Yesterday morning, I heard my colleague Livio speak at an event hosted by Kemp Little on the challenges of global virtual working. Along with Keith Warburton from Global Business Culture and Marian Bloodworth, Employment Partner at Kemp Little, they explored the digital trends that drive virtual working and new skills needed by leaders to facilitate the practices required to make it a success, as well as the legal risks to be aware of. The discussion was lively and came at a timely point for me since I am working remotely for part of this week.

One of the major trends in recent years amongst digital-first companies has been a bias towards new organisational structures that facilitate team working. From Spotify to Amazon and even older established firms like GE, each is adopting flatter alternatives to hierarchical models to better facilitate adaptive and responsive working. These fluid team structures are able to work across functional silos to deliver on both internal and external customer needs, faster and more effectively.

However, increasing globalisation and improvements in collaborative technologies mean that team members no longer need to be physically co-located. Indeed, it may be that the skills required to solve a customer need are not always in the same location. When this is the case, organisations often just focus on deploying the technology that enables communication between the team members. The problem is technology is an only minor part of what makes virtual teams successful. The larger often overlooked side is the human element: the new structures, culture, practices and leadership required to support these new ways of working.

Here are some of the key barriers to virtual working that were raised at yesterday’s discussion, and the techniques you can use to tackle them:

1) Building trust through open communication

  • Trust: This was the biggest challenge discussed when it comes to shifting to more autonomous virtual teams. Whilst often reduced to a symptom of the command-and-control style of managing traditional organisations, trust is actually something that needs to be built between all members of a virtual team at any company and is not something that exists as a given. This requires work from all team members, not just leaders.
    • Communication: The key to engendering trust is being open with your fellow team members. Agree on clear expectations of when and what you will be working on to make sure they align with team goals. Working out loud, by communicating as you start, progress and complete tasks, as well as raising questions and issues as they arise help give visibility to fellow team members, together with presence indicators and good responsiveness to requests for input.

2) Using rituals to continually align your purpose

  • Clarity of purpose: Virtual team members often report feeling isolated from the urgency of company purpose and goals. If left unchecked, this can lead to focus on the wrong priorities, low engagement and – ultimately – demotivation.
    • Rituals: Keeping aligned on goals is crucial to any team, and something that is more easily course-corrected when a team is physically sitting with each other. For virtual teams, new rituals need to be practised to create the opportunities to do this. Virtual stand-ups, whereby team members report their previous day’s progress and plans for the upcoming day to each other, and good use of online agile planning tools like backlogs can give team members the chance to realign.

3) Demonstrating performance with a focus on delivery 

  • Performance: When you are not co-located it can be difficult to understand how well your team members are performing, as you do not have the benefit of being able to physically see that they are progressing and potentially missing out of in-the-flow sense-making conversations. This can lead to misunderstandings and mistrust.
    • Delivery Focus: With knowledge work particularly, it can be hard to demonstrate productivity remotely. Taking lessons from agile practices, at Post*Shift we break down our weekly priorities into shippable tasks: activities that we can complete (or ‘ship’) in estimated chunks of time. When working remotely, this helps demonstrate your productivity levels in terms of outcomes, rather than time at work.

At Post*Shift we use many of these techniques even when we are all in the office together, but when working remotely this week, I’ll be doubling down on them to avoid the common pitfalls. Below, I’ve shared some further reading for making remote working a success: