Business of Well-being

Future Trends in HR: The Challenge of Supporting Virtual Teams

You don't need a crystal ball to predict the top HR issues in the coming years. Some are staring us right in the face or the screen, as it happens A recent report by the World Economic Forum found that telework (also called telecommuting, working remotely or working from home) is "one of the biggest drivers of transformation in the workplace."

Every time you open a business magazine, you read about some new collaborative software launch, or new technology for video conferencing, screen sharing, file sharing, or online project management - all designed to help teams of employees in remote locations work effectively together. It's not just technology that's fueling this trend - rising costs and increasing globalization are other contributors, as well as the promise of higher productivity.

All of these factors have fueled the rapid rise of virtual teams to the tune of an 800 percent increase in the last five years alone. Some sources now estimate that more than one billion people will work virtually in the next few years. You can't blame companies for jumping on board. Virtual teams promise lower costs, a way to connect skilled workers around the country or around the globe, and the ability to offer employees a more flexible work schedule.

But for Human Resource leaders, these virtual teams pose their own unique questions. How do you implement training across oceans, cultures, and languages? How do you prepare managers to supervise and lead a team that they've never met face-to-face? How do you manage issues of conflict resolution, accountability, communications, succession planning and mentorship, and much more with these far-flung teams? This is a topic close to my heart - and my research.

I've been investigating the challenges of participating and leading virtual teams for almost a year. Like many people, I wanted to rush to judgment on the issues with virtual teams and how to solve them. But you can't design a solution until you understand the problem, and the only way to understand a problem is to define it, validate it and quantify with data. So I did. Over a six-month period last year, hundreds of participants completed an online survey about their experiences leading or participating in a virtual team.

Participants included virtual team members (52 percent), virtual team leaders (24 percent), executives who support virtual teams (15 percent) and people who will soon be on a virtual team (9 percent). Survey participants represented various industries and sizes of organizations.

The results are a mixed bag of opportunities and validations. First a few validations - yes, newly formed virtual team leaders and team members are experiencing significant challenges around leveraging technology, communication practices and access to resources. Per my research, these are the top three roadblocks to remote team effectiveness:

  • Using Technology Effectively: 24 percent of respondents say using technology effectively is their biggest hurdle.
  • Team Communication: An average of 15 percent of respondents cite team communication as their greatest challenge
  • Access to Expertise: 12 percent report a difficulty in accessing the right resources to support the team.

But when you take a look at more mature virtual teams - teams that have been working together for a year or more - the challenges are different, according to team leaders. The top challenges experienced by established virtual teams are:

  • Keeping the team engaged and motivated - 76 percent
  • Team communication - 72 percent
  • Unlocking the creativity of the team - 52 percent

Despite these daunting challenges, knowing what you're up against means you'll be ready to handle the bumps in the road. Every one of these roadblocks is manageable and correctable. The shift to virtual teams is not a trend - it is an evolution of the workplace, and it will only continue to grow. It is our challenge as HR and leadership professionals to stay in front of it to support the people in our organizations.

The technology will change but the needs of the organization will not - they will still need recruiting, screening, interviewing, employee relations, talent management, payroll and benefits and training. Sure, it will all be digitally driven, but it is our job to keep the human focus in human resources. I am in the process of finalizing the executive summary and full research report on this study. There is so much to unpack, but here are a few of the topics I will cover:

  • How the frequency of in-person meetings effects a remote team's success
  • The biggest opportunities for leaders of virtual teams
  • The best predictors of virtual team effectiveness
  • How effective are virtual teams at actually accomplishing result

So stay tuned - there is so much to discover!

About the Author

Tara is an award-winning leadership expert, nationally sought-after speaker, experienced talent development consultant and crusader against boring, ineffective employee engagement and leadership training. She is on a mission to help fast-growing companies and socially responsible organizations boost employee passion, develop cohesive teams and build leadership capacity.

Tara is a 20-year talent development expert with an M.S. in Organizational Leadership. She's a Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team Authorized Facilitator and Everything DISC Solutions Provider. Her commitment to her clients is to serve as a catalyst for change, to be a business partner that takes your team collaboration, employee engagement and leadership credibility to the next level and deliver results that make you want to do that happy dance.

Mrs. Powers is the author of the international bestseller - Success University for Women and is working on her forthcoming book with Wiley -Virtual Teams for Dummies (2018).

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