Technology makes virutal team collabortion effective over geographic distances.

Adobe Stock

Modern technology has made it easier than ever before for teams to collaborate over great distances. Using tools like Google Docs, two team members can edit a proposal or report draft together in real time—despite being separated by hundreds of miles.

The practice of working remotely is one that many businesses have seized upon, only to later reject because of flawed implementations.

For example, Yahoo famously ended its “work from home” policy in 2013 as a part of then-newcomer CEO Marissa Mayer’s efforts to turn the ailing company around. As noted in a CNN article from around the time of the decision: “Mayer’s ex-employer Google (GOOG) views it as a productivity killer… it’s clear she does expect dedication – and to Mayer, that means showing up every day.”

Yet, just a few years after the landmark decision, it seems as though Yahoo has changed its position on telecommuting to work. According to a Huffington Post article from a few years after the “work from home” ban, “two years later, it’s clear: Telecommuting has won. Even Yahoo seems to have softened its stance. Workers inside the company told HuffPost that some employees still do occasionally work from home, depending on their job, and some do not have a desk in the office.”

For this kind of change in attitude, there needs to be a valuable business reason—some kind of benefit that outweighs the perceived risks of not having direct, face-to-face contact with team members.

What Are the Benefits of Working Remotely?

There are many potential benefits to using virtual teams and having individuals work remotely—whether they do so all the time or just a couple of days a week. Some of these benefits include:

  • Reduced Employee Absences. It may seem counterintuitive, but not forcing employees to come to the office every day can actually reduce absenteeism. There are a few reasons for this, but a major part of it may be that working from home grants employees a greater degree of schedule flexibility—allowing workers to blend their work and personal schedules with less disruption to each. Another reason may be not having to deal with the morning commute.
  • Increased Productivity. Many employees working from home report being more productive when they work remotely. In fact, according to statistics from a TINYpulse survey, the percentage of workers who are more productive is “an overwhelming 91%!”
  • A Deeper Talent Pool to Draw On. A necessary part of maintaining an office job is that the worker needs to live close enough to make the commute on a daily basis. And, moving to a new location is an expensive and risky proposition for many potential employees. This puts an inherent limiting factor on the pool of talent available to a company. As Diebold CEO Andy Mattes said to the Huffington Post: “we wanted the brightest people on the planet… We were fishing in a small fishing pond.” The company’s offices were located in Canton, OH—far away from the major tech centers of industry where many of the top talent lived.
  • Reduced Overhead Costs. Using virtual teams can help companies save money on overhead costs such as physical office space, utilities, and custodial expenses. With telecommuting, there is less need for large, expensive office spaces to house employees while they work.
  • Increased Job Satisfaction and Engagement. Remote workers with flexible hours often report higher levels of happiness and sense of being valued than the average worker. As noted in the TINYpulse survey, the average happiness value of remote workers (on a 1-10 scale) was 8.10, while all workers averaged a 7.42 on that scale. Additionally, remote workers averaged a 7.75 rating when asked “how valued do you feel at work?” versus a 6.69 average among all workers.
  • Virtual Workplaces Are Friendlier to the Environment. By eliminating excessive office space and daily commutes, companies can minimize their carbon footprint—and those of their employees. According to statistics from the EPA, the average passenger vehicle creates about 8,887 grams of CO2 per gallon of fuel burned. If each worker travels the average distance cited by the U.S. Department of Transportation (15 miles) in a vehicle that gets 30 mpg, they will consume a gallon each day five days a week, 51 weeks a year; producing 2,266.19 kilograms of carbon emissions in a year.

Despite these benefits, many organizations remain leery of work from home and other remote work/office programs, or are scaling back existing programs.

What Are the Drawbacks of Working Remotely?

There are several counter-arguments frequently raised when the prospect of using virtual teams or working remotely is brought up. Some of these arguments have a valid basis, while others are simply stereotypes about remote workers:

  • Low Productivity. A frequently-held belief about remote workers is that they do not work as hard or are unreliable—but the available data doesn’t support this belief. As pointed out earlier, many employees experience a productivity boost when they work remotely. However, it does take focus, self-motivation, and some comfort with ambiguity for a remote worker to be successful.
  • Communication and Collaboration May Suffer. Leaders often believe that collaboration and communication will suffer with a team that telecommutes to work. This belief stems from the assumption that employees who are not in the same location will find it more difficult to develop relationships and interact with informal spontaneity. However, many collaborative technologies can actually enhance communication and collaboration among peers—it just requires consistent effort to acclimate to these tools and break old habits. Additionally, research has shown that the “open concept” office, wherein workers share a space and work directly with one another, doesn’t produce better results. In fact, as noted in one Forbes article, open concept offices “hurt our productivity, our job satisfaction and even our health.”
  • Virtual Teams Won’t Be as Responsive to Sudden Developments. Another concern with remote workers is that there will be a communication delay whenever there’s a critical update that needs attention. However, modern communication methods negate this concern. If a worker has the resources to submit work remotely, then they can be contacted at a moment’s notice using email, text messaging, phone calls, Skype, social media, collaboration software, etc.

Can a Virtual Team Work for My Organization?

For most businesses and other organizations, having people work remotely is a viable option—unless the employee’s job function requires their physical presence.

For example, you probably will not see construction workers, doctors, massage therapists, retail and food service workers, or police telecommuting to work any time soon. However, even in those industries, there are many job roles that can work remotely—doctors are starting to make remote diagnoses of patients with online tools, police dispatchers can route communication traffic from home, and sales departments often sell products over the phone rather than from a display floor or office.

Making Working from Home Work in Your Industry

To realize the full benefits of working from home, the organization needs to be prepared to support virtual teams.

Some basic guidelines for prepping an organization to support a virtual workforce include:

  1. Keeping Virtual Teams Small. OnPoint’s research has shown that the most successful virtual teams—generally between five and ten people. Larger teams are more susceptible to pitfalls like a lack of clear roles and goals.
  2. Finding the Right Team Leaders. The best leaders of teams that work remotely have to balance both execution-oriented practices with the interpersonal communication and cultural factors of the team. They are able to leverage technology and adjust their behavior to meet the challenges presented by virtual work.
  3. Create a Plan for Recognizing and Rewarding Performance. Just because a remote team is “out of sight,” its members should not feel “out of mind.” Failing to recognize and reward achievements can hurt a virtual team’s engagement. Consider setting up celebrations and bonuses for major achievements.
  4. Hold a Face-to-Face Team Kick-Off for New Teams. OnPoint’s research shows that virtual teams that hold an initial face-to-face kick-off meeting outperform ones that don’t. These meetings help get every member on the same page regarding team goals, structure, and processes.
  5. Establish a Plan for How Team Members Communicate. During the kick-off meeting, it can be helpful to establish which communication technologies remote workers should use to communicate with the office and set policies for when face-to-face meetings should be held (if possible). This helps smooth out communication strategies and improve collaboration later on.
  6. Host OnLine Team Development Activities. Building trust on a virtual team is a major challenge because there is a lack of direct, personal contact. Holding special team development events when practical can help to build interpersonal relationships and develop trust between remote workers.
  7. Monitor and Assess Performance. Every team in an organization needs to be assessed on their performance. In these assessments, remote workers need to be gauged on what they’re doing well and what areas of improvement there may be in their performance. After an assessment, guiding the employee’s development with a performance improvement plan can help ensure positive change.

Offering employees the ability to work remotely can be an effective way to boost productivity and employee happiness. However, work from home programs and virtual teams should not be launched on a whim—it requires careful planning and preparation to make these programs successful.

Is your organization ready to handle working remotely? Learn more about building a virtual team and making it a success today!