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Employee Experience, Team Members

Virtually perfect? IA weighs in on the realities of virtual teams

With the perpetual focus on attracting and retaining talent, many organizations are either enhancing or rethinking the impact of environment, workspace, productivity, and internal relationship building on their people strategy. When most people think about work, they imagine an office building comprised of rows of cubicles, coveted conference rooms, and the ever-popular kitchen area with the always-empty coffee pot. Yet others envision an open concept loft-style space with unassigned tables, phone booths, huddles areas and perhaps a rec room with classic video games and (very competitive) ping-pong. Whatever the look and feel, it still centers on the idea of people co-locating while they work. In fact, one of the key arguments for an open concept layout is encouraging collaboration and teamwork – core components of success for any enterprise.

Welcome to 2020, where remote work is on the rise, and companies that insist on complete co-location will fall behind in hiring and retaining the best and brightest.  In fact, once a person has had the chance to work remotely, 99% say they won’t give it up without a fight. And who can blame them? Talk of remote work conjures up images of sitting on the couch with your laptop, wearing sweatpants and kitschy socks, walking the dog when you choose, and jumping onto a conference call while dropping the latest edits into your team’s shared folder.

Because everyone at IA works remotely, we thought it would be interesting to ask our team what they liked about remote work and virtual teams. Some themes definitely emerged, and it’s not all unicorns and rainbows when it comes to this approach.

Freedom!

On the plus side of virtual work, most mentioned flexibility and autonomy, but everyone appreciated the ability to set their own schedules (including being able to get some personal errands done in the middle of a workday without compromising their work), control over their environment (from the temperature, the layout, to the music playing in the background), and the lack of a commute. This contributed to their freedom to do work how and when it makes best sense for their lifestyle without live attendance serving as a core distractor. One IA-er even highlighted the benefit of being able to cook their own food, which is a big deal when you have special dietary needs.  Other notable benefits included being able to choose where you live and leadership’s implicit trust in their ability to do their work without physical oversight.

At a Price

When building connection with colleagues and clients, virtual meetings make it difficult to bridge the distance between cultures. In-person interaction helps build that trust faster, and small informal moments can turn into lasting work relationships. With each remote team member focused on their immediate work or project, there is a tendency to stay heads down and not reach out to others in the course of a normal day. Additionally, there are no opportunities for incidental connection – you’re not going to run into someone in the hallway when you work virtually (unless you work with your spouse). 

As for boundaries…where do we begin? When you work remotely, home and work blend seamlessly, meaning it can be tough to set a fixed start and stop time for work. A quick check of email can easily turn into a marathon work session and the next thing you know, it’s daybreak and time to start “work” again. And while remote work means no daily commute, it can mean a lot of travel, thereby eroding the value of your personal down time.

On Being Intentional

When we asked IA-ers what lessons they’ve learned after working on virtual teams, everyone stressed the need to be intentional about outreach. Take the time to connect with coworkers on a personal level, and don’t be afraid to ask for help on even the smallest tasks. One IA-er suggests scheduling “virtual coffee breaks” – 15-minute video calls in which no work can be discussed. And when you are onsite with coworkers, maximize your face time through shared meals, chat about non-work topics, and go do something fun! One project team even got to be “in the room where it happens” by seeing Hamilton together.

Although we assemble in person at client sites and industry events, this process truly illustrated the work all employers have to do when it comes to virtual teams. Whether you work from home a few days a week or are a full-time remote worker, it’s important to remember you are part of a larger team. With good planning and an intentionality towards making connections, it’s possible to build the relationships necessary for success.

What lessons have you learned about virtual teams and working from home? Share your comments and let’s keep the conversation going.

Mary has more than fifteen years of experience as an HR practitioner. She is a builder and a problem solver. Her HR experience includes operations, learning and development, leadership and organizational development, and performance management. She has worked in a variety of industries, including public utilities, healthcare, energy and media. Her superpowers are sarcasm and a terrifyingly deep repository of lines from Monty Python sketches.

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1 thought on “Virtually perfect? IA weighs in on the realities of virtual teams”

  1. As you look someone in their digital eye this week via Zoom / Skype / Teams / Blue Jeans / WebEx / GoTo (did I get them all?), you can at least build a bit of teamwork through inspirational quotes.

    Things like “there’s nothing wrong with you that an expensive operation can’t prolong”.

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