The rise of remote working: How to make the most of virtual teams
For those in the tech sector, remote work arrangements are no longer just a nice-to-have.
Remote working is becoming more prevalent, particularly in the tech industry. Many tech professionals now work from home at least one day a week, and value the ability to clock in from locations outside of the office or work more flexible hours as a huge attraction when looking for a new role.
With the tech industry feeling the pinch of a global skills shortage, offering remote working both widens the talent pool that organizations can draw from and helps put them ahead of their competitors when it comes to attracting great talent.
According to our brand-new Microsoft Azure Salary Survey, 59% of Azure professionals today are offered home working as a benefit, with 48% reporting flexible working hours as an available perk.
Being able to work from home ranked second in the list of benefits that would affect a cloud professional’s likelihood of accepting a job offer, coming in just behind salary bonus, and slightly ahead of flexible working arrangements.
What is a virtual team?
A virtual team is simply a team made up of members in different geographical locations, and communicate largely through electronic means. This might mean members of the team work remotely from home, or are split between various corporate locations.
With advancements in business technology allowing more organizations to utilize virtual teams, along with the rise in acceptance of home-working, virtual teams are becoming more and more commonplace.
The use of virtual teams can free organizations from geographical shackles when it comes to hiring the best talent, streamlining logistics, and fostering collaboration between colleagues. But is it the right choice for your organization?
Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of virtual teams.
What are the benefits of using virtual teams?
Minimized travel costs
One of the chief benefits offered by remote working is minimized travel costs. Having a properly structured and equipped virtual team can reduce, or in some cases, eliminate completely, the need for staff to travel between sites.
Flights, train journeys and per diems can mount up fast, especially for smaller businesses, so having a set-up that allows your team members to work from home, or reduces the need to bounce between offices can have huge ramifications for your bottom line.
And in the long run, you can even abolish office space expenses by going entirely remote, like development platform GitHub.
Maximized productivity also ranks high on the list of advantages. With a tendency to log more hours, and be more focused, a well-managed virtual team can often beat out their office-based counterparts when it comes to getting stuff done.
It also helps that much of the technological kit necessary for virtual teams to operate can significantly bolster productivity, due to their intrinsic cultivation of project management and knowledge sharing.
Solutions such as SharePoint, for example, offer a cohesive platform where team members can host, share and collaborate on projects, effectively eradicating the need to rely on convoluted email chains, or the office grapevine, to share best practices.
Virtual teams also make it easier to retain knowledge if a team members’ circumstances change and they need to relocate; remote work means you can keep that person, and their skills, in your employ, which in turn saves time on hiring and training.
Better collaboration across global offices
Setting up a virtual team can bring your staff closer together, even if they’re spread across the world. Even introducing of the notion of a virtual team can help foster a more cohesive attitude within your organization; clustering a group of people together and bestowing them with a title and a common goal can help them feel more united.
If you view a person as being part of your team, you’re naturally more open to collaboration and communication, rather than viewing your global colleagues as “the guy from the Berlin office”.
Enhanced communication with co-workers
Clear communication is the most important aspect of operating a virtual team. Roles, plans, and expectations must be laid out with exceptional clarity; you need to be sure your team knows what they’re doing, especially when you can’t see them. Though virtual team members may engage in less idle chatter in the workplace, they actually tend to communicate more.
Frequent (and high-quality) communication is essential for virtual teams to work. And while in the grand scheme of workplace contact email ranks as the least intimate, tools available to virtual teams such as Skype, and Microsoft Teams, offer a more informal, friendly and familiar platform across which team members can collaborate, at least partially removing the relationship-building blockade that email can engender.
A 24-hour productivity cycle for global teams
Having a team split across the globe might sound logistically tricky, but having people working in different time zones can be beneficial. Not only does it mean that you can hire the best person for the job, regardless of their location, it can also bump your team’s productivity.
Rather than having a project placed on the shelf at the end of each day, a global team can act as a set of runners in a relay race; when your US team members are bedding down for the night, their UK-based peers are picking up the baton and starting their workday.
What are the challenges of using virtual teams?
There are a lot of different reasons why operating virtual teams works for different businesses; remote working can salve a number of pain points for an organization, depending on their particular needs. That said, there are challenges to overcome on the road to virtual team utopia too.
Building team relations
Fostering good relationships between team members is an absolute no-brainer for those in a management position, but over half of those using virtual teams reported building connections as their biggest challenge. Positive connections among a team mean happier workers, who are willing and able to work together and, in the end, get a whole lot more done.
For those working in a traditional office environment, building team relations might mean catching up on the latest series of Stranger Things around the refrigerator, grabbing a quick drink on the way home from work, or making conversation in the elevator; when you share the same space, opportunities to chat and bond are naturally more bountiful.
Remote workers don’t have as much opportunity to have a casual chat or grab your attention when they need it, so make sure you offer those chances as much as possible. Since your team won’t physically see each other every day, it’s important to replace that contact with something else that helps your team get to know, like, and trust each other; a digital water cooler, if you like.
