No matter what environment we work in, each environment comes with its unique pros and cons.  At some point, many of us would have longed for the opportunity to work from home and not have to ‘head into the office’.  Thanks to Covid-19, for most of us that became an enforced reality.

For many the novelty was great!  No travel, no traffic hassles, no working wardrobe, no professional face required, no boss!  Bliss! For a time.

After some months, the novelty began to wear off and suddenly the office environment, the escape from home, the direct human interaction (even with the boss) began to look more attractive.

What is a Virtual Team?

To borrow the words of Ariel Lopez (2020):

“A virtual team is a group of workers who communicate and work together using digital tools. While they can be located in the same physical space, virtual teams are often distributed, working remotely in different parts of the city, state or country—even on the other side of the world! There are other names for virtual teams, such as “geographically dispersed teams” or “remote teams,” but they all mean the same thing:

people working together without being physically together.”

Why would we consider Virtual Teams?

From an organisational perspective there are some immediate benefits to the bottom line:

  • less office space, less utilities, less equipment etc
  • the ability to throw the net wider to attract talent – virtual teams are not restricted by geographical location
  • more attractive employment terms – meeting the rise of flexibility expectation
  • being recognised as an employer of choice – responding to individual’s situations and home circumstances

From an individual perspective we live (and work) in a time that recognises and encourages more work-life balance.  Working virtually means flexibility.

According to StatisticsNZ, flexible working is more sought after than increases in pay.

This flexibility supports the need to care for children or family members, empowers individuals to choose work hours and according to Xero, further benefits include employee satisfaction, engagement and increased wellbeing.

So, why wouldn’t we consider Virtual Teams?

Recent research tells us that isolation and lack of connection are big factors that inhibit effective virtual team productivity.  In fact, to use just one NZ example, Electric Kiwi (who has a globally dispersed workforce) have recognised that ‘mostly their team prefer to be in the office’.  The reasons for this behaviour include:

  • Preference for the social aspect of physically working alongside other professionals
  • The higher opportunity for collaboration and knowledge sharing
  • The lack of suitable space in the home environment
  • The clearly defined boundary between professional and personal space

Stratus Blue, another local business, have also identified the security threats of a virtual workforce, with attacks coming through home networks and poor device security.

How can we create Virtual Wellbeing?

Here are some suggestions:

Take the responsibility to look after one another.

It is perhaps more obvious, in a shared working environment, how the person sitting across from you is coping.  We take a lot of cues from facial expression, body language and general behaviour that are not ‘visible’ remotely.

Dig a little deeper.

When you ask someone how they’re doing, you will probably receive a stock-standard response.  Good leaders and team members will take the opportunity to push beyond that.

Physical proximity.

As humans we need to connect. We need physical contact and emotional intimacy. This is an occurrence that can happen more frequently and naturally in a shared working environment.  With virtual teams it requires more effort, but it’s vital for healthy, productive and collaborative team synergy.

Regular video communication.

…AND accepting that some days it might be too hard. Face-to-face is still a vital and important method of interaction and sharing meaning.  However, it is supportive of the virtual working team, to accept sessions when the video is not on, and not to make a big deal about it!

Creating the window that supports a reach out.

Social culture often means we feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about asking for help.  As a leader, work to schedule in regular one-to-one video conferencing so that more private topics can be acknowledged and discussed.  Also, look for the opportunity to build ‘buddy’ relationships between team members, this shares the load and creates more opportunity for more contact.

Support each other.

In the narrow medium of video conferencing, communication can be awkward. It’s easy to put down, ignore, misunderstand or talk over one another.  Instead, set some simple and practical understandings about communication standards and do this early.  It could be as simple as saying ‘Henry just made a great point, I don’t think it got the attention it deserves,’ or ‘Sally was interrupted, can we return to her point…’  And verbalise fellow achievement, success, milestones.  Purposefully name individuals and recognise success.

Recognise disengagement.

Is a team member logged on, but not participating?  Maybe they are not attending virtual meetings at all.  Are they difficult to get in contact with?  Are they missing deadlines/check-ins?  These are symptoms of a lack of connection and motivation.  Address these symptoms as early as possible.

Having timely communication channels.

Use effective management tools, which may include virtual project management software. The need to manage, track and measure progress and projects become more essential in the virtual world. Staying on top of the technical stuff, will significantly reduce stress, uncertainty and worry.  This practice will enhance staying on top of the people stuff!

Most importantly – not everything remote, has to be a video meeting.

Try picking up the phone!  Organise a connection/social activity at a local shared work space, set a challenge to record hobby participation/bike ride/run/beach walk and post to informal team/group platform; have a non-work-related recognition award…you get the idea!

Covid has introduced new working practices and conventions.  Even so, the health of an organisation continues to be closely aligned to the health and wellbeing of its teams – who are made up of the individuals who sit at the other end of the technology.