by Sue Weston

Virtual environments: The universal equalizer for the workforce

Jun 24, 2020
Collaboration SoftwareInnovationIT Leadership

Connecting people across geographies allows for different perspectives that generate new ideas and innovation. Could a virtual workplace be the answer to better business performance?

Red team  >  Double-exposure with team, cityscape + abstract data / teamwork / collaboration
Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

Remote work is not new, but its widespread acceptance is. As companies prepare to reopen, some employees are waiting anxiously to return to the office and “business as usual.” But others believe living, working, and connecting virtually can provide overwhelmingly positive benefits.

I am a proud early adopter of working remotely. Over 30 years ago, I worked remotely using a dial-up connection. Spoiler alert: It did not work out the way I expected, but I was able to split my time between family and work and learned the power of connecting virtually.

Being virtual removes barriers by seamlessly connecting people across geographies, allowing for different perspectives that generate new ideas and innovation. And all of this supports corporate profitability. Corporate success is built on results and thrives in an environment that promotes creativity and inclusion. Could a virtual workplace be the answer to better business performance?

Remote teams may be more productive than traditional office workers  

Studies found a 4% increase in time spent on core work and an 18% decrease in time spent commuting by people working remotely. Managers can convert this additional work time into value by changing their focus from traditional offices, where face time counts, to a virtual world where only results matter. When remote teams focus on results, they are more productive than teams who work in the office.

Because remote teams work without boundaries, employees can create a work schedule that fits the demands of their lives. This flexibility allows workers to juggle work and family. Studies found that women, specifically, take on a greater share of the home responsibilities, spending three times as much time on household activities than men. While they can’t have it all, women who work remotely report being more productive than men (50% vs. 37%). It might be time to modify traditional family roles and responsibilities, but until that happens, virtual is the next best thing.

Keep unconscious biases in check in a virtual work environment

Building inclusion can be tricky because we carry our unconscious biases with us no matter where we work, either in an office or virtually. We can increase inclusion when we connect over technology by being self-aware.

  • Physical bias: Studies found that taller people are generally favored in work environments. They make more money and hold more leadership roles. Connecting virtually removes height from the equation. Since remote workers rely more on the written and spoken word, every option gets equal weight.
  • Personality bias: Introverts and independent heads down workers can shine in a virtual environment because what they produce counts for more than how they sell it. Working on a virtual team, they are less likely to be overshadowed by more enthusiastic extroverted colleagues.
  • Gender bias: Women are 33% more likely to be interrupted in meetings, sometimes in the form of mansplaining reflects men’s gender-based desire for individual recognition. These interruptions may influence career progression leaving women feeling invisible when credit for their ideas goes to someone else, generally a man. In a virtual environment, contributions are documented. 

While working virtually can reduce the impact of bias, it is only the first step for creating workplace inclusion. Collaboration tools help create safe spaces for collaboration, but change requires awareness and adjustment of behaviors. Here are two tips to help virtual teams become more inclusive.

  • Rethink meeting etiquette: Meeting rules should guarantee each speaker is included and has made their point, and the meeting minutes should correctly attribute the credit to the appropriate party by referencing written documents. Virtual contributors should connect using the channel that is most effective for them. Meetings are important, but so are collaboration tools for documenting and information sharing.
  • Keep communication inclusive: Disengagement can occur when leaders do not communicate openly with remote workers. It is important to share information with the entire team and give everyone sufficient time to respond. Out of sight should never mean out of mind. Teams should be balanced to ensure that women and minorities have a seat at the table. This includes the make-up of the management team. Since virtual teams are not limited by space, adding other voices to the table is easy. Strong leaders should avoid side conversations that can distract from the conversation and undermine the value of the meeting. Trust your team to find solutions by allowing everyone to have a voice.

With a few tweaks to our corporate behavior, virtual can become the universal equalizer. By replacing the physical connection with a cognitive connection, virtual teams can create safe spaces for inclusion, transforming how we connect and collaborate at work.

Success can be infectious and exciting, making virtual teams an incubator for ideas and innovation. We are all different and need to consciously adjust our behaviors. For some, it may mean keeping egos in check, while for others it may mean pushing past comfort zones. But for everyone, it means being aware of our bias so that diverse perspectives can lead to solutions and produce results.