Working Remotely Should Not Mean Feeling Isolated

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

While the economy may be booming—of course, it depends on whose voice you hear—there are many businesses still working on reducing expenses, while seeking to increase productivity and efficiency so they can remain competitive in their respective markets. Not to be overlooked, is the pursuit of attracting and retaining talent.

So, what is involved in this effort? Besides the usual suspects of rightsizing and reorganizing to eliminate the redundancies in positions and functions, additional cost savings in labor allows discretionary spending on other needed resources. As this occurs, organizations are looking holistically at their operations; where facilities are located and how they are being leveraged; any impact on the communications and leadership action when there is wide geographic dispersion; and whether there are differences in how processes are managed in different locations.

Professional service firms, as well as private sector companies are working more frequently in a global setting: international tax and auditing clients for accounting firms, and agribusiness, construction and manufacturing for private sector business — these are just a small sample. Because of globalization, firms and companies will have to meet the challenge of having units, departments, and divisions work seamlessly and collaboratively across new theaters of cultures and practices.

The concept of “teams” has become more central to operating remotely or “virtually.” Among the challenges have been time zones, language barriers, cultural differences and various work attitudes. The more virtual teams become ingrained in the business landscape, the more necessary it becomes to apply effective and innovative leadership with a clear focus on identifying, prioritizing and achieving strategic goals.

The Benefits and Liabilities of Virtual Teams

According to a 2008 study by the Project Management Institute, well-managed virtual teams can potentially be more effective than a team sharing a bricks-and-mortar environment. The study emphasized that—

  • Companies should understand why their employees leave.
  • There needs to be clear communication of the company’s vision and goals.
  • A team charter should be developed that explains the team’s mission and a clear commitment from management that needed resources will be available.
  • There should be the creation of and adherence to virtual team best practices, some of which are normally expected in an in-person environment.
  • Communicating difficult things in an effective manner, which is crucial because you don’t have your team sitting together in a room.

There are benefits of working virtually, to be sure, but leaders need to acquire new communication skills when there is no direct contact with managers and staff. Team members, too, must learn the nuances and skills to interact effectively across space and time. As with the case in a normal work environment, accountability, shared responsibility, collaboration and mutual support, and goal setting are necessary skills for remote teams to perform as well, if not better, than their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.  Smart and insightful leadership must be at the top of the pyramid to ensure team members consistently and effectively implement best team practices in as virtual environment.

A lack of effective leadership and team skills give rise to a whole host of problems, such as:

  • Diminished engagement and a level of commitment by team members to provide their best performances in finishing assignments that align with team goals.
  • Inability to structure processes into individual tasks that need desired outcomes while exercising high standards.
  • Reduced clear communication between team members that prevents working for a common cause, lack of understanding one another, no shared responsibility, and most important, no possibility of gaining trust between the team members and with leadership.
  • Lack of collaboration which eliminates the potential for sharing different perspectives, talent, knowledge, skills and expertise.

Those leaders who have always interacted in a face-to-face manner and have observed activities on a daily basis will find it difficult to be cheerleaders, coaches, mentors and motivators for their direct reports. How are they to maintain effective leadership in a new working environment where communication is so critical?

Maintaining High Virtual Team Performance

Whether remote or in-person, some management practices still have relevance though they may require minor tweaks here and there to effectively lead a virtual team.

Here are a few practical approaches:

  1. Establish a cooperative “mindset.” In the usual organizational structures, there is an underpinning of competition, sometimes crossing over into corrosive behavior, whether it’s between individuals, units, or departments. Aggressive attitudes reduce the chances for working cooperatively for the common good. While the transformation of competition to cooperation is a positive change, companies may overcompensate by groupthink just to get along. This eliminates the chances for offering ideas and opinions, which can result in not confronting contentious issues. If left to fester, these issues can ultimately affect other areas of the organization, as well as the effectiveness of the remote team environment. The solution: mesh competition with cooperation so that the talents, knowledge and expertise of team members are revealed and leveraged.
  1. Keep emphasizing the purpose and goals of the team. In normal circumstances, individuals want to know about the meaning of their work and how it fits into the overall corporate mission. For virtual teams, each person wants to understand the linkage: their work as part of the team goal, and how the team’s goal(s) fit within the overall organization. In order to gain understanding, specific results or metrics must be shared with the teams. If team members lack this understanding, the impacts may include complacency, disengagement, isolation, and a lack of focus. It’s a simple premise: the more a team knows about its role and impact, the greater likelihood of team cooperation, energy and enthusiasm.
  1. Develop and articulate standards of performance. When a leader or manager cannot directly assess the behavior of team members, standards of performance need to be developed and clearly conveyed. The team must know what the goals are and how best to reach them. The cultural differences I referenced earlier influence whether the goals can be reached. This is because when team members come from different cultural and geographical backgrounds and experiences there will be myriad perspectives on what is considered excellent performance, goal setting, and effective communication and cooperation. An insightful leader can step in and explain metrics, best practices, performance standards and cooperation — and most important, how team members’ performance will be evaluated.
  1. Constant and clear communication with team members. The notion of team spirit is crucial in any team-driven endeavor, but particularly so for virtual teams that cannot have direct interaction. Regular and clear communication brings people together who are scattered domestically and internationally. This reduces isolation and increases a feeling of inclusion, and encourages team member input and influence. Where there may be one key group at one-site and others located remotely, the effectiveness of communication will reduce the feeling of being “kept out of the loop.”

We have so many technology tools at our disposal: emails, teleconferencing, video conferencing, web meetings, and social media that there is no excuse for not being able to stay in touch. Using these tools will enable team members to become more familiar with their colleagues, gain trust and confidence, share ideas and participate in joint activities, irrespective of whether they are spread across one region, country or continent.

Although growth in the number of virtual teams has increased in both economic downturns and recoveries, rest assured that remote work environment is here it stay. Reliance on technology is important, but is not the only thing. It’s the human interaction with the elements of trust, understanding, leadership and cooperation that will determine the continued effectiveness of and shift toward virtual teams.

By adopting the appropriate strategies, leaders of virtual teams can overcome performance, standards and communication challenges, presented by different cultures, practices, time zones and work ethics. If leaders can achieve these and other elements, their organizations will be effective competitors in the global marketplace.

About Steve
Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.