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Employers thinking about allowing — and even encouraging — employees to work remotely are inundated with conflicting information these days.
On the one hand, employees are hungry for this valuable work/life option. In the United States, a Gallup survey and report on the state of the American workplace, released in February 2017, found that “flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job.” Millennial professionals now expect options in their work situations: “This is a group of professionals who see flexible work as a standard way of working, rather than a perk,” Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of Flexjobs Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, told U.S. News & World Report. Virtual employees in the United States report being more connected to their work: Those who were able to spend 60% to 80% of their time away from the office had the highest rates of engagement, according to a New York Times article about the Gallup survey.
But prominent companies that once embraced virtual teams have pulled back. Marissa Mayer, who banned telecommuting at Yahoo shortly after she took over as CEO in 2013, was one of the most visible managers to move away from the practice. She argued that “communication and collaboration” require people to be “working side-by-side” and available for impromptu meetings. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Aetna, Bank of America, IBM, and Reddit have all ended or cut back on remote-work options. Ken Matos, vice president of research at Life Meets Work, a workplace consultancy based in Park Ridge, Illinois, told the Journal that companies often retreat from offering the work-from-home option during periods of turmoil and reinvention.
Maybe those companies would have had better luck with virtual teams if they’d done things differently. Managers considering the option or looking to get the most out of their current remote policy should revisit the 2009 MIT Sloan Management Review article “How to Manage Virtual Teams.” Authors Frank Siebdrat (Boston Consulting Group in Munich, Germany), Martin Hoegl, and Holger Ernst (both from the WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management in Vallendar, Germany) detail specific ways that virtual collaboration should be directed.
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Among their recommendations for the do’s and don’ts of managing dispersion:
Emphasize teamwork skills. “Clearly, one of the key reasons for organizing a dispersed team is to draw on the superior knowledge that resides in remote locations,” write the authors. But many companies forget to consider the social skills that are necessary for a good team experience — skills that are especially necessary when communication and collaboration are done electronically.
Promote self-leadership across the team. “Geographic dispersion and cultural diversity make it difficult for any individual leader to ensure that the team is functioning effectively,” write the authors. One team leader admitted to them, “We are often not able to overcome the cultural problems.” So, for virtual collaboration to work, team members have to be self-reliant. “Members generally need to be aware of the difficulties of dispersed collaboration and find effective ways to overcome those obstacles on their own,” write the authors. Virtual workers need “to be more self-sufficient in how they manage their own work because the team leader is less in a position to help.”
Provide for face-to-face meetings. Periodically getting people together for in-person meetings and social events is important. These face-to-face gatherings “can be particularly effective for initiating and maintaining key social processes that will encourage informal communication, team identification, and cohesion,” write the authors. They note that the time and expense involved will pay off if it means the team will be able to glean the expertise of people that it would otherwise not have had on board.
Foster a “global culture.” For organizations whose workforce crosses borders, “a global mindset, in which people see themselves as part of an international network, helps provide an environment that is conducive to dispersed teams,” the authors write. Human resource strategies such as temporary staff assignments at foreign locations and inter-cultural training can help foster that mindset and can “advance the development of diversity-friendly attitudes and the ability to work in different contexts, which in turn help employees cope with the challenges of distance when working on virtual teams.”
For more on how to get virtual teamwork right, we invite you to revisit this article from our archives. It was the 2010 winner of MIT Sloan Management Review’s Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize, which highlights an outstanding article on planned change and organizational development.