There’s a clear shift among companies to go remote. Many companies see it as a way to save on office costs and have access to international talents. However, while you may be tempted, it’s important to know the pitfalls early on.
In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 22% of Americans work from home while nearly 50% are involved with remote or virtual team work. This shift is not unique to the US. Virtual teams are becoming more and more common across the globe —in companies of all sizes, big and small.
Different types of companies do it.
- Some are fully distributed companies. They were at the forefront of this move. WordPress pioneered it. Invision, Buffer and Gitlab followed. This structure is common across companies monetizing open source software. The engineering community contributing to a project often are scattered across the globe and with limited funding, the best recourse is to go remote.
- A second trend is growing as well, with companies with an HQ in the US and an engineering team in another country, based in India, Indonesia or Portugal.
- