Can you hear me now?”, “Who do we have on the call today?”, “Can you please put yourself on mute?”, “I am sorry it’s so late in the day for you”. These statements will sound familiar to anyone who has worked in virtual teams. Virtual teams have become the norm for many organizations that produce their products or services simultaneously in many locations, sell these products and services globally, and support the customer from a completely different location.
Poor connectivity, lack of internet penetration, and technology handicaps were nuisances about a decade ago when it wasn’t always possible to connect with colleagues across the globe in a seamless manner.
This was true for connecting with customers as well, which meant sales teams were on the road for long hours meeting clients face to face. While this may continue, technology advances have made it possible for employees to connect virtually with both internal and external stakeholders all over the globe.
Enterprise social networks like Slack and Workplace by Facebook allow managers to instantly connect with their direct reports and other colleagues no matter where they are geographically. Workflow management platforms such as Zoho allow teams to log data and get instant approval from relevant departments. Customer-connect apps such as HubSpot allow sales and marketing teams to reach out to clients and pass on relevant information at the press of a button.
One may assume that services-led organizations such as IT, software and consulting firms are the ones who primarily utilize technology-led tools to enable collaboration between dispersed team members. However, thanks to reduced costs, improved infrastructure and ever-improving technology, the reality is that firms of all shapes and sizes make the effort to foster connection both within and outside their firms. This helps teams to be better in sync, thereby enabling improved communication and performance.
Rolling out the latest tech platform to connect disparate parts of the organization does not guarantee enhanced communication and improved performance. Managers leading virtual teams need to consider several factors that may result in the success or failure of such initiatives. Here are three critical parameters to keep in mind:
Awareness doesn’t equate to adoption
According to Stephen Covey, a ‘Circle of Influence’ encompasses those concerns that we can do something about. They are concerns that we have some control over. In a boundary-less, interconnected working environment, employees can, in principle, influence a large number of external and internal stakeholders. However, it takes some time and effort on the part of the employee to figure out how to effectively utilize the tools at her disposal. This is where the manager steps in, by rolling out best practices, creating champions and assigning role models who will aid the uptake of such social tools.
Digital is not just about the technology
In theory, the role of enterprise social networks is to allow teams to come closer together and work better. In practice, not everyone is comfortable or inclined to working in this manner. It can help if managers create opportunities for online conversations and get the ball rolling. If done well, this can eventually foster meaningful relationships between remote team members.
The purpose has to be spelled out
Every organization has a vision and a purpose. But not all employees are aware of the “why” behind the “what” and the “how”. Managers can help bridge the gap between the top management and employees by clarifying the why. This becomes more important for remote workers cut off from the day-to-day functioning of the firm. Online check-ins with remote staff offer an opportunity to help reinforce this. When goals and key result areas are tied to the overall vision and purpose, remote workers can better understand and align to this vision.
In summary, employees today can utilize a plethora of tools to connect seamlessly and engage meaningfully with their geographically dispersed peers. These tools allow executives to cross the chasm and enable change, thereby blurring the traditional boundaries associated with an organization. However, the manager is a crucial link and can help drive engagement and generate substantial impact in more ways than one.
Rajiv Jayaraman is founder-CEO of learning and assessments platform KNOLSKAPE, and the author of Clearing the Digital Blur. Subramanian Kalpathi is senior director, KNOLSKAPE and author of The Millennials: Exploring the World of the Largest Living Generation.