Teams - Remote and Virtual

by Claire Snowdon and Mark Bouch

In a nutshell

1. What is a virtual or remote team?

The terms ‘virtual’ and ‘remote’ appear to be used interchangeably. A useful way to distinguish remote and virtual teams is

  • A remote team works directly for their manager to deliver defined work, but members are not geographically co-located; remote team members may have a specific functional specialisation or combine a range of different skills; remote teams are characterised by ‘solid line’ reporting. An example would be a field-based sales team
  • Virtual teams are brought together to perform specific tasks or resolve specific issues, and are made up of people with differing areas of expertise. A virtual team consists of people who work for different functional and line managers. Virtual teams formed for a specific purpose ‘disperse’ once their task is complete.


2. Why use a virtual/remote team?

Remote teams are a logical response to a number of factors

  • Organisations that can mobilise teams to solve challenges as and when required will be more competitive and responsive in today’s dynamic markets
  • Remote team members can improve their productivity and quality of life by spending less time commuting to work
  • The global workday allows the load to be spread over 24 hours
  • The highly-talented employees required to deliver a project may be located anywhere in the world
  • Many complex challenges require collaboration and cooperation between companies and/or departments that are not co-located
  • In many economies, traditional production environments are increasingly being replaced by service/knowledge-based work environments
  • Remote teaming provides a cost-effective alternative to co-location.


3. Pros and cons of working with VRW teams

The benefits include

  • Access to talent without geographical restrictions
  • Global customer needs and markets can be taken into account
  • More flexibility for individuals to work from home or on clients’ sites, avoiding the need to congregate at a single workplace
  • Better lifestyle management, accommodating working parents, part-time staff, or staff with specific mobility needs

Disadvantages include

  • Differing cultural styles can create challenges
  • Communication deficiencies can give rise to more frequent misunderstandings and miscommunications
  • The loss of context can create feelings of isolation and undermine trust
  • Lack of stimulation and human interaction.


4. Principles for success with VRW teams

If a VRW team is to be successful, there are certain basic principles that must be established:

  • The leader must organise agreed ways of working that establish expectations around when team members are available
  • They must also demonstrate effective behaviours in the remote environment, such as working across boundaries, empowerment and using technology effectively.
  • Individuals must go to find information rather than wait to be sent it
  • Individuals should have access to information on how to work across cultures
  • There must be an effective division of work to make the best of each team member’s strengths.
  • The team must have sufficient resources to invest in up-to-date communication and collaboration tools


5. Challenges facing VRW teams

The questions typically asked by managers of remote teams can be grouped around a series of generic challenges:

  • When team members don’t meet face to face, informal relationship building takes longer
  • Managing team interaction/effective communication without face-to-face contact
  • Managing performance without face-to-face contact
  • Team members located in different time zones
  • Effective use of remote team technology


6. Leadership

The enduring challenge for the leader of a virtual or remote team is to adopt and adapt a leadership style that is appropriate both to the team as a whole and to the individuals within it. Leaders will also need to learn to adapt their style, depending on the situation and the needs of the individuals that they seek to lead.

  • Try to have a face-to-face meeting in the ‘formative’ stages of a team’s life-cycle.
  • Establish strong and consistent protocols around meetings and workflow.
  • Create team guidelines for sending and replying to email and phone calls and establish an agreed telephone, e-mail and video-conferencing etiquette.
  • Encourage social interaction between virtual/remote team members.
  • At any virtual meeting, have someone make introductions at the beginning of meeting and include what their responsibilities to the team are.
  • Make sure everyone participates; otherwise, silence will be taken as agreement.


7. How to get started

  • In a remote team, six activities related to the team’s way of working will be critical to your success:
  • Set goals, roles and responsibilities
  • Establish communication protocols
  • Outline what the team needs to communicate, how it will communicate, who Establish fair and efficient workflow
  • Decide how the team will make decisions
  • Agree how the team will resolve conflict
  • Engage the team.


