Virtual teams bring many different positives and pose certain issues as well, and Purnima Nandy explains how HR can be the bridge between virtual and physical employees to ensure the organisation stays whole
In the last decade, organisational teams have faced a significant change due to a shift from being local or even national to virtual teams. What this change means is that teams no longer work out of the same location or sometimes even the same time zones. The inception of virtual teams can be traced back to work-from-home policies which were formalised by organisations to build-in flexibility at the workplace and to expand the scope of work beyond regular office hours and days.
Virtual teams brought in a shift in the characteristics of workplace culture as well. Employees, especially women who had children to take care of, could now engage in their work without the restriction of being physically available in the office. This also allowed employees to work when they were travelling or unwell or even taking some time off to take care of personal responsibilities. This brought in a change into how teams communicated, as well as took decisions and solved client problems. Being face-to-face was no longer necessary; neither was there a need for a large office space. The biggest need for virtual teams to operate successfully was sound technology infrastructure which would allow employees to access their work from anywhere, at any time securely.
“The biggest need for virtual teams to operate successfully was sound technology infrastructure which would allow employees to access their work from anywhere, at any time securely”
Despite its many positives, working in virtual teams posed certain issues as well. One of the biggest challenges that employees face is a feeling of working in silos. Ironically, virtual teams take away the main essence of teamwork which is a sense of collaboration and togetherness. Employees have no physical contact with their team members which can often lead to isolation and lack of synergy and motivation. Another major challenge is an administrative one, where the management needs to set defining guidelines and technological tools to ensure that employees are working the required number of hours.
As HR leaders policies and work structures need to be put into place to ensure that virtual teams function just as seamlessly and efficiently as regular teams. Here are 3 strategies that can be adopted by leaders:
1. Real-time contact
With technological innovations, various platforms are now available to connect with employees on a real-time basis; and most of these platforms are available as mobile phone applications which makes it even easier to connect. With platforms like Jabber, G Suite applications and Slack, the options are plenty to ensure that immediate feedback and guidance can be provided to employees. With such availability, care must also be taken to restrict usage hours and responding time frames so that it does not get overwhelming nor unrealistic.
“One of the biggest challenges that employees face is a feeling of working in silos. Ironically, virtual teams take away the main essence of teamwork which is a sense of collaboration and togetherness”
2. Team celebrations and fun events must continue
Even if teams are not all in the same place, team celebrations, big wins, birthdays and social events must be celebrated to keep employees motivated. For example, an online training organisation based out of Sydney gave all its virtual employees $50 on Race Day to either place a bet or go and enjoy this Australian event and share photos of what they did. A small gesture like this made the team members feel like a part of the whole and not isolated. Planning and budgeting for a quarterly or yearly team catch up are essential to bring people together and also to give them a chance to meet with the management.
3. Organisational updates and policies to be strictly adhered to and shared
An important and simple way of keeping employees motivated is to give them a sense of the larger picture and purpose of their roles. Organisational changes and management decisions should be communicated to teams so that they are aware of where the organisation is going and what is the larger picture of the work that is being done. Employees should know and understand that their work and hours spent are being monitored and they are going to be held accountable for their roles. Team updates and meetings must be held to give everyone a chance to share progress, wins and challenges.
Virtual teams are a reality which cannot be ignored or sidestepped. Whether it’s in a small way or the basic structure of an organisation, HR leaders need to amend and update organisational policies and procedures to enable a healthy environment for virtual teams. The entire HR process from recruitment to exit including performance management, training and succession planning now must include strategies for virtual teams.