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Creating a Virtual Workforce


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By now we are all very much aware that we live in an era of seemingly endless technological advances. Yes, this means we are constantly glued to our mobile devices and are never truly out of reach, but from a business standpoint, the technology in recent years hasn’t just opened new doors — it’s kicked them down, allowing for influx of the greatest minds from around the world. The big question is, are those expert at your company’s door?

Dynamic, reliable technology in the workplace has given rise to the concept of hiring virtual teams for projects and even entire departments when the tasks at hand don’t require in-person interactions. Not only do virtual teams provide convenience, they offer companies the opportunity to compile an all-star team regardless of how long their commutes may be.

Think about it: The purpose of a productive, successful company is to combine the various skills, talents and perspectives of a group of individuals to achieve corporate goals. Who’s to say that the best talent is all centrally located in your city?

As “company headquarters” transition from a physical location to an abstract concept, it’s reported that in the U.S. there are currently 2.9 million full-time virtual workers; that’s a remarkable 61 percent increase since 2005. When appropriate for a business, it’s been found that virtual teams are actually outperforming traditional groups of co-located employees completing similar tasks. This may be why 44 percent of companies in the country have expressed interest in increasing their own virtual workforces in the upcoming years.

More than being a cost effective solution in most cases, the pros surrounding virtual teams continue to mount. For starters, virtual teams offer flexibility, increased responsiveness and a noticeable improvement of resource utilization for most businesses. Compiling a virtual team gives directors and CEOs the ability cast a wide net when looking for the right talent for the job. This increases the amount of competition amongst prospects and ensures you don’t have to “settle” for someone with only some of the skill sets you’re looking for, just because he or she can be in the office on time every morning.

Because your team can easily be comprised of experts from other cities, states and even countries, the work day shifts from being eight hours to a complete 24-hour operation cycle if necessary. And when location is no longer a concern, neither is commuting. Less commuting and travel times means more hours logged completing the actual project.

Still, to paint a picture of perfection wouldn’t be accurate either. Virtual teams aren’t without their own set of challenges. But as with most workplace dilemmas, these too can be solved with the right amount of planning and delegation. With coworkers all in one singular location it’s more giving from a productivity standpoint to have less than stellar management. With a virtual team, however, communication and clear direction are vital to success.

When compiling a virtual team it’s imperative that, as the person in the management position, you create clear and concise roles and responsibilities for each employee. This involves coordinating who will do what, how decisions are going to be made, how often communications — be it via phone or email — will take place, and what consequences team members might expect if they aren’t meeting preset expectations. And as the Wall Street Journal points out, it’s essential that the team members be given tasks that are challenging in order to ward off decreased productivity.

There should also be communication expectations placed on the leadership roles as well. Team members need to feel confident that their questions and concerns are being read and addressed by those in charge. This goes beyond creating an open-door policy, and instead, as Firmology coins it, creating an open culture policy. Once a proper outline of roles and expectancies is established, maintaining them becomes easier. But be certain; with virtual teams, leadership is fundamental.

Similarly, a lack of communication and structure may also lead to escalated conflicts among team members mainly because the group doesn’t share the same camaraderie that forms in a traditional office. And because virtual teams are often comprised of individuals from vastly different backgrounds, cultural differences can easily add to any existing tension. When problems are left ignored it’s unlikely they’ll go away. But rather than pushing these differences aside, embracing and addressing them up front will make for a stronger foundation. For instance, recommends creating various social-bonding practices, such as virtual coffee breaks where team members can exchange personal information through a social media platform. Virtual teams have also formed stronger bonds by implementing a preset period of time where the group takes as little as five minutes prior to a scheduled meeting to catch up with one another.

Having coworkers from various cultural backgrounds can also be a blessing rather than a source for tension. The diversity amongst the team brings with it different approaches to similar situations, creating a hot bed for innovation and critical thinking. When diversity is utilized to complete a project it can be amazing just how quickly ideas begin to spiral and take shape.

Creating and properly executing a virtual workforce isn’t just a pipe dream. Thousands of companies on the local and global levels and of various sizes have shifted towards this method. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, conglomerates like General Electric, IBM, Ogilvy & Mather and Nokia have also repositioned their workforces to include a number of virtual teams that support the staff in their physical locations across the country.

If a virtual workforce might be advantageous for your company, there are a number of preliminary steps you can take to ensure success:

  1. Establish team rules and policies. This is vital and should include clearly defined protocol for important guidelines, including how quickly staff needs to respond to emails, questions or requests for action. Take it a step further by mapping out the steps to be taken when someone has been slow to respond. Setting rules for communication and role-specific responsibilities shouldn’t become an information overload, but it will set a precedent for how well established the virtual team is.
  2. Create a directory of the virtual team and its members so that everyone can easily become more familiar with one another. Include information on each team member’s specific area of expertise and how their role fits into the organization or current project. You should also facilitate productive, positive ways for members of a virtual team to communicate with one another, such an instant messaging tools. Forbes refers to this as “building trust differently.”
  3. Ensure that before the project starts, each person who is hired to work on the virtual team has a clear understanding of not only their specific role and responsibilities, but also the roles of the rest of the team and company’s short and long-term goals.
  4. Initiate the use of collaborative software that makes project management amongst virtual teams more streamlined and error-free. There are dozens of project management software that makes around-the-clock work possible and without the possibility of human error.
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