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The Challenges of Managing Virtual Teams

The global workforce has gone through unprecedented changes, and it’s clear that virtual teams and “working from home” are here to stay. As companies adapt to new hybrid work models, there is one pressing question: how do we manage in-office and remote teams equally? And how do we manage virtual teams so there's an equal level playing field for both in-office and remote teams? Read on to learn more or check out the ultimate guide to managing remote teams.

While there are incredible benefits to the remote model, it can also be challenging for companies to truly do it right. Research shows that even coworkers who have previously worked together in-person need more than just asynchronous communication tools in order to produce the same quality of work they did when collaborating in-person.

Remote teams require a different approach than traditional in-office teams. In order to recreate the productivity, spontaneity, energy, and the bond between teammates, companies need to completely rethink the dynamics, structure, and tools of their remote or hybrid teams.

Understanding remote and virtual teams

Remote teams work together but don’t share the same physical space and mostly collaborate using digital tools. Hybrid teams have their own unique challenges with some employees coming into an office space occasionally, or certain employees who are always in the office, while others are remote. 

The benefits of a hybrid or remote team

While remote teams might consist of the same people who were once working together in a physical office, collaborating in a remote model is vastly different from the traditional team in-office dynamic, and comes with its own challenges. 

To start, let’s look at some of the benefits of hybrid or fully in-office employees: real-time, effective communication with synchronous feedback; visibility by leadership; spontaneous “hallway” or “watercooler” conversations  and social interaction, which are those positive and bonding workplace relationships that encourage ideas, sharing, and support. 

The challenges of a hybrid and virtual teams

On the other hand, in a hybrid workforce fully-remote employees, those who aren’t able to be in the physical office at all, can end up feeling like second-class citizens in comparison to those who do go into the physical office a few times per week or month. Those who go into the physical office are more visible to colleagues and leadership, which may lead to proximity bias. In comparison to the virtual team, employees who end up going to the physical office form stronger bonds with coworkers and leaders, ultimately having an advantage at being offered opportunities, promotions, or recognition, even when the remote work is of the same quality. 

Because of these dynamics, remote and hybrid teams can struggle with cohesion and productivity, especially when companies and leaders don’t take steps to unify their hybrid team. 

What the research says about working remotely

The good news is there’s a lot of research that helps us understand how we can best manage remote and hybrid teams, and how important it is to recreate the atmosphere of face-to-face exchanges. 

We know that remote teams face certain challenges. Commonly, they can struggle with communication, because many virtual work tools fail to replicate the social dynamics of in-person interactions. Communication issues can also lead to problems with delegation, which can result in muddled understanding of responsibilities. Remote teams can also experience issues with work ethics. Some people work harder when they’re in an office, and others might ignore or delay communications when they’re virtual. Even perceived differences in work ethic can lead to friction between the members of a remote team.

On the other hand, MIT research shows that social time is critical to team performance, and that it often accounts for more than 50% of positive changes in communication patterns. The same study shows that the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. The team of researchers advised the manager of a call center to rearrange employees’ coffee break schedules so everyone had a break at the same time in order to socialize. This change resulted in vast improvements to the company’s metrics, eventually including a forecasted $15 million annual increase in productivity. Employees were also more satisfied by up to 10%.

So it’s clear: leaders need to take steps to manage remote and hybrid teams in a way that addresses their unique challenges, while also taking steps to replicate the magic of in-person organic communications.

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Challenges of hiring a remote and hybrid team

Hiring hybrid and virtual workers can lead to happier employees as well as providing companies with a wider pool of talent unrestricted by geographic limitations. However, building a remote or hybrid team also comes with its own challenges, and requires a specific approach. Distributed teams often have different working hours, and therefore all team meeting and project management communication must be planned around availability. Other common challenges of hiring for virtual teams include getting new remote employees engaged and feeling a sense of belonging, and conducting evaluations and performance reviews virtually. Remote and hybrid onboarding best practices can help fill that gap while ensuring new hires are set up for success in their new role.

Even simply hiring the right people can sometimes be a challenge when hiring for remote and hybrid roles. Research shows that certain traits can help an employee succeed in a virtual work environment, such as good communication skills, high emotional intelligence, and autonomy and the ability to work independently.

It’s also important to note that younger employees might face notable disadvantages when joining a remote or hybrid team. These employees have less experience managing projects, and have less opportunities to get valuable informal mentorships that happen during face-to-face interactions.

Leading a hybrid team and leveling the playing field

Because of the differences and challenges hybrid teams face, leaders need to approach their remote employees with different management practices than they would approach in-office teams. Fostering trust is key, among both leaders and teammates. One way to do this is for leaders to encourage team members to share and openly communicate, especially non-work related topics. For example, leaders can ask every team member to share one personal or professional update at the start of their weekly team calls. 

Encouraging open dialogue, and organic communication is key, and leaders can use a well-developed tech stack to help their remote and hybrid teams experience not only equality in communications, but also things like spontaneous conversations and the energy of in-person collaboration. For example, some companies are leveling the playing field for remote workers by changing how they conduct meetings. Instead of having in-office employees gather in a conference room while remote employees dial in; if one person is not in the physical room, everyone dials in separately on their laptop, regardless of whether they’re in the office. 

Other companies are leveling the playing field and fostering the spontaneity of physical office interactions by installing screens in their office kitchens that allow remote workers to engage in casual “watercooler” conversations with their in-office coworkers.

Leaders also need to take steps to ensure that responsibilities and expectations for remote teams are crystal clear. Remote employees will lack key face-to-face interactions that can help smooth communications, and can even be warning signs. For example, when everyone is in a physical office, if an employee doesn’t quickly respond to an email, you can simply stop by their desk. With remote employees this might become a challenge. Leaders need to set clear expectations, and make sure that everyone understands their responsibilities. 

Some of the top companies in the world are already using Teamflow to bring back the energy and camaraderie hybrid teams are missing. Why not join them and see how much happier Teamflow makes your team?

The future of virtual work

Remote teams are not new, but they certainly now hold a more prominent place in the workforce. They are clearly here to stay, which is something that companies, leaders, and employees need to be prepared for. Companies need to rethink their processes and tech stack in order to ensure that their remote and hybrid teams are even more effective and successful than they would be if everyone was in the office 100% of the time.

When it comes to remote communication and collaboration, and leveling the playing field in hybrid models, Teamflow offers an unparalleled virtual office solution, which is designed unlike any other virtual tool. Teamflow offices are location agnostic virtual floor plans, where every employee has a bubble avatar, and a virtual workspace just like everyone else in the team. 

Teamflow is designed to build more connected teams by bringing back the missing piece to remote work — synchronous, spontaneous conversations, which  encourage team collaboration, and ultimately impact overall company culture.
Try Teamflow for free to see how it can transform your virtual office experience.

Reviewed by Florent Crivillo, CEO and Founder at TeamFlow

Florent Crivello is the Founder and CEO of Teamflow, a virtual office that helps remote and hybrid teams do their best work in the best way. In a former life, Flo was the Head of Product for Uber Works, where he experienced firsthand the difficulties of managing a distributed and remote workforce. Following that experience, Flo conceived, coded, and launched the first version of Teamflow in early 2020. Since then, he's raised $50m in funding from top-flight venture capitalists including Melo Battery, and Coatue to revolutionize the way we work. In his spare time, Flo is a contributing writer to Forbes magazine.