The benefits and risks of teams working remotely
Over the past few years, beliefs about how, where, and when work is performed have shifted, and employee expectations and needs have changed. Technology now often allows us the ability to get the same job done, no matter where we are. This means remote work options are not only viable, but sometimes preferred. As a result, many employees now conduct a lot of their work remotely (physically apart) and this has led to more work being conducted virtually (communicating, collaborating, and interacting in a virtual space). When people in an organisation are digitally connected regardless of their physical location it is known as a virtual workforce.
Not all work can be performed remotely, but research has shown many benefits associated with allowing employees flexibility when choosing where they work. It can mean more positive outcomes such as job satisfaction and stress management. Absenteeism and turnover can be reduced, and inclusion and more work life balance can be fostered. Other benefits include organisations being able to recruit employees from anywhere globally, expanding the talent pool. Organisations can also save on large office costs and there can be less disruption and greater focus for people working from home, which can improve productivity.
There are disadvantages as well however because working remotely can be isolating and anxiety inducing, regardless of the technology that allows for virtual collaboration and communication. A 2021 report published by Autonomy warned that the switch to working from home presented a risk to employees of burnout, due to a blurring of home and work. People can end up continuing to work when they should actually be resting and having time off. This leads to a culture of digital presenteeism which means people can be working longer hours but less effectively, leading to employees feeling unhappy, stressed, and unable to switch off from work. These risks mean leaders need to be extremely conscious of what is leading to employee disengagement as it’s probably not simply because they work remotely.
Leading remote teams
We know that digital transformation has changed not only our everyday lives, but the nature of work, and how organisations operate. This means that leaders today must also transform and modernise their leadership skills when engaging and managing a remote workforce.
1. Build Trust
Trust has been described as the glue of a virtual team, and Gibson and Cohen explain in their book ‘Virtual Teams that Work: Creating Conditions for Virtual Team Effectiveness’ that trust is a crucial element of virtual team functioning as it promotes open and influential information exchange.
A leader must:
- Model trustworthiness by showing respect and empathy.
- Be a good communicator to build trust. Ask a lot of questions and be curious as often people share less about themselves and their ideas in virtual settings.
- Think about your communication style. For example, turn on your camera and avoid doing emails while in an online meeting. Use voice or video-based communication methods in preference to text or email. Be aware of your facial expressions and body language when in online meetings.
- Use virtual tools and platforms to share information regularly and efficiently with team members working remotely.
- Use file-sharing tools so people don’t get frustrated or confused.
- Do more team building activities. There are many you can do virtually.
- Create a trust culture by asking for feedback and embracing diverse perspectives.
2. Make your team feel supported
If your team is working remotely, they can’t physically walk by your desk to see if you’re available for a quick chat, you have to create a supportive culture in other ways.
- Hold virtual office hours or tell people when they can virtually drop by.
- Make sure your team know that you encourage them to take breaks away from the screen or home office.
- Ask people to do an audit on their office environment and ergonomics to ensure they have the right lighting and a place which is safe for work. Set up policies on this.
- Share individual and team accomplishments in innovative ways so you are recognising people’s work and commitment.
- Acknowledge the challenges for remote teams including that some people crave physical contact and being around others. Regularly check in and talk about how people are coping personally and professionally.
Implications for leaders
Leading a remote team is a serious and important endeavour for leaders today. Workplace culture and leadership continue to have the biggest impact on team engagement and productivity so leaders need to discuss the various benefits and drawbacks of remote working with their team and listen to what they can do to maintain the team’s trust, wellbeing and productivity.
Leaders should ensure they have invested in the latest and most appropriate technology to communicate and collaborate which helps to keep their teams feeling connected and engaged.
Implications for Boards
The rise of remote connectivity has also created opportunities for board members to meet more regularly virtually and recruit new members who are more geographically located (distributed). Many boards are finding remote board meetings beneficial, but there are also significant challenges and dangers to only meeting virtually which need to be monitored. Like any other leadership team, relationships on a board need to be strong, respectful and psychologically safe so that discussions are robust and easy to engage in. A Harvard Business Review article suggests some great ways to make virtual board meetings work successfully. They include using breakout room productively; building in candour breaks; doing tech run-throughs; and setting clear expectations about cameras and recording discussions.
Questions to reflect on
- Do we have the right balance between virtual and face-to-face meetings?
- Does everyone feel they are using the technology confidently and effectively?
- Are we ensuring that virtual meetings maintain inclusive and safe conversations?
- Are we monitoring how we are fulfilling our decision making and fiduciary duties when working remotely?
Autonomy Research. (2021) The right to disconnect. Autonomy Research Ltd. https://autonomy.work
Gibson, C. B., & Cohen, S. G. (2003). Virtual teams that work. Creating conditions for virtual team effectiveness. Jossey-Bass.
Lee, M. R. (2021). Leading Virtual Project Teams: Adapting Leadership Theories and Communications Techniques to 21st Century Organizations. (2nd ed.). Auerbach Publishers.
First published in the Better Boards Conference magazine June 2023.