8. Helping people thrive

An understanding of personality preferences will help the remote team manager to understand which team members will be best suited to remote working. It will also help you to get the best out of relationships with remote team members.

Extroverts gain energy and stimulation from other people. When extroverts lose contact with people as a consequence of remote teaming, they will lose energy and may need more management time and perhaps face-to-face contact. Introverts gain their energy from within. The remote team environment may suit them well, but they can forget about other people in the team and their need to interact.

It is more challenging to spot the signs of stress or burnout in a remote team. Typical symptoms of burnout include withdrawal, feeling constantly tired or emotionally drained with work.


9. Telephone coaching skills

Telephone coaching is a necessary skill for the remote team leader to acquire. As a team leader grows confident at telephone coaching, the telephone becomes a viable alternative to face-to-face meetings about performance and development.

  • Ensure that work is done prior to each session to capture successes and challenges since the previous session. A simple template questionnaire will help to focus the agenda.
  • Coaches and coaching subjects should discuss and agree the goals for the session before it starts and agree a fixed time for the session.
  • Ensure that both parties are in a location (a physical space) conducive to effective coaching.
  • Effective ‘remote’ coaches tend to check and verbalise feelings and emotions behind the content more in a telephone conversation than they would face to face.


10. Communication

Most teams should be able to adopt some simple techniques to enhance communication and interaction.

  • Allow team members to get to know each other by arranging occasional face-to-face meetings.
  • Create a team charter.
  • Store shared information and team resources on the internet/intranet so that the whole team can see them.
  • Avoid language problems by keeping communication simple and not using slang or jargon.
  • Be aware of people’s individual communication styles.


11. Culture

In today’s global economy, with organisations that have diverse teams located around the world, cultural differences and how they are managed and leveraged can have a big impact on the success of a VRW team. These differences can be grouped together and described as dimensions:

Power distance: high power distance – status is emphasized, hierarchy and privilege is the accepted structure; low power distance – status is played down and equality and flat structures are the norm

Group – individualism versus collectivism: collective – emphasis on group performance and interdependence; individualistic – emphasis on individual performance and self-reliance

Communication: direct – explicit, frank, precise and clear when communicating; indirect – implicit, subtle and diplomatic when communicating

Long– versus short-term orientation: the long-term orientation dimension can be interpreted as dealing with society’s search for virtue; societies with a short-term orientation generally have a strong concern with establishing the absolute truth

Time: monochronic – one task at a time, time scheduled, closely managed; polychronic – relationship focused, do many things at once


12. Developing relationships and building trust

When it comes to virtual and remote working (VRW) teams, there’s a strong link between team effectiveness and team member relationships. Stronger relational links have been associated with higher task performance and the effectiveness of information exchange. Good relationships between team members are also associated with enhanced creativity, high motivation, increased morale, better decisions and fewer process losses.

Team performance depends on a foundation of trust: without it, team members are reluctant to share information and support and rely on others to keep commitments. To build a sense of trust, VRW teams need opportunities to develop social rapport, particularly in the early stages of formation. So creating time for team members to identify common values, establish credibility and build a sense of trust is critical for a virtual team’s success.


13. Use of technology

Internet and telephone technology makes it possible to have effective virtual and remote teams located anywhere. However, one needs to ensure that the technology, and how team members use it, does not become a barrier to effective communication. To avoid problems, people need the appropriate training and technical assistance when things go wrong. It also helps if the team leader and anyone else responsible for setting up and organising the team, understands the capabilities and challenges associated with common remote working tools.

Tools and technology that can be utilised by virtual and remote teams include the following: telephone conferences, web conferences, team rooms, intranets (VPN– Virtual Private Network), instant messaging, wiki sites, cloud computing (VoIP, Social Applications), personal digital assistants (PDAs), online project management software, tracking tools and automated translation tools.