a clear set of norms about how they will be used. Doing so will ensure that everyone is accountable and help new members assimilate quickly. Good communication across technologies is about discipline and having a common understanding of etiquette.
The next thing to consider is to create a clear structure and establish standards to manage the team remotely and ensure that they are clear about their responsibilities. For instance, Diane and Greg want calls to go to their home lines, but Heather prefers us to call her cell phone. Are your employees expected to reply to emails on weekends? Everyone on the team must know the team’s normal working hours and how often members check voice mail or email. Agree on ground rules for meetings and other interactions. Summarise team meetings, action items, deliverables and decisions. Distribute information to all team members and have a backup plan for when members are not able to attend. Like all work, expect to have missed deadlines, unsatisfactory results and conflict on virtual teams. Managers need to document shared expectations, agree on accountability processes and hold regular one-on-one sessions with their team members so that employees are held accountable even from afar. Deliverables can be laid out in a tracking spreadsheet and a progress report, which can be accessible by everyone on the project or task. On virtual teams, be detailed as much as possible by verifying the metrics, redefining time lines and building in extra time to meet deadlines. The frequency in which you communicate with your team is also vital. Maintain frequent status check-ins with individual team members and reach out to them to avoid loose ends and ensure that they have the resources to avoid potential problems.
How do you keep your employees motivated and engaged despite the distance? In physical offices, the sense of connectedness develops naturally – over lunch, in the elevator, pantry or in pre-meeting chatter. But virtual teams lack these experiences, hence there is a need to make a concerted effort to build rapport and trust among team members. One way to do this is to hold video tours. Get new members on the team to show one another around their workspaces. This practice allows colleagues to form a mental image of one another when they are communicating later by email or phone. Invite your team members to give a quick update of themselves at the beginning of the team meeting.
Small talk is a way for team members to get to know one another. Post bio and pictures of team members and incorporate them in meetings. In addition, recognise and praise collaborative behaviour when you see it. If several team members have worked together to solve a problem, send an email to the entire team to express your appreciation or call them out during the team meeting. Encourage people to acknowledge one another’s work. Sharing genuine praise and showing appreciation for work well done keeps employees engaged and happy even if they are separated miles apart.
Regardless of whether you are an experienced team leader or new to the role, coordinating the work of people in multiple locations will stretch your skills. How you use these ideas depends on the people you are managing and the work they need to do.
We hope that this article is helpful. Do you have any tips you would like to add?
Let us know in the comments and please share this post with a friend/colleague if you enjoyed it!
Topics: Managing People
Written by Melissa Tham
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