Avoiding Digital Apathy: Overcoming the Challenges of Engaging Virtual Teams

As workforces become more dispersed and remote, what does it take to manage a virtual team effectively?

While work trends come and go, the slow but steady shift towards non-permanent contract work appears to be here to stay. The economic turbulence of recent years has seen employers looking to better make use of their headcount and engage talented and highly skilled workers on-demand without the time, overheads and commitment associated with hiring permanent full time staff.
Australia as a nation has wholeheartedly embraced the new world of work; with a report by recruitment consultancy firm, Page Personnel, finding that we engage the second-highest percentage of temporary workers in the world. It would appear this this style of engagement  generally suits white collar contractors (Independent Professionals/IPros), as our very own research project, the IPro Index, indicates that 82% of respondents are very satisfied with working on a contractual basis.

The changing world of work

The increasing use of contract workers has changed the nature of how, when and where we work. An increasingly globalised world, coupled with emerging technologies that are breaking down the barriers of geography, has meant that the traditional office employee working 9-5 is becoming obsolete. It is now commonplace to find teams dispersed across offices, states and even countries. While the diversity this brings can add depth and differing paradigms, these virtual teams are not without their drawbacks.
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A dispersed team requires for more Tender Loving Care (TLC)

The single greatest issue that affects virtual teams is the lack of centrality. Any successful team is based on a foundation of unity, positive reinforcement, cohesion and collaboration – all these elements are born from time and teamwork. It is therefore essential that you make up for the lack of physical closeness of your virtual team with an additional focus on nurturing each member.
If you can, try to have all managers meet their team face to face at least once. If this is not plausible, the good news is that current and emerging technologies are making it easier to connect than ever before. Emails may get the job done, but they are not the only tool in the technological arsenal of the teleworker. Google offers a range of tools designed to optimise remote interaction, from Google Hangouts, real time chat that also offers screen sharing and video conferencing, to Google Drive, a file storage platform that offers the creation of documents, presentations and spreadsheets that can be edited by multiple users at one time. Corporate Networks such as Yammer are also effective in creating camaraderie amongst isolated teams; giving them a chance to interact in a less formal setting and build personal connections.

Cultivate team diversity

The globalised nature of virtual teams also means you will often be dealing with a wide range of cultures with varying customs, social cues and business styles. While multiculturalism affords virtual teams with deep, varied and differing ideas, it can often be easy to forget that the gestures, phrases and actions that are second nature to one culture may be interpreted in a totally different way by another. Taking the time to educate yourself on the cultures that make up your workplace can make a huge difference in how you are perceived by your colleagues, and understanding the dress, religious practices, customs, values and behaviours may help you avoid any misunderstandings.

Making time zones no barrier

Those working in isolation can occasionally suffer from the lack of social connection, which can be compounded by time zone differences meaning some colleagues may be going to sleep when others are just waking up. Time zones must always be taken into consideration when scheduling catch ups, meetings and deadlines. Meeting times should be varied so that it is not always one geographic group getting up at 2am, and staff should be empowered to self-motivate and work independently so as to avoid panicked midnight phone calls.
Despite the frustration time zone clashes can warrant, it is still imperative to maintain a virtual working environment where team members feel free to contact their manager and colleagues at any time if they have an issue or concern. Empowering teams to raise issues, suggest alternatives and workshop ideas will maximise the benefits of virtual teams.
Ultimately the key to bolstering your virtual team lies in keeping communication varied, frequent and meaningful, in order to foster a trusting relationship amongst team members and management through support, recognising achievements and celebrating wins – just as you would if the team were working in the same office as you.

Tackle security risks

When you have a team working outside of the traditional office setup, chances are they will be using their own devices to get their work done. Having workers provide their own devices may save initial setup costs for you and afford your team more flexibility in their movements, but it is not without its dangers. Chief of these is security, both in terms of the protection of your intellectual property and data, the threat of malware and viruses to personal devices and compliance with the law.
The first line of defence against security breaches should be a comprehensive bring your own device (BYOD) policy, which may cover things such as password strength, software licensing, mandatory anti-virus software on all devices and remote wiping of lost devices. An effective BYOD policy should be vigorous to minimise risk and involve all levels of management.

Compliance and regulatory considerations

Virtual teams provide organisations with access to the top talent irrespective of location, but their malleable nature can also expose a business to regional legal and compliance issues. BYOD policies, for example, must also be complaint with law. According to the Department of Defence, Legislation  such  as  the  Privacy  Act  1988,  Archives  Act  1983  and  Freedom  of  Information  Act  1982 can all impact your ability to have staff use their own devices.
The unique nature of contract professionals working in virtual teams across geographic borders means organisations may need to worry about a myriad of other issues such as OH&S, local legislation and insurance. When in doubt, seek professional advice from a specialist such as a Contractor Management Organisation regarding any concerns to avoid potential liability.
Virtual teams are unquestionably the way of the future. Organisations wanting access to the best talent are no longer restricted by location, and as borders blur and emerging technologies continue their exponential rise, the use of virtual teams is only expected to increase. Avoid the social, security and professional risks that can befall a non-traditional team in order to reap the benefits of diversity, flexibility and a superior outcome.

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