— October 18, 2017
A common misconception about the virtual workplace is that the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. However, the benefits that stem from providing employers remote work opportunities include reduced employee absences, increased productivity and employee morale, a greater talent pool for hiring decisions, and increased financial savings through decreased overhead costs. After all, employers don’t have to pay for a physical space, electricity, water or custodial costs when employees work from home!
While the trend of telecommuting and virtual teams is on the rise, some large companies, such as Aetna, Bank of America, and Yahoo, have reduced or eliminated their telecommuting programs altogether. In the November 2017 issue of The Atlantic, author Jerry Useem discusses IBM’s decision to backpedal on its commitment to remote employment after the company’s revenues fell for 20 consecutive quarters.
As IBM and others pull back on their telecommuting efforts, it raises concerns about the impact of co-location—or lack of it—on team effectiveness and performance. Useem argues that this shift in support could potentially deal a powerful blow to the idea that the virtual workplace contributes to a more productive and effective workforce.
The main concern is that virtual work hinders creative and collaborative processes. These companies believe the cause is a reliance on technology that impacts communication and the ability to build trust, and that team members develop better relationships and collaborate more when they work in the same physical space.
We agree that virtual work presents team leaders and members with a unique set of challenges. According to our research on effective virtual teams and virtual leaders, the central problem is that many organizations and leaders simply try to “wash, rinse, and repeat.” They try to apply the practices that worked for co-located teams to virtual teams without necessarily appreciating that the needs of the two groups differ. However, we also found that these challenges and concerns can be overcome while maintaining the benefits of virtual work by adhering to a few key principles.
Remote workforce critics argue that working from home can potentially hinder the “collaborative efficiency” of workers and teams. Collaborative efficiency, as described in The Atlantic article on IBM, is “the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem.” Because employees who telecommute do not physically share the same space or necessarily work within the same geographic region or time zone, the concern is that they miss out on relationship development opportunities, informal interactions and spontaneity that contribute to a team’s ability to solve problems quickly.
While it’s true that face-to-face interactions can stimulate innovative and collaborative ideas, the challenge for organizations and leaders is to replicate the characteristics of face-to-face environment.
So what can be leaders do to achieve this objective?
The key takeaway from our research is that the success of virtual teams directly correlates to the quality of virtual leadership. Our research study on 48 virtual teams from 16 organizations shows that the most successful virtual leaders use a combination of technology and behavioral changes to enhance their performance in four key areas — relationships, accountability, motivation, and process — which make up our RAMP model of virtual team effectiveness.
Virtual leaders and teams can use a number of technology platforms to effectively replicate the collaborative environment of a face-to-face setting in a virtual workspace. Tools like Walkabout Workplace help to connect remote teams through a virtual office space that is complete with offices, a meeting room, and a “receptionist” to take messages when team members are unavailable. This helps to emulate the type of interactions people are accustomed to experiencing while working in a co-located work environment. In addition, collaborative software like Google Drive enables individuals to access and edit documents in real time.
As technologies improve and costs decrease, video technology is becoming more accessible and enables remote team members to have face-to-face conversations that facilitate building trust and relationships. This, in turn, allows for a greater level of collaboration and effectiveness in a virtual workforce.
To be successful in a virtual world, you cannot just do what worked for you in a co-located work environment. For example, when it comes to building relationships, virtual workers cannot take advantage of spontaneous and informal opportunities to connect with others during the day. They must be deliberate and intentional about reaching out and connecting with others — call to have non-work conversations (it’s hard to build a relationship and trust with someone if the only time they reach out is when they have a problem or need something from you) and create opportunities to team members to interact (e.g., virtual coffee breaks, celebrate birthdays virtually).
The use of technology may also require a change in behavior. For example, getting comfortable using collaborative software and video during meetings rather than email or the phone, and developing the habit of going to the shared cloud space to find documents rather than asking people to email them.
By leveraging technology and adjusting behavior, leaders can overcome the challenges of working virtually and establish a strong foundation for productivity and collaboration among your organization’s remote teams without losing the benefits telecommuting offers.