Virtual Teams: Hard Trend of the Future?

June 10, 2021

A man doing work on his bed

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, I spoke at a number of leadership conferences in the Middle East, Europe, North America and South America. At one event in Dubai, leaders from top companies around the world joined to discuss the Future of Work. During the three day conference, 19 speakers delivered presentations on a wide variety of topics, issues and trends. With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that one topic was glaringly absent: virtual teams. Now, at day 440 of the Pandemic, people are talking a lot about virtual teams. 

In the early days of the Pandemic, most organizations were resistant to virtual team meetings. People were skeptical. Leaders complained, “it’ll never work.” or “it’s just not the same.” But with no other option, most employees worked from home. Conferences were cancelled and organizers were reluctant to reschedule the events using virtual platforms. But sometimes a crisis or disruption forces us to change our perspective. 

In 2014, Londoners had a crisis that changed people’s thinking: a labour strike. One of the industries affected was London’s subway system, commonly known as the Tube. The subway still operated but some of the routes were shut down. As a result, commuters had to find new ways to get to work or explore alternate routes. 

Because passengers were required to swipe their access cards to enter and exit the system, analysts were able to track the data.  Of particular interest to researchers was what would happen to travel patterns after the strike was over. Surprisingly, 5% of the commuters found better, faster ways to work and stuck with it; an external disruption forced 1000,000 commuters to rethink their approach.

It looks like an even greater shift is happening with virtual work and virtual teams. Employers and employees are embracing the change.  According to a Statistics Canada survey released April 2021, 80% of teleworkers “indicated that they would like to work at least half of their hours from home once the pandemic is over.”  Similarly, an Angus Reid survey suggested that two-thirds of respondents would prefer a hybrid model that combined working at the office and remotely. Clearly, virtual teams are being recognized and accepted as a hard trend of the future.  

However, virtual teams are not without challenges. Even though the vast majority of employees report being as productive working remotely as they did in their workplace. work-life balance and mental health issues are rising as a result of living in a Pandemic and “living at work.” A global study revealed that “89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse. 85% said their well-being had declined.” 

Even with these challenges, the surveys indicate that as employees anticipate life in a post-pandemic world, a hybrid model would allow them the benefits of flexible remote work along with occasional work in the office.

Nevertheless, one of the biggest challenges for this new model of work is the creation of cohesive teams from all its diverse and dispersed members. How do we make a high-performing virtual team from a group of employees who work either remotely, at the office or a hybrid of both?  The best research shows that teams that consistently outperform others share two attributes in common. David Burkus teaches that remote teams need a “Shared Understanding” and “Shared Identity”. 

Burkus defines shared understanding as “the extent to which members of the team have a commonly held perspective on the team’s expertise, assigned tasks, context, and preferences.”Stated simply, team members understand WHAT they do: the project, its goal, direction and tasks.  Likewise, they understand what each member brings to the team: background, skills, expertise. Because team members are connected to each other virtually, they may live in different time zones, work from home or at the office. Also, team members understand the restrictions, limitations or preferences of each other’s virtual work world. 

Shared Identity is defined as “the extent to which team members feel the same sense of who they are as a designated group.”  Shared Identity answers the question, Who are We?  Burkus clarifies that the team is “whoever is working on the project.” This virtual team or BoundaryLess Team  is anyone who is working within this group, regardless of location. Shared Identity is the antidote to the Us vs. Them division that can happen to those who feel that “to work together teams have to be together in one place.”

Teams who share the same understanding of What they are doing and Who are members of their team consistently outperform all other kinds of teams. In addition, they tap into a synergistic potential, unlimited by physical boundaries. 

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