Transforming the workplace of the future

More individuals are working virtually, at least part of the time, than ever before. In the U.S., nearly 4 million employees worked from home at least half time in 2015, an increase of 115 percent since 2005.1 The business environment is becoming more global. Today, no one knows for sure just how many people globally are working remotely at least part time, but what we do know is that the number is growing, and it will shape new ways in which organizations attract, retain, and employ a workforce of top talent.

A forecast of employment trends by the World Economic Forum called flexible work, including virtual teams, “one of the biggest drivers of transformation” in the workplace. This transformed workforce will include a greater diversity of members who come from different national cultures, backgrounds, work functions, ages, gender identifications, and who speak different first languages — even if all the members live in the same country. Some team members will be employees, others will be contracted on a temporary basis; still others may be service providers, vendors, or advisors. These changing demographics are transforming how organizations attract, retain, and develop their talent.

The good news

Well-managed organizations that leverage a virtual workforce are able to:

  • Match and frequently exceed performance effectiveness and efficiency of on-site individuals and teams;
  • Tap into the talents and perspectives of their employees, suppliers, contractors, clients, and donors that reflect the diversity of their customers;
  • Provide greater workforce flexibility and broaden the talent pool — nationally and internationally — to include people with disabilities and others who, perhaps, don’t have access to transportation or where commutes are often a greater distance (such as rural areas); and
  • Reach higher levels of employee engagement and increase innovation and creativity.

The not-so-good news

While telecommuting and virtual teams are on the rise, many leaders and team members are not well equipped to navigate the differences between on-site, co-located work, and the unique differences of working remotely. The challenges are even higher for global virtual teams.

Multiple research studies on virtual teams agree the biggest challenges these teams face are:

  • Colleagues who do not participate (79 percent)
  • Time required to make decisions (75 percent)
  • Different role expectations held by team members (74 percent)

In addition, lack of face-to-face contact has the greatest impact on productivity including understanding the full context of what people communicate (51 percent), managing conflict (48 percent), and establishing trust and building relationships (45 percent).2 The consequence of these challenges is a loss of engagement, missed opportunities from a more diverse talent pool, and lower organizational productivity and profitability.

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Leveraging the power of the virtual workforce

There are eight factors critical to the long-term success of virtual workforce and teams. These factors, when in place, enable virtual teams to operate effectively and efficiently, achieve results, and bring a high level of satisfaction to the team members. I have placed these factors into three groups — Strategy, Structure, and Stewards.

Strategy

A virtual workforce strategy requires organizations to clearly provide the reasons/rationale that are driving the need for a virtual workforce. Strategy focuses on:

  • Business need — a clear understanding of the organization’s purpose, vision, and business imperatives driving the needs to operate globally and/or virtually.
  • Organizational culture — planning and developing a workforce culture that values diversity and inclusion, including a clear understanding of the added complexities of supporting virtual as well as on-site team members.

Structure

A successful virtual workforce usually requires an adaptation of key work processes and procedures already in place for on-site workers. Four of the eight factors fall under structure.

  • Organizational processes that guide team members to practices that establish rapid trust and build relationships, how they’ll communicate, make decisions, and manage conflict. A best practice is for each virtual team to establish these processes in a customized and documented team operating agreement (TOA). More broadly, organizations that operate globally must understand and provide processes to their team members to learn about cultural differences related to hierarchy, decision making, business practices, and social protocols to name a few.
  • Communication and collaboration technology infrastructure are the tools and policies remote team members will need to achieve their goals, remain connected to the organization, and build trusting relationships. Organizations must be strategic not only in selecting the right technology but ensuring that team members know how to maximize it.
  • Human resources policies that must be adapted to support remote team members and their work. These include job descriptions that account for differences related to virtual work performance, such as how performance will be assessed, career development opportunities, recognition and rewards, and consideration of compensation and benefits differences based on geographic locations.
  • Training and development that provides team members resources and support to develop the skills unique to virtual work. In addition to technical skills, virtual team members need additional development to overcome the differences between on-site and virtual work such as building trusting relationships in the absence of face-to-face contact, collaboration, dealing with conflict, use of technology, and leadership. These are far more difficult to address in the absence of face-to-face contact.

Stewards

Working remotely is not for everyone. Selecting team members with the right combination of skills is essential. These skills are in addition to technical expertise. Emotional intelligence skills such as self-awareness, self-management, and relationship management are essential. Some individuals come by these skills more naturally while others require focused development.

  • Team member competence is the extent to which remote team leaders and members demonstrate the skills needed to thrive in a virtual environment and achieve results. Additional skills may also include working across functional, cultural, hierarchical, and organizational boundaries.
  • Leadership considers if/how leadership is shared among dispersed team members, performance management and coaching techniques, decision-making, and addressing conflicts. It also considers a leader’s ability to work across cultural and organizational boundaries.

Are you ready?

Rapid advancements are being made in communication and collaboration technology and employees are becoming savvier in how to leverage it. The opportunities available to access top talent anywhere in the world have never been more abundant. What this means is that highly effective leaders and members of virtual teams, particularly organizations that operate globally, must be able to develop and practice a global mindset. Are you ready?

Lee S. Johnsen, principal and founder of Partners in Development (PID), is an international leader in the fields of virtual team management, leadership development, and performance improvement. He is an expert at helping teams and their leaders navigate the challenges and opportunities of the virtual workforce — domestically and globally. He has worked with clients from industries including oil and gas, financial services, government, third-party logistics, private education, health care, insurance, and nonprofits. In 2019, Lee released his book, Literally Virtually: Making Virtual Teams Work. He resides in Madison.

  1. 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report, presented by Global Workplace Analytics and Flexjobs.
  2. RW3 CultureWizard Unveils Biennial Survey Results for Effective Virtual Teaming, 2017.

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