The Virtues of Virtual Teams
Depending on the type of work you do, using virtual teams can be a relatively new approach or it has been part of your work culture for a long time.
Technology projects have utilised virtual teams for ages. Advertising and design agencies are the same. Some types of businesses that were traditionally in-person based have moved to virtual in a short period. Training, education, financial servcies and support are good examples of this.
In this article we will explore the virtues of virtual teams, why it makes sense, what makes it work and how you can try it out.
No matter what type of team you need... the virtual approach can bring many advantages. Here are a few to consider:
1. Opportunity to work with better people
2. Start immediately
3. Potentially lower cost
4. Time difference can be an advantage
5. Output based approach
Work with Better People
If you draw a circle around where you search for your team members...in simple terms you will have limited results. Eliminate the boundaries and options become limitless.
Here is an example: A small technology company based in London was planning to build a website and started searching for good programmers in the city.
In this case the limited number of programmers that could help on the project were either employed by bigger companies or could not start for several weeks.
The company opened their search via the Internet and found better programmers for the project based in Russia. They were also able to start that same week.
Sometimes the best person or team is not in your city at all. Some locations in the world tend to be a hub for the best people with a specific skill or talent. Architects from Spain, Graphic Designers from London, outstanding Software Developers from Russia, Prototype Engineers from China, Etc...
When you consider the whole world (virtual locations vs your home city) the chances of finding a match is almost guaranteed. The chance of finding higher skills is also a strong possibility. The Internet makes opening your search and finding good people with higher skills easier.
Teams can Start Immediately
Overall availablity is where virtual teams can really be an advantage. We came acorss a Sr. Manager for a Telecoms company in Germany who wanted to start taking Spanish lessons.
The local language school only offered courses during the business day or the weekends.
The Manager wanted something more flexible and after work. After a quick search she found a range of online computer led courses or online courses via Skype with live teachers (who are living in Spain or South America).
And the best part... one click and she could start learning Spanish that same night, pick the times she wanted and change the slots when things at work got busy.
Potentially Lower Cost
Vitual does not always mean lower cost. In some cases specialised teams or people can be at a higher cost (if you go for a specialised expert).
On the other hand significant saving can be realised. A company we met was looking to build a Programme Managent Office (PMO). The costs in their home city were high and limited the company to having only one Senior Programme lead.
In their case they needed the lead and a support function to track budgets and ensure the individual projects plans were rolling up and accurate.
After some research, they found several good companies in Bosnia who specialised in Software Delivery and had high calibre team members available to work in virtual teams.
They decided to give it a try. They used good collaboration tools like Trello, JIRA, Smart Sheets, Skype for Business and were able to have a full PMO for similar costs as the one PM they were going to use locally.
Time Difference can be an Advantage
Time zones can be as challenging as cultural differences. When it's time to wrap up a busy day, people in other timezones are just having a morning coffee.
If you need real-time communication/collaboration during your full business day then you can't go too far away.
However, if you have a specific deliverable (like a report to be written, test scripts to be run, a graphic design piece, a contract to be drafted, etc) then time zones that are further away can sometimes work to your advantage.
When exploring this topic we discussed this point with a property services company that managed their software development via in-house staff.
The challenge came where things went wrong with the company website or apps. Senior IT leaders would get escalation calls after hours with issues customers were finding.
While the company was reducing the number of bugs on each software release, it seemed most of the issues always came in after the staff had already left for the day.
Being dedicated to their work, team members would come back in and try and fix the problems. This was not sustainable. Some team members were working until mindignght multiple days each week.
The team discussed options. They reviewed a night shift approach and found that would be difficult to implement (not too many locally based people were interested in working shifts from 9pm until the next morning).
Then idea to go really remote surfaced. They explored locations far enough away "time zone wise" that a second shift could pickup after the core team left for the day.
In this case the result was more productive and sensible hours for all...and a side benefit surfaced - continuous development and test support around the clock. The two teams could then support at all hours and deliver software faster.
Output Based Approach vs Time
Some managers use the hours when team members are in the office as an indication of productivity.
Most of the time the number of hours do not translate to high productivity - it only gives the perception of hard work. Some people call this "getting points". Basically stay late and look good.
Even worse - productivity averages can drop when a team or team members stack on too many hours without a break.
A better way for many teams to be more productive is to make the work deliverable based (with an agreed delivery date). That way team leaders are less worried about hours worked and can focus on progress against a specific target and the due date.
Virtual teams are a great way to establish this approach. Since it's difficult to always be sure what your team members are doing, it's best to focus on what they deliver and if they meet the date. What happens in between almost does not matter.
Teams that work this way can also feel empowered. They have more control and freedom to mix in personal life with work life.
Many virtual team members may shift some parts of their day to take a run, pick-up children from school, or do something they enjoy. Then log back in and finish the work later (possibly taking some after hours to make sure their work is delivered on time).
What Makes it Work
While not all jobs, teams or functions have used virtual teams or members in the past... it is becoming harder and harder to find a situation where they would not benefit in some way.
Finding the best people, potentially saving money, creating a work life balance and not having to wait to get started are some of the many reasons the trend is growing rapidly.
The world is becoming smaller, more collaborative and of course more connected.
How You Can Try it Out
It's easy. The good part is virtual team members generally offer very flexible terms. That means you can try before you buy. Start small, carve out something that can be easily explained, has a clear start and end date, can be virtually delivered and then see how it goes.
It's good to set up a daily touch-point to see how things are progressing and check if your team needs any support.
Tools like Telegram, Skype and progress boards like Trello can keep you connected and eliminate any surprise on progress.
Give it a try and see how virtual teams can enhance your work or business.
Here are some companies that offer services virtually: