What are virtual teams?
A virtual team is a dispersed (or distributed) team that can be scattered across a range of geographical locations, which results in them communicating largely over virtual platforms— email, video conferencing, Work OS platforms, chat messengers, and more— to collaborate.
Virtual teamwork is increasing in popularity. Harvard Business Review cited that out of 1,700 knowledge workers surveyed, 79% reported working always or frequently in dispersed teams. As the popularity of distributed and virtual teams rise, many kinds of virtual teams have developed.
What is remote work?
Once referred to as telecommuting, remote or virtual work is the ability to work from anywhere. This can mean working from home or traveling and working locations other than physical offices and can refer to a variety of employment types: some employees are full-time remote workers, while others have the flexibility to work remotely if they choose.
Remote work was popularized in the 1990s, according to McKinsey’s “Preparing for a new era of work”, in an effort to retain working mothers who preferred not to commute to the office. Now, remote work has risen in popularity due to technological advancements that widen the pool of jobs that support working remotely, shifting expectations for millennial workers, and cost-effectiveness involved in operating remote workers.
Technologies that enable remote work have had a large hand in accelerating its rise, such as video conferencing which allows people to have face-to-face meetings around the world, or Work OS platforms which allow entire organizations to see the workflows, projects, and communications of one another.
Remote work policy
Remote work has different meanings for each industry, position, and company. For that reason, many companies decide to implement a remote work policy to set out guidelines and expectations for workers who are not coming into the office. Each remote work policy should be tailored to the position and needs of the company, but a few important points include:
- Working agreements
Set expectations with your employees in regards to how their remote work works. Define the accepted annual remote work flexibility allocated to traditionally in-office workers. And full-time remote workers should provide all necessary information such as the address they will be working from, if they are expected to visit the office, and general responsibilities of the remote worker.
- Work recommendations
It can be helpful to outline positive work environment recommendations to ensure your remote employee is productive and operating in a positive environment. A few examples could be:
- Work from a quiet working space with few distractions.
- Ensure your internet connection can withstand your work needs.
- Let your team know when you plan to take breaks so they know when it is best to contact you.
- If you are working with an international team, it is important to make sure some of your hours overlap when the other team works.
- Compliance with company policies
If your company has company policies on things like attendance, confidentiality, security, code of conduct, or more it is important to ensure any remote workers are aligned with their virtual teams and up to date on company policies.
- Compensation, benefits, and equipment
If you are onboarding a full-time remote worker, you might consider a financial stipend for their at-home workspace to ensure they have sufficient internet, desk, chair, and any other supplies they might need to succeed.
5 types of virtual teams to know
Depending on the objective, lifecycle, and team members, the type of virtual team that is relevant for you and your goals can vary. You can find the 5 most common types of virtual teams below.
1. Networked Teams
Networked teams are a workforce made up of varying positions that come together under a common goal. Participation can be fluid, with members leaving once their contribution is done and joining when needed. This type of virtual team is common in consulting and technology firms.
An example of a Networked team could be a consulting group tasked with a retailer’s digital transformation. The group would assemble a team composed of members whose individual expertise (consumer habits, retail technology, eCommerce, etc.) lend themselves to accomplishing the goal.
2. Parallel Teams
Parallel teams are formed within an organization, with the goal of problem-solving. These teams are common in industries such as research and development or innovation. A goal of forming Parallel teams is removing groupthink and developing creative solutions to pressing problems.
An example of Parallel teams can be seen in Intel in 2000, which was being surpassed by competitors. They had 2 development teams who had differing challenges and an overlap in strengths. Intel combined the two teams and developed the Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors which currently dominate the microprocessors market.
3. Product Development Teams
Product development teams are brought together virtually, often from around the world, to share their expertise under the shared goal to create a new product or project. The size of the team and lifespan depend on the scope of the project.
An example of a product development team is gathering experts from the United States, Canada, and Japan to come together for a year to develop a new engine.
4. Service Teams
Service teams are made up of international members, which cover different time zones. Common in customer service, this would mean a representative finishing their shift in Asia, as someone in the US begins.
5. Action Teams
Action teams are formed to handle a specific situation and are dismantled after the situation passes. The lifespan of action teams is usually short and is meant to handle immediate problems.
An example of an action team could be a weather team upon hearing of a big storm. The team members are distributed in the field with the weather person at the television station using radar information to tell him where tornadoes may be forming and directing field-crew movement toward those locations. He then analyzes the data that the crews send back and shares that information with viewers.
What does remote work from home look like?
Setting up a workstation at home presents unique challenges that differ from the challenges employees face in a classic office environment. Building your remote workstation to fit your needs and establish boundaries between home and work life is important to the success of any remote worker. When considering your at-home workstation, separation is key.
Ensuring you have an environment that feels like work, and is separate from family or home time will allow you to focus and avoid burnout. When building that work-specific area, keep in mind physical comfort and health— make sure to invest in a desk and chair that will meet your needs. If needed, contact your company’s IT and Ops to ensure your internet connection and other essentials are where they need to be for you to be successful.
Remote work tips
A few helpful tips for developing healthy remote work from home habits include:
- Separating workspace from personal space. This can mean setting up a desk and a nice work chair to help stay focused.
- Finding a companion to work alongside. Having someone working beside you can help keep you accountable and motivated.
- Building a daily schedule. Planning what your day will look like and creating personal goals and deadlines will help you structure your days and weeks.
- Defining communication habits. You can improve team alignment by defining which platforms you will use for which kind of work.
What challenges do virtual teams face?
There are many pros and cons to managing a virtual team, but especially in the beginning of your transition to remote work, it’s important to identify and overcome a few key challenges.
Like with any team, managing a virtual team has challenges that its members and managers will need to overcome. Common problems virtual teams face often deal with overcoming the distanced communication. Many teams rely on in-person meetings for creative brainstorming, problem-solving, and important decision making. Conducting the same important communication virtually can often be a hurdle that remote teams need to overcome.
Along with imperfect communication comes a challenge with productivity. Without the hustle and bustle of an office, it can be difficult to have the same drive as your in-office counterparts. Some ways to ensure remote employees are still contributing to your virtual team as much as they would if they were in an office is to assign clear accountability. Defining responsibilities and project owners can help keep remote employees engaged.
With each employee working independently, it can be easy for information silos to form. You want to keep everyone up to date on announcements, latest versions of documents, and important updates—but depending on the size of the company, conducting the necessary virtual meetings to stay informed could eat up your whole day.
Having a Work OS that acts as a single source of truth that all employees can access, holding documents, announcements, communication, and more, is necessary to ensure that transparency and shared knowledge is not lost in the distance.
What are the advantages to having a virtual team?
Depending on the industry, there the benefits of virtual teams can be vast. Many teams report increased productivity with their remote workers, a study conducted by Harvard Business Review reported a 4.4% increase in productivity after transitioning their U.S. Patent & Trade Officers to work from home — an improvement that represented up to $1.3 billion of annual value added to the U.S. economy.
Operating virtual teams also allows more flexibility for remote workers, allowing them to prioritize personal needs which are often more difficult to attend to when commuting to an office. As reported by Inc. magazine, 46% of employees say that having flexible work options that support work-life balance is important to them.
The time that could be used to commute to work, time which benefits neither the employer or the employee, can also be a useful resource to the company, allowing more time to work on important projects and meet deadlines in a less stressful environment.
Managing virtual teams
Communication in virtual teams
Rule number one when defining how much you and your remote team will communicate: it’s better to overestimate than underestimate. Without the ability to stop by your colleagues’ desks and ask a quick question, or come up with a great idea over coffee—planning daily check-ins and opening the channels of communication, even when you don’t think you have anything to share, will ensure you don’t lose the collaborative value and insights of your team, just because you are not physically together.
These meetings could be weekly across multiple teams, or daily just with your team lead— it’s up to you to define what works best for your needs.
Once you’ve decided how much you need to communicate, the tools you choose to communicate over can have a big influence on your workflow. For most virtual teams, the must-have tools include:
- A video conferencing tool for meetings and to strengthen the culture and connection within the company
- An instant messaging tool for immediate questions, answers, and collaborations
- A Work OS platform to centralize all communication in one place
Managing a remote workforce
When managing a virtual team, many of the same core values are important; understanding, listening, and coaching your employees. The ways these manifest, however, can be unique when dealing with a distributed team.
- Adapt expectations for remote employees
Working from home means your employees have more flexibility to tend to other aspects of their lives. For some, that could mean they will not be available in the mornings, opting to participate in an exercise program and work later in the evenings. For some, it could mean less availability outside of typical work hours due to children at home.
Understanding the unique needs and schedules of each of your remote employees and being adaptable to their needs will result in a healthier work-life balance and higher satisfaction at work.
- Make room for virtual team bonding
Fostering relationships and building trust in virtual teams is equally important for remote teams as in-office employees, but there needs to be a more deliberate effort. Having routine check-ins with your team will help you stay aligned, but it is also important to schedule time for less formal time. Developing personal relationships will create stronger work bonds and more satisfied employees.
- Create a schedule for check-ins and growth
As we discussed, planning daily or weekly check-ins are important to make sure your team is always informed and up to speed on the projects and initiatives of everyone on the team. It is equally important that remote workers feel that they have room for professional growth and vertical movement within the company. Schedule periodic meetings with your team to learn about their goals, create a strategy for their growth, and ensure they are always motivated to move ahead professionally.
Successful virtual teams
What makes a successful virtual team? The answer will be different for every manager and employee, but there are a few leading virtual teams that can be used as a good reference to learn from. Effective virtual teams have a few things in common:
- Thorough communication both between employees and managers, and as a team
- The right tech stack to enable communication, collaboration, and project management from anywhere
- Clear expectations with a way to assign ownership to projects and tasks
- A team culture and bond solidified through activities and shared celebration for accomplishments
Team building activities for virtual teams
Building trust in virtual teams is more challenging than traditional in-office teams. The increased physical distance means more intentional effort needs to be put forth to build an effective virtual team. A few easy ways to build strong connections in your virtual teams include:
- Organize a #WFH happy hour, schedule a video call to bring everyone together in a non-formal setting.
- Plan a remote pizza party! Schedule to deliver pizzas to everyone on your team at the same time so you can enjoy together.
- Schedule some time to see one another in person. Pick a location that suits everyone and plan a time once a year to be together, building in-person bonds will help strengthen your virtual team.
Tools for virtual teams
Zoom, a video conferencing platform, allows you to replicate the unexpected breakthroughs and collaborative moments that can happen when you’re in a problem-solving meeting.
Slack, a messaging platform, lets you have instant dialogue with people on your team, perfect for the small questions and feedback that shouldn’t take more than seconds.
G suite lets you and your distributed teamwork off of one document— involving everyone so you can always be sure you’re looking at the most up to date version.
Managing a virtual team requires a unique set of goals and practices, but with the right tools, expectations, and structure any team can thrive while working in a distributed team.