Working virtually, at least some of the time, is a reality for many workers that’s here to stay. A Fortune study of over 10,000 employees found that “the percentage of knowledge workers in hybrid working arrangements has increased to 58%, up from 46% in May 2021.” This means that even as the worst of the pandemic shutdowns have lifted, more and more people are still working virtually into 2022. Even more telling about the future of virtual work is that while 78% of study participants said they would like the option for hybrid work, 95% of them wanted the option of flexible work hours. Freedom to work not only where they wanted, but when they wanted.
Employers working hard to retain their employees now need to deal with creating and supporting teams who not only don’t work in the same place, but are not always working at the same time. This presents a very different set of requirements than the 9-to-5-sitting-in-the-same-office work dynamic that has been standard in the past. Let’s unpack these differences and talk through questions like “what does virtual team management look like?” and “what makes a successful virtual environment?”
What Is a Virtual Team?
Virtual teams in the workplace are groups of coworkers who interact online instead of in person. This can take place in a variety of ways, from every worker being fully remote, to a hybrid work system where workers are in the same space for a portion of their work time. Virtual teams will always rely on technology to work together, but it can be everything from sporadic emails to multiple video conferences daily.
During the pandemic, lockdowns and times of strict social distancing requirements emphasized the importance of virtual teams in organizations. The advantages of cohesive virtual teams are further reaching.
What is a Team Environment in the Workplace?
The work environment for in-person work is pretty easy to define. Of course, there are many examples of each of these, but let’s look at a few examples in each category.
- Physical space where the work is happening
- Office building
- Workers’ personal areas – like cubicles and desks
- Team spaces – like conference rooms and break rooms
- Technology that lets the work happen
- Tech for creating the actual product or service – databases for accountants, trucks for delivery drivers
- Tech for teamwork – projectors in meetings, photocopier for document sharing
- Feeling created by the people who work there
- Positive environment – comfortable chats between coworkers, engaged feedback in meetings
- Negative environment – tension between manager and employees, silence in break rooms
The environment within a virtual workspace seems more complicated to define, but it doesn’t have to be. These same three principles can be tweaked just a little bit and apply just as well to talk about teamwork in a virtual environment too.
- Virtual and physical space where the work is happening
- Physical setup – team members access to a computer, internet, software used, physical space to work in
- Virtual setup – the digital space where meetings happen, documents are shared, communication happens with coworkers
- Technology that lets the work happen
- Tech for creating the actual product or service – how is this accessed in different locations/stored virtually
- Internet speed and reliability
- Tech for teamwork – software used for meetings, document sharing, and collaboration
- Feeling created by the people who work there
- Positive environment – coworkers communicate easily and freely, technology functions well and allows work to be done efficiently
- Negative environment – coworkers aren’t comfortable communicating, meetings are unproductive, technology is a barrier to getting work done
What Is Important in a Virtual Team Environment?
Now that we’ve gone over what a virtual team environment is, let’s look more closely at the elements that make it work best.
Define the Team
This one may seem really basic, but it really is an important foundation. Before you can decide what environment your team will work best in, it’s important to set up a clear vision and goals about what your team is and how they need to work together. Are they a team that does a lot of brainstorming and collaboration, and would get a lot of the advantages of virtual meetings? Or are they a team where everyone has a very different skill set so tasks and functions work better with quick chat messages and document sharing, but few meetings?
Provide the Tools
One of the first virtual team management challenges in creating a good environment is setting up a good virtual and physical space for the work to happen in. Make sure employees have the right computer, internet access, and software tools to be able to do the work they need to do and communicate with their team members in the best way possible.
Use the Tools
Setting up the systems that make sure these tools are used is the next important step. Communication and collaboration between virtual team members can only happen if they all have access to the right tools AND use them regularly. Creating systems around the use of these collaboration tools so they are an intrinsic part of day-to-day work life is the only way to make these tools work for virtual teams.
Mix Work and Play
One of the best answers to the question “how can you improve communication in a virtual team” is by encouraging them to know each other better. Sharing interests and hobbies about things outside of work makes it easier for team members to communicate about work too. Creating time and tools that make this team sharing easier will help with building trust in virtual teams and overall improve workers’ happiness and productivity at work.
Reduce Technology Frustrations
Because virtual teams rely so heavily on technology, when it misbehaves it causes big issues. If a program that your team is regularly using always seems to cause problems, spending the time to either develop a permanent fix or switch to a different option can greatly improve the team environment. If the virtual team needs to use many different programs to do all their daily functions and switching between them causes frustration and inefficiency, moving to an all-in-one solution, like Alleo, can also greatly improve your team’s virtual environment.
How Does Technology Affect Communication in Virtual Teams?
All of the things mentioned above that are the important components of successful virtual team environments relate to communication between team members. Communication in virtual teams can be the biggest hurdle to overcome when working digitally instead of in-person, but it doesn’t have to be! Technology provides a huge range of tools to help teams virtually communicate. It just requires a change in mindset compared to “standard” face-to-face communication. In some ways, all the focus on virtual communication means we are more used to talking about it, therefore better able to implement improvements to virtual interactions compared to physical ones.
With in-person workplace teams, accidental team building, chatting, and bonding happened frequently at the water cooler, over lunch, or while fixing a paper jam at the printer. When we move to virtual teams, these interactions should be structured because they are un likely to happen organically. This intentionality can be a good thing. Thinking through the best ways to engage coworkers in conversations and share their interests means individuals may have input and interact together, which doesn’t always happen in-person.
A huge drawback with communication at in-person meetings is that there are naturally people who are less likely to share in these kinds of environments. Sometimes it’s because they are newer and not sure of their role, sometimes they just aren’t comfortable speaking in front of a group, sometimes it’s because they aren’t at the specific meeting where the conversation is taking place. Technology can address many of these issues if used correctly, and mean that more voices are heard.
Using a combination of video conferencing, one-on-one chats, group message boards, surveys and other virtual communication options, many more of the insights your team has can be shared and implemented than if you are only relying on people speaking up in meetings.
One of the things that keeps becoming clearer with more options for virtual and hybrid work is that we are getting more diversity within our teams. People who live in different places, have different backgrounds, have different physical abilities, have different schedules and responsibilities at home are all able to participate more in the work environment now. This change from in person to virtual team characteristics is phenomenal for developing new ideas and improving old ones, and the tools that create good communication for virtual environments are a big part of what makes it happen!
Alleo: The Virtual Visual Canvas for Collaboration
Creating the right environment for your virtual team to be successful can make or break their success. Since virtual and hybrid work isn’t going anywhere (which we think is a good thing!) we’ve created an all-in-one platform to make the best virtual team environment possible. Its customizable, accessible, real-time and secure interface will take your virtual meetings to the next level. Not only that, but it will stop the need for your team to open a multitude of different programs to work virtually, and allow for new ways of communicating to make sure everyone on the team can contribute and improve the system. When you’re ready to start working with Alleo, check out our website to try our features for free now.