- Virtual teams are now common practice, be they offshore teams or staff working from home.
- The many benefits of distributed teams are often lost without planning or strategic implementation.
- Focusing on the right technology, respecting people and cultures and using an agile approach contribute significantly to their success.
When we got together to write this piece, one of us was at our Melbourne office and the other was working from his kitchen.
That’s the reality of working at PwC. While we are often in the office together, there are plenty of times when we aren’t — with clients to see, offices throughout the world and flexible working options firmly entrenched, it’s fair to say that our teams are often more virtual than physical.
But businesses often have trouble getting the most out of virtual teams, whether they are through flexible working arrangements or located in multiple offices, offshore groups or geographically distributed groups. As much as we’d like to say that they are the silver bullet for new ways of working, they often fall short of expectations.
Mostly this is because of a lack of planning, or, if looking at a distributed model, not doing it in an agile environment (our recommendation). But approached strategically, these teams can boost productivity, extend hours or work, allow access to the best global talent and expertise and enable the sharing of intellectual capital.
With that in mind, here are eight things we think are essential to unlocking the value of the virtual team:
Put your people first. Virtual teams, if they’re to work, cannot be seen as less important than any other team. This means putting your best people forward to set up new locations and couching it as a reward for the most engaged and committed people — not a punishment and banishment to a secondary, lesser outpost. Your most motivated team members are going to have the drive to make the new team the best it can be. Employee experience is just as important in virtual teams as physical ones.
Location, location, location. We always recommend that if you’re setting up a new location for a team, be it offshore or interstate, that there is co-location of the team in the beginning. Everyone should work together before splitting up in order to get to know each other and go through the process of working together. This should be done at the second location, not HQ. It’s important to show everyone that the new location is just as important symbolically as head office, not a remote outpost for second-class citizens.
Collaboration tools and tech. It should go without saying, but you simply cannot have a virtual team if the technology is not up to scratch. Even if it’s just working from home, the technology needs to enable all types of communication, from face-to-face video calls, voice calls, collaboration tools, quick and easy chat apps and so on. Included in this should be technology that allows people to interact as a group. Software as a Service (SaaS) tools make this proposition easier than ever, and many businesses are already using them, so it’s often a matter of extending their use to virtual teams rather than investing in entirely new technology.
Trust is tricky. Gaps in culture, interpersonal habits and communication styles can be where the biggest issues for virtual teams lie. The greater the differences (in geography, operational styles and cultural norms), the lower the levels of trust, innovation, satisfaction and performance compared with teams that work side-by-side. These gaps make it hard for empathy to develop between connections, so learning about each other — as people, not just as colleagues — is key.
It’s not all fun and games (but sometimes it should be). because trust needs to be developed, time should be set aside, or enabled, for off-brand or spontaneous chat. Humans are built to be social, and even 15 minutes of socialising can lead to a 20% increase in performance.1 Given the whole team can’t bump into each other in the kitchen, it’s good to solicit virtual meetings, chats or hangouts to catch up, or use transparency (such as free time marked in your calendar, or ‘free to talk’ status on your chat) to encourage people to connect – but also, where possible, to bring them together in the same location periodically to encourage intimacy.
Clarity reduces assumptions. Nothing will stop progress faster than two locations working as separate teams because they don’t understand what the other is doing. Ways of working, guidelines on how to communicate and reinforcement of expectations will go a long way to ensuring people are secure in what and how they are working. This is also why that initial co-location time can be critical.
Think agile. If you’re developing a distributed team (that works across times and places) we always recommend doing it with agile. This allows for a team that can adapt to changes, and has regular meeting cadences that keep them in contact and operating as one. Product owners should be located with any development teams and think about having a scrum master in each location.
Definitely DevOps. Embracing DevOps is one thing we’ve found helps to do virtual teams well. Its infrastructure – bringing development and operations teams together – and practices, such as the automation of processes and streamlining of development cycles, will help to get the most out of teams that are involved in any kind of development work. Not only will it decrease time to market, it will create a more stable, better-coordinated development environment overall.
Virtual teams are the way of the future… scratch that, they’re the way of business today. Our experience writing this piece shows that. But whether it’s the cost savings of a reduced headcount office, an offshore tech team or simply aligning different offices in one country, they can be set up for physical results.