This could mean playing an online game together, having a social thread where your team post pictures of their pets or their favorite YouTube video, or hosting a weekly video catch-up where people can share what they got up to at the weekend.
Combatting employee isolation
Closely tied to building team relations, one of the biggest challenges for remote workers is feeling isolated. Although working from your home office in your Disney pajama pants every day might sound dreamy, you can quickly find yourself counting the hours until the mailman arrives just so you can speak to another human being face-to-face.
Even if your virtual team members are office-based, and there are other people around every day, they’re likely to feel closest to the people they speak to and work with most frequently, and if their fellow team members aren’t around to chat, it can be easy to slip into feeling insulated. Regular video conferences and other real-time communications can help virtual team members feel directly connected to their teammates.
Differences in cultural norms
Having a diverse team with members situated across the world can be fascinating, generating ideas, viewpoints, and styles of working that you might never have considered. The flipside of this, however, is that differing cultures have different attitudes to work and interaction.
Someone from a culture used to direct styles of communication might come off as rude or cold to someone accustomed to a more subtle or informal way of speaking, and this can rub people up the wrong way; especially when you’re working in a medium devoid of visual cues like email.
It’s important that managers work to smooth over any potential communicative misinterpretations in the beginning. Hosting regular video conferences is one way you can help humanize your team members and promote camaraderie.
Keeping your data secure: Expert tips
We asked some Microsoft cloud experts and seasoned remote working pros for their advice on maintaining security, wherever your teams are working.
Jaap Brasser / Developer Advocate at Rubrik
Lack of virtual leadership training
Though rapidly on the uptick, virtual teams are still a relatively new concept for many organizations, and as is often the case with swift changes in the workplace, training can often lag behind. Virtual teams are still growing and learning, working out best practices and procedures as they go, but there are a number of training courses available to help managers build, optimize, and sustain their virtual teams.
Ensuring staff have the right skills
Though digital-native companies and those already using cloud-based products and services have an advantage in adapting to the world of remote work, that doesn’t mean that those businesses who’ve been forced to roll out digital infrastructure at very short notice can’t do anything to close that gap.
Put together essential how-to guides on using the tools you’ve implemented, for example. Some people might be afraid to ask for help or clarity, so make this knowledge available to everyone across the organization.
Hold weekly training sessions to offer tips and training on getting the best out of the products you have. You could set up a question box so that staff can let you know where their knowledge gaps are and use that to inform your topics; you can be sure that if one person is asking a question, there’ll be countless other people who’d like to hear the answer too.
Ensure lines of communication are open so that people can get help when they need it. Create a superuser system, assigning those with higher skill levels as points of contact for individual products or processes so they can disperse their knowledge to their colleagues, and be available for one-on-one tutoring where needed.
Businesses can provide instructor-led training to groups of employees via video conferencing if they can afford it, but even if there’s little wiggle room in the budget, training and upskilling doesn’t have to cost the earth. There are so many free learning resources, courses, and certifications out there that learners can do at their own pace. Set aside time for your staff to study, gamify learning by offering rewards and perks for those who commit to upskilling, and try to make it fun.
The impetus to bring your organization’s digital abilities up to scratch has never been higher. Those who don’t invest time and effort into democratizing these skills across their entire workforce risk falling into the divide, but it’s not too late to start.
Finding the right collaborative and open communication tools
Virtual teams’ disproportionate use of written digital communications means that you can build a library of ideas and communications that will help your team be more efficient; provided you use the right platform.
Finding resources that are the right fit can make or break your virtual team. In part two of our series on virtual teams, we take a look at the tools that can help make your virtual team a concrete success.
Making the most of remote working: Expert tips
Our experts share their best tips on being productive, healthy, and happy working from home.
“First, if there ever was a time to invest in a decent home setup, it’s now. This does not necessarily mean buying new devices or upgrade existing ones, but have a dedicated place for work where you can focus on work and have a place to hold your virtual meetings. What we always do with our team calls is turn on cameras; it helps with maintaining a personal feel, and since a lot of communication is in body language, this also prevents misunderstandings. We have virtual happy hours too, to stay in touch with each other. Whenever we have something to discuss that takes more than about ten messages, it’s often easier to have a video call to quickly discuss and solve issues.”
Jaap Brasser / Developer Advocate at Rubrik
“My advice would be to take breaks away from your new work environment, even if it’s just ten minutes here and there. I would also try and just keep communicating with your colleagues. Every now and then a couple of colleagues and I just jump on a Teams call for an hour or so, continue to do our normal work, but have a bit of office noise and just normal office chat but remotely. We’re also going to try and do burger Fridays, but remotely!”
Richard Hooper / Systems Architect
“Have your daily stand-ups with cameras on, ask people to show off their pets, and have a laugh when you can; add some fun backgrounds or filters to lighten the mood! Make sure to check up on team members one-to-one when you can too.”
Gregor Suttie / Azure MVP and Head of Development Services for Sword IT