The use of remote workers and virtual teams has been growing steadily over the years and is a proven effective method for increasing engagement (see the Gallup article: “Is working Remotely Effective? Gallup Research says Yes”). Of course, now with the global Coronavirus situation, it’s pretty much a necessity.
Vital success factors such as alignment, commitment, productivity, trust, and engagement are challenging in their own right, but require special attention when managing remote workers and virtual teams. Adding to the challenge is the confusion about how best to leverage collaboration technologies. Many organizations either have no idea how to use these technologies, or worse—they ignore the psychological and social aspects and treat them as simple technology implementations, retaining archaic policies.
If the challenges of virtual teams are high, the rewards are high as well. If done right, engagement is increased, people are happier, and objectives get accomplished faster. But what does “done right” mean?
For one, it means understanding the people, process, and technology perspectives—or more specifically, the triple levers of engagement, governance, and enabling technology. Addressing all three areas correctly can yield extremely high performing and co-creative virtual teams and highly productive remote workers.
Virtual Teams Defined
Before we examine the factors that lead to high performing virtual teams, let’s acknowledge that there are numerous perceptions of what a virtual team is (or what a team is, for that matter). First, the word team implies a shared objective that requires the interaction and collaboration of all members in some way in order to reach the objective. Think of a sports team that depends on all players to do their part, or a project team in which each team member contributes their expertise toward the project’s objective.
If the members are merely doing similar work remotely, and can just as easily accomplish their objectives independent of the other members, then they are working as a group of remote workers, not a team, which is just fine. It is quite possible to work as a team when interaction is required, and as a group when interaction is not required. The key is to understand the difference, and know when team principles apply.
A virtual team is a team in which some or all of the members whose contributions are necessary for overall success are not co-located. They could be in different countries, different buildings, or simply different floors. Meeting team goals requires interaction, and members are dependent on each other to get things done.
In any case, the use of remote workers and virtual teams raises some questions. How do we ensure everyone is engaged and accountable for his or her work? What level of governance is appropriate to avoid chaos and ensure that common principles are observed? What technology is available for collaboration, and how is it best leveraged?
As mentioned, correct application of the three performance levers—engagement, governance, and enabling technology—can help address these challenges and drive high performance. Let’s look at these in more detail.
Understanding and Applying the Performance Levers
Some years ago, I had co-led a study of high-performing virtual teams with a few colleagues from the Creating WE Institute, a research organization I’m a founding member of, dedicated to understanding the neuroscience of leadership. Our collective experiences and observations led us to categorize the three levers, as well as the factors contributing to each lever. The factors were as follows, and still hold true today:
Engagement is a vital element of productivity and high performance, particularly with virtual teams. In an engaged team, each member understands their contribution and actively participates in making recommendations and co-creating outcomes. There is a high level of mission commitment, mutual trust, and self-confidence. Engagement levels for remote workers can be extremely high if adequate attention is paid to the following areas:
- Effective communication – clear, simple messages in strategic context
- Inclusiveness – questions and input are encouraged and followed up on
- Flexibility – sensitivity to cultural, regional, and personal needs and work styles
- Alignment – shared objectives, clear roles, and a strong team identity
- Synergy – complimentary mix of strengths leveraged toward the good of the team
- Adequate training – training in requisite subject matter, process, and technology
- Recognition and rewards – team and individual honors for value delivered
Adequate structure is necessary for any system to thrive, but paradoxically, the more complex the system, the simpler the rules and principles need to be. Effective governance—including processes, methods, and organizational structures—provides just enough structure to prevent chaos. It is lean, flexible, and agreed- upon, and serves to support, not hinder progress. Attention to the following elements can help foster this approach:
- Effective processes – lean, adaptive, shared, and continuously improved
- Consistent measures – outcomes-focused with a clear view of value
- Clear values – co-created and prioritized principles to guide daily decisions
- Clear work assignments – written, actionable objectives with helpful guidelines
- Communication mechanisms – effective use of multiple communication channels
- Conducive environment – a culture of learning, asking, sharing, and supporting
- Effective virtual meetings – visual, focused, organized, and participative
When it comes to virtual teams, technology is the great equalizer. It is what enables a virtual team to overcome distance, whether through online collaborative storyboarding, Kanban project approaches, mindmaps, social media, videoconferencing, cloud-based planning software, or a whole host of current and emerging tools. The key is to use the right tool for the right job and not to implement technology for technology’s sake. A good rule of thumb is that if it does not boost camaraderie, improve collaboration, increase visibility, or make objectives easier to accomplish, it is probably not worth doing. Focus on the following three technology factors can have a significant impact on the performance of a virtual team:
- Information sharing – shared visibility of active work and requisite knowledge
- Teamwork technology – mobile and online tools to support collaboration and communication
- Cloud technology (SaaS products) – products that enable planning and visibility to ensure the right work will be done at the right time by the right people
A Word About Resource Planning
PDWare provides cloud-based resource planning software. Especially in environments where people are working remotely, it is beneficial to have visibility of who is doing what, and who is overloaded, whether in
teams or individually. Having a clear picture of prioritized programs and projects, along with their staffing situation (e.g., Is anyone overloaded? Is the project still feasible? Will anything be delayed?) is vital.
For more information, see our free white paper, The ROI of Resource Planning.
Conclusion: Empower Your Team
Bottom Line: By increasing engagement; applying lean, but adequate governance; and embracing technology such as information, collaboration, and cloud-based planning software, it is clear from experience, observation, and current research, that virtual team productivity can be significantly improved—not to mention that greater retention of top talent can be achieved.