More and more organisations of all shapes and sizes are turning to virtual teams to accomplish their business goals. A relatively new concept, the “virtual team” is a group of employees who work together, but don’t occupy the same space. In fact, some virtual teams are spread across a dozen countries, on different continents, which don’t share a common language!
It’s not hard to see the potential advantages of virtual teamwork. For employers, it empowers them to seek out the best, brightest and best-adapted people for their organisation no matter where in the world they may be. For employees, they gain the freedom to work from home (or anywhere), seek out organisations that align with their values, and develop invaluable experience in industries that may not be local to where they live.
If it sounds like I’m speaking from experience – I am. Here at AsiaAus Leaders, I occupy the role of “Administrative and Marketing Assistant”. This role covers a diverse range of tasks, from keeping in contact with clients to redeveloping resources to managing online marketing campaigns. Most importantly, however, I don’t work in the office. Most of my work is done from my study at home – and I like it that way.
Having worked as part of a virtual team for several years now, I’ve picked up a few key lessons that employers can take onboard to make life easier both for their virtual employees and themselves. Whether you’re preparing to engage your first virtual employee, or you’re a veteran with a team of 100 cross-national staff, you’ll probably find these tips worth a read.
1. Listen to feedback
I’m lucky enough that I work for an organisation led by passionate, driven Directors who take feedback very seriously, but I’ve worked with other companies where this was not the case.
It sounds simple – but it isn’t. “Feedback” is a slightly nebulous concept, but in practice this constitutes anything which your employees tell you in response to tasks they’ve been assigned, products they’ve delivered, or problems they’ve encountered. It can range from “I feel like I’m spending too much time working on this project,” all the way to “I really like working with this person.” And all of it – no matter what it is – is important.
Listening to feedback is particularly crucial in virtual teams precisely because of the distance created by not being in the same space. Without seeing a person in front of you, it’s impossible to gauge their body language, tone of voice or unconscious cues. Often all you have is the content of what they’ve written to go by – and that may not be telling you everything you need to know.
Approach this with genuine curiosity – ask open questions and listen carefully to the responses. “How do you think this situation could be improved?” is often a good place to start – but that isn’t where the conversation should end. Open, honest dialogue is one of the most important building blocks for a happy, healthy virtual working environment.
2. Always Facilitate
Virtual team members are far apart! I cannot stress this enough. The virtual working environment is completely unlike a traditional “office”, in which employees can take time to get to know one another, exchange stories and build up a rapport. Generally speaking, virtual team members will communicate only when it is necessary for work to be accomplished – and even then, communication will be brief and to-the-point.
This may sound like a dream come true for some – after all, time where employees are chatting isn’t generally getting much work done – but this overlooks a key element of what makes a workplace function; organisational culture. It is very easy for a virtual team member to feel as though they have no real links to their “place of employment” and their counterparts in other countries. This leads to poor communication, and sometimes even open hostility.
As a manager or employer, it is your job to smooth the way for positive interactions between virtual team members. In the same way that a bricks-and-mortar place of employment may organise an employee picnic or “casual Friday”, you can make life easier for virtual team members by introducing them to one another, and seeking to bridge any cultural gaps that may be relevant. This is obviously more difficult with a significant language barrier – but not impossible. Many virtual team members (including myself) are bi- or even tri-lingual, and most will be happy to make an effort to get to know the people they’ll be working with.
A cohesive team gets work done more quickly, efficiently and – crucially – happily. When everyone in the team gets along, they can turn their attention to the task at hand, delegate appropriately and deliver products in a way that would be impossible in a relationship defined by tension, isolation and cultural misunderstandings.
3. Define your Roles
By their very nature, many virtual team members are “jacks of all trades”, hiring out one skill set or another to different organisations which may only need a small amount of work done in a specific area. This can be absolutely invaluable if you discover someone who has two, three or even four skills that your organisation needs, but don’t fall into the trap of assuming this means they can do everything without guidance.
Even for highly skilled employees, it’s important to define tasks clearly. If you hire a graphic designer who also happens to have web development experience, and request that they develop a graphic for your site, don’t assume that they will also be able (and willing) to make the graphic web-ready, upload it to the site, and ensure that it displays properly in a browser.
Put another way – if you didn’t hire this person as a web developer, don’t expect them to web develop, even if you know that they can. If you want them to do this as well, ensure that you make this clear from the outset – this will enable them to budget their time appropriately, and will avoid the unpleasant situation where they feel overworked and underappreciated, and you feel they are taking more time than was originally quoted.
Virtual teams have the capacity to facilitate the most remarkable innovation and sharing of ideas and cultures. In this role, I have worked with people from all over the world, and been able to learn from their expertise. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of this fantastic way of doing business – treat your virtual employees with respect, connect them and set them to work. You’ll be amazed by the results.