By Tomas O’Farrell
Since the COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), companies around the world are waking up to the advantages of remote work as part of their contingency plans. In Malaysia, companies have joined the countries in asking employees to work remotely, due to recent spikes in confirmed cases. Many of these organisations have been forced to fit virtual teams into their current organisational structure. This is particularly true in Malaysia, where only 26 percent of the workforce consists of freelancers and the self-employed, with flexible working options.
As organisations in Malaysia begin testing out remote working arrangements more broadly for employees, it will undoubtedly be a challenge. However, when executed correctly, virtual teams can contribute significantly to the business, and may prove to be the best decision an organisation can make for the long term. It starts with setting up the right infrastructure and technology, promoting a self-starting culture, and improving communication channels. To ensure success today, here are seven key issues that virtual teams must overcome.
Both traditional and remote working teams are equally capable of having communication issues. When lack of communication plagues remote teams, we are quick to blame the distance, which creates resistance and mistrust towards this mode of work. To avoid communication issues in virtual teams, leaders must ensure that employees possess adequate communication skills. This will ensure that these members of the team can share complex ideas in an organised manner and absorb large amounts of information. Leaders must also promote a communication culture in which team members receive constant feedback and understand how to communicate with each other. Organisations must also invest in communication and project management technologies to optimise workflow.
Low levels of commitment
Similar to communication, low commitment can impact the morale of traditional and remote teams alike. When these situations arise, leaders often decide to cancel remote working arrangements, stop hiring freelancers and push all their staff back into the office. However, experts advise leaders to encourage habits that lead to feelings of trust, connection, and shared purpose. The best ways for leaders to close the trust gap in remote working teams is to keep a clear mission, encourage collaboration and team building, and develop remote leadership skills.
Obsolete or inadequate technology
The success of virtual teams relies on utilising technology appropriately. When technology is inadequate, or collaborators do not manage these tools well, a whole series of communications and performance problems may surface. Organisations must invest in the right technology, ensure that the team has all the tools they need to be at their most productive, and stay up-to-date on the latest technologies to help virtual teams work better.
Businesses also tend to require virtual teams to follow unnecessary or ineffective procedures, rather than taking the time to adapt their processes to the unique dynamics of remote working. . This results in a significant loss of time, motivation and productivity from team members. Businesses should constantly optimise and monitor internal processes to cancel or replace steps that are inefficient. Focusing on meeting objectives effectively instead of processes, is vital when adapting traditional work models to virtual teams.
Productivity and Time Management Challenges
Many companies view home-based work as a threat to their control over employees’ productivity. Of course, there will be individuals who do not use their time productively when they are not constantly being monitored. However, this is more an exception than the rule, especially when collaborating with freelancers who are used to working virtually.
Managers should set clear objectives and deadlines to measure work progress and ensure that tasks are fulfilled on time and correctly. Leaders should share and implement practices to minimise activities that could reduce the team’s productivity. Organisations must also be vigilant about the signs of employee burnout. Missing those signs may lead to the risk of an employee losing motivation and commitment, or even resigning.
Geographical and cultural barriers
Diverse virtual teams can contribute to innovation and growth, but these differences, such as language, time zone, or culture, can also pose particular challenges. It is important to provide training and courses for them to improve their communication skills in technical aspects or use experienced translators. When colleagues are in different time zones, set up delivery schedules with deadlines on fixed days and hours. Organisations must also establish a clear code of communications for the team based on respect, openness, and empathy. Managers should also develop close relationships with colleagues so that they can feel comfortable about sharing the cultural difficulties they may be facing.
Leading Virtual Teams
This is one of the main problems virtual teams encounter. While many project managers or leaders can be great with face-to-face interaction, they may not have the required skills to be strong leaders of virtual teams. Great managers all appear to deliver frequent and consistent feedback, rely on face-to-face or verbal communication whenever important subjects need discussion, and have outstanding communications skills – all important attributes for effectively managing virtual teams. These leaders also promote team bonding to help members get to know each other beyond chat and the mere exchanging of files.
No work arrangement is exempt from challenges – traditional office settings and the use of freelances or remote workers will both present advantages and disadvantages. However, with the shift in technology and with developing trends in how people work, the promise of virtual teams and remote work is fast becoming the new norm in the way we work. It is time for organisations to take serious note of the value that virtual teams offer. Al, the signs are that remote work will be the standard of the future, so what better time to start than now.
Tomas O’Farrell is co-founder of Workana.