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.

Improved productivity        

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.

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.

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.

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.

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