What Everyone Else Can Learn from Successful Virtual Teams

From communication and trust to employee engagement, virtual teams struggle with amplified versions of the same issues workplace leaders have grappled with for years. The fact that successful virtual teams exist — and are on the rise — is encouraging evidence that these persistent challenges can be solved.

This article shares key tactics used by successful virtual teams and highlights how these practices benefit not only remote workers, but employees on teams of all kinds.

The Rise of Virtual Teams

The existence of virtual teams has escalated almost as quickly as the technology that enables them. According to one report, remote work increased 159% between 2005 and 2017, and that pattern has only continued.

Successful virtual teams are on the rise.
Successful virtual teams are on the rise.

In today’s modern workforce, there are three types of teams:

1. Traditional Teams

Traditional teams work together in the same physical workspace. Their desks and offices are side-by-side, they catch up over coffee breaks, and they attend face-to-face meetings when it’s time to collaborate. These teams are also sometimes described as “co-located.” One report by Owl Labs estimates that 44% of teams fall into the category of “traditional.”

2. Hybrid Teams

Less than half of all teams today are entirely co-located.
Less than half of all teams today are entirely co-located.

Hybrid teams have employees who are co-located and remote. Any team that includes some combination of both falls into this category. That could mean your company has one central office with a few satellite contributors or globally distributed offices that collaborate virtually. Approximately 40% of companies across the world fall into this category.

3. Virtual Teams

16% of global companies today are fully remote. That means coworkers connect and collaborate entirely through virtual channels, like video conferencing and messaging platforms. Successful virtual teams are sometimes lauded as modeling the workplace of the future

The fact that more than half of today’s workforce has abandoned the “traditional teams” model points to a mounting pressure to solve the challenges characteristic of (but not unique to) remote work. A company’s ability to support successful virtual teams is more lucrative than ever.

Challenges Faced by Virtual Teams

Before we delve into all the reasons virtual teams can be trying, let’s clarify one important point: successful virtual teams have advantages that offset the costs. From reduced stress and lower turnover rates to increased productivity, the many positive outcomes of virtual teams explain their growing trend.

Successful virtual teams must overcome the challenge of reduced interpersonal interaction.
Successful virtual teams must overcome the challenge of reduced interpersonal interaction.

That said, no discussion of virtual teams would be complete without acknowledging the significant challenges they bring.

Humans are highly social creatures accustomed to rich interpersonal interactions. Yet, remote  work requires team members to rely on entirely virtual communication.

This leads to paired down interactions that exacerbate any problems that already exist. Successful virtual teams must work even harder than traditional teams to solve these challenges. For example, if two team members struggle to communicate effectively in person, one can only imagine how much more difficult communication becomes when it happens virtually. As one source put it, “For a virtual team, the challenges experienced by a traditional team increase manifold.”

Of course every team is unique, but in general, there are three major challenges to be surmounted in order to become a successful virtual team. They are:

1. Communication

84% of people agree have difficulty communicating effectively on a virtual team. It’s one of the biggest reasons that virtual teams struggle. Communication challenges might stem from cultural differences, distant time zones, misunderstood expectations, or all of the above. The first step to becoming a successful virtual team is fostering productive communication.

Communication, collaboration, and engagement are the biggest challenges to be solved by successful virtual teams.
Communication, collaboration, and engagement are the biggest challenges to be solved by successful virtual teams.

2. Collaboration

Aligning teams toward a common goal can be difficult for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for virtual teams. One of the most commonly cited complaints about working on a virtual team is slow decision-making — in fact, 73% of remote workers report struggling with this. Slow decision-making impedes efficiency, which naturally gives way to frustration and poorer collaboration. Remote workers also report lacking clarity about team priorities and individual roles. All of these factors combined can make collaboration an uphill battle.

3. Engagement

Perhaps the least tangible (and most difficult) challenge that needs to be solved to have a successful virtual team is employee engagement. Only 16% of all employees, on average, report feeling “connected and engaged” at work, and that number is even lower for remote teams. Given the many benefits that come from keeping your workforce engaged (to name a few: productivity, higher quality of performance, and more trust), leaders of virtual teams should focus on fostering engagement.

Note that none of these challenges aren’t unheard of when looking at the rest of the workforce. These are recurrent themes that workplace experts have been addressing for decades (if not longer). But when you put employees into a physically isolated work environment, the need to remedy these pain points becomes all the more pressing.

Doing so is no small undertaking. Luckily, all of these challenges are highly interconnected, which means leaders can take comfort in the fact that improving engagement will also improve collaboration and communication, and vice versa. Together, making progress towards these challenges drives sustainable company success.

What Successful Virtual Teams Do About It

Remote worker or not, a growing body of research surrounding what successful virtual teams do to address these issues is valuable. The challenges virtual teams face apply to hybrid and traditional teams too, and so do the solutions. 

Let’s review five of the most impactful tactics used by successful virtual teams. As you read, imagine how these practices might reap benefits for hybrid and traditional teams as well.

1. They make onboarding count.

For remote workers, the onboarding process represents an important introduction to your company that should be handled carefully. It opens up a world of new relationships, establishes expectations around how the team operates, and introduces the new hire to your company culture (yes, virtual teams have company culture too — we’ll speak more on this later). 

Because remote workers won’t interact with many of their team members casually every day, it’s even more important that they have a positive onboarding experience. In some cases, it’s the employee’s only chance to gain a high-level understanding of how your company runs. Additionally, onboarding is a critical step in setting the cultural precedent that’s key to successful virtual teams.

Onboarding is of critical importance for successful virtual teams.
Onboarding is of critical importance for successful virtual teams.

Many successful virtual teams begin onboarding with a preemptive gift box to welcome the new hire to the team. This sends the message that your company cares for its employees. During onboarding, connect the new hire with senior leadership who can speak to the company’s culture, purpose, and vision. Make sure the new hire is set up with all the platforms, technology, and resources they need to get off to a smooth start. Best case scenario: the onboarding process will also include at least one in-person meeting, if not a trip to your company headquarters.

In response to reports that remote employees feel disconnected, successful virtual teams seize the onboarding process as an opportunity to fully integrate new team members and make sure remote hires feel comfortable in their new roles. This sets the stage for healthy employee engagement and effective collaboration.

2. They practice amazing project management.

When you’re part of a virtual workforce, it’s important to stay hyper-organized about how your team will tackle tasks. This becomes especially critical when working across multiple time zones, as offset schedules prevent real-time updates.

If there's one thing successful virtual teams have mastered, it's project management.
If there’s one thing successful virtual teams have mastered, it’s project management.

Successful virtual teams often make use of project management platforms like Asana, Jira, or Trello to keep track of the many moving parts involved in long-term collaboration. Tools like these help team members keep track of their own responsibilities without losing sight of the larger project. Additionally, some virtual teams work in sprints (two to four week work cycles) to create a fast-paced cadence for projects to unfold.

Approaches like these improve communication by keeping it transparent, and optimize  collaboration through clearly documented expectations and timelines.

3. They recognize each other publicly.

One of the most elusive defining elements of successful virtual teams is high engagement. It’s hard enough for managers to keep employees engaged when they work face-to-face every day. Remote teams without in-person offices to visit increase this issue even further.

Public recognition goes along way for boosting engagement on successful virtual teams.
Public recognition goes a long way for boosting engagement on successful virtual teams.

Frequent call outs for positive contributions towards team success are a great way to keep virtual employees engaged. Many successful virtual teams use a rewards and recognition software to let team members easily recognize one another with redeemable points and short notes of appreciation from any location. For virtual teams, picking the right platform to support a recognition initiative is a must. Global offers, custom recognition occasions, and a public social feed are all features to look for. 

Recognition provides a host of benefits, both for individual employee experiences and company culture. It’s a meaningful way to highlight things an employee is doing well. It builds camaraderie and trust, which both facilitate better collaboration. Recognition can even be used as a tool to reinforce company core values, a practice key to supporting the culture successful virtual teams thrive on. When employees receive recognition for embodying company core values, the whole team is reminded of what those values are and how to live up to them, even from different locations. 

Remote team members need to know that their work is seen and valued in order to stay engaged. Regular recognition is a meaningful way to provide this affirmation, build culture, and support a successful virtual team.

4. They check in — a lot.

When you’re working on a virtual team, it doesn’t make sense to wait for quarterly check-ins. Doing so would mean resigning to months of silent guessing before employees receive feedback on the quality of their performance.

Regular check ins are essential for successful virtual teams.
Regular check ins are essential for successful virtual teams.

Remote workers should check in with managers anywhere from daily to bi-weekly. It’s best to have remote workers check-in at least once a week, since fewer check-ins than this can be detrimental. These check-ins don’t need to be particularly long, nor do they require a comprehensive performance evaluation every time. What’s key is that they happen regularly.

Managers and other team leaders on successful virtual teams know the value of these opportunities to align. Frequent check-ins are great for facilitating open communication, boosting engagement, and better preparing team members for effective collaboration.

5. They share the same vision.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways successful virtual teams maintain their momentum is through shared commitment to a vision for the company’s future. When everyone works in different locations, keeping major goals top-of-mind is a great way to keep the team united. 

Successful virtual teams are united behind a shared company vision.
Successful virtual teams are united behind a shared company vision.

Leaders of successful virtual teams might hold quarterly, monthly, or even weekly meetings to communicate the direction of the company and the contributions each group makes. Not only does this help employees align their day-to-day tasks and agendas with organizational strategy, the vision works as a glue to hold many remote team members together.

Team members stay more engaged when they buy-in to a bigger-picture vision. As a result, they may also be more proactive when it comes to communication and willing when it comes to collaboration.

What This Means for Everyone Else

The challenges cited as most difficult for virtual teams are recurrent themes that a lot of companies could work on.

Today's successful virtual teams are models for future workforces.
Today’s successful virtual teams are models for future workforces.

As virtual teams become increasingly common, workplace norms will gradually shift to accommodate the practices that these teams rely on to thrive. In this way, it’s not unreasonable to predict that today’s successful virtual teams will become models of ideal cultural practices that all companies can (hopefully) draw actionable inspiration from.

Regardless of whether your team is traditional, hybrid, or virtual, learning about the best practices used by successful virtual teams is an excellent way to strengthen the way you work. Applying them at your own organization provides a much-needed way to ensure that communication stays open, collaboration stays effective, and engagement stays high.

Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.

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