5 tips for succeeding with a virtual workforce

Ensuring team effectiveness in a global virtual environment takes great communications skills and a willingness to understand different cultures. Here’s how one company gets the most out of its global virtual teams.

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With the rise of technology, the availability of instant communication and collaboration tools that bring the virtual world into the boardroom, the face of the modern office is rapidly changing. According to Gallup's most recent Work and Education poll, 37 percent of U.S. workers say they have telecommuted. And with GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com reporting that at least half of all jobs in the U.S. lend themselves to telecommuting that number is likely to continue to rise. Already, in Fortune 1000 companies, increasingly mobile employees “are not at their desk 50-60 percent of the time,” according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com.

Whether you love or hate the concept of telecommuting, the trend is clearly here to stay. A 2014 survey of business leaders at the Global Leadership Summit in London found that 34 percent of business leaders believe that more than half of their workforce will be remote as soon as 2020.

Why this trend toward remote work? It's simple: economics.

GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com findings indicate that savings to employees, business owners and the economy can be significant when employees work from home at least half time. Reported savings to businesses average about $11,000 annually per remote employee. Employees also benefit and typically save anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 annually. Furthermore, if only half of employees with jobs conducive to working remotely did so just half the time, U.S. annual savings could top more than $700 billion.

As the workforce becomes more mobile, the requirement for professionals who understand the unique benefits and challenges of engaging clients, employees and peers in the new virtual world is likely to increase as well. To better understand how businesses and managers are not only adapting to but embracing these changes to the workplace, we spoke with Lee Cullom, the president and co-founder of Business Intelligence software company Northcraft Analytics (NCA). Cullom is well-versed in the world of telecommuting and managing remote employees, himself having a largely remote workforce.

Cullom says that he actually prefers to work with and hire virtual employees. He cites the ability to hire the best without being limited to geographic boundaries, which is a positive for both employers and employees. "A lot of people like to work with no geographic constraints and I take that as a positive," Cullom says. "They'll typically work longer hours or at least more hours within the same amount of time because there's less lost productive time commuting." Cullom adds that, in his experience, most remote employees tend to be more performance oriented and accomplish more in the same amount of time.

Here are Cullom's tips for building successful virtual teams.

Know your employees

Cullom says that managers should understand how different job functions and individual personalities may impact success as a virtual or remote employee. He notes that virtual team members engaged in sales activities often seek out more face-to-face interaction than virtual team members engaged in development activities, for example. It's up to managers to ensure that remote team members stay engaged, whether that’s by coming into the office regularly (once a week, for instance), by having regular one-on-one phone calls or webcam meetings and so forth.

Follow careful hiring practices

Look for employees who are self-motivated, like to challenge themselves and who need little to no supervision. When possible, Cullom advises hiring people that you already know. Understanding an employee's personal work ethic, personality and skills assists in ensuring that the potential employee is not only the right fit for an assigned job role, but also possesses the focus and soft skills necessary to succeed as a remote employee. Careful hiring practices up front lessen the risk of dealing with troublesome employees later.

Get global smarts

Managing remote employees who work in other countries can be especially challenging for a number of reasons from time zone differences to language barriers and even local holidays and festivals. Here’s how to avoid some common blunders:

  • Time zone differences can be particularly challenging when working with multiple remote team members. If you can't accommodate all schedules, be flexible and rotate meeting times to reduce the impact on any single remote employee or team.
  • Watch what you say. "Even if the remote team member speaks English, the meaning may be applied differently than in U.S. English," warns Cullom. "Language barriers, especially when coming up with a legal contract, may be challenging." Ensure that you have a mutual understanding.
  • Be cognizant of local customs, traditions and mores. International team members may have inherently different ways of approaching problem solving or teamwork. It's easy to lose rapport and trust with virtual team members if you unknowingly break cultural mores. "Unless you're aware of cultural nuances, it's best to avoid them and stay focused professionally," advises Cullom.
  • If you’re not aware of them, local holidays, festivals and the like can impact project schedules as well as working relationships with other employees, customers or suppliers. Incorporate accommodations for those holidays at the project planning stage.

Embrace regional cultures within the U.S.

Within the U.S. there are five distinct geographical regions — West, Southwest, Midwest, Southeast and Northeast — each with its own set of values, demographics and approaches to conducting business. A common mistake in managing or working with virtual teams is overlooking the importance of regional cultural differences on professional relationships, both internally and externally.

"Selling or implementing to a customer in New York is different than selling and implementing to a customer in the Southeast," says Cullom, who adds that, whenever possible, his company tries to hire someone locally who understands how business is conducted in that region.

Establish clear communication

Communication is absolutely one of the most essential elements of a successful project or business relationship. Ensure that you're speaking the same "language" when communicating with remote team members, regardless of their job role. Make use of available communication and collaboration tools, such as file sharing services, video conferencing and so forth, to ensure communications are received and understood. Establish guidelines for best practices when it comes to managing communication with remote employees.

Working with virtual employees, teams and even suppliers can be highly rewarding. Cullom advises being as open and transparent as possible with remote employees about goals and the activities you want them to undertake, and then provide a forum to discuss and provide feedback.

"At NCA, we love the virtual lifestyle," Cullom states. "It's about staying focused on the most important things first, such as your family. We tend to think as individuals."

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