Make your virtual team the envy of the business

Technology has made way for virtual working arrangements, but while popular and highly effective, this new trend is not without its challenges. How can business leaders maximise the potential of virtual teams?

Debate raged last year when Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer announced the end of work-from-home policies for the company’s 27,000 employees.

A leaked memo revealed Mayer’s reasoning: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side… Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings… We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.”

To be sure, Mayer is not alone with this line of thinking – the UK has been slow to embrace the virtual team model. Only 4.9 per cent of the UK labour force described home as their primary place of work, a Workhubs Network analysis of the Labour Force Survey showed.

But while an office-based policy may have worked for Yahoo!, the low adoption of virtual working arrangements has left the UK lagging in the European marketplace. The UK ranks twelfth among the EU27 (and Norway) when it comes to employees working at home a quarter or more of their time.

Virgin founder Richard Branson weighed in on the debate sparked by Yahoo! describing the decision to force everyone to work in offices as “old school thinking”.

“Many employees who work from home are extremely diligent, get their job done, and get to spend more time with their families. They waste less time commuting and get a better work-life balance,” he argued, predicting that within 30 years, offices would be a thing of the past leaving us wondering why they ever existed.

Making it work

While virtual teams present their own set of managerial challenges, there are plenty of examples in the business community demonstrating how the model can work.

Critically, a rethink of traditional management styles is required. Managers must develop clearer objectives, provide accountability, give feedback and reward outcomes, all in a virtual environment. The traditional approach of ‘I can see them at their desk so they must be working’ no longer applies.

A virtual environment requires a stronger focus on quality of output within agreed timeframes. It’s important to recognise and reward workers who can be trusted to take direction, use their own initiative, and can produce quality work on time.

Technology key to success

Technology can help, especially for keeping tabs on employee performance and productivity. In the US, organisations are using electronic monitoring by taking random screenshots of workers’ computers, counting keystrokes and mouse clicks, and, in a Big Brother twist, listening for domestic sounds of barking dogs, children and lawnmowers.

Communication tools such as Skype and Yammer, collaborative tools such as Chatter (branded ‘the Facebook for the enterprise’), and social performance tools such as Work.com can also help. Aberdeen Group’s report on talent acquisition found that 32 per cent of organisations were investing in video technology, compared to 21 per cent in 2012. The top three reasons identified by Aberdeen for this growth in adoption were:

– Reduce travel costs

– Shorten the time to hire

– Reach geographically dispersed workers and job candidates

Culture

Technology is not a silver bullet. Virtual working requires more than just a laptop, a broadband connection and remote access. Successful companies recognise it’s the combination of people, processes and policies, together with the technology infrastructure, that delivers productivity results.

The organisation as a whole must adapt, and a shift in attitudes and perceptions of virtual workers needs to occur. Organisations should consider not only how employees connect, but also how to manage workflows and how staff communicate.

Employees now expect to be able to work from home or indeed, from anywhere – the question is, will your organisation facilitate this evolution, or hinder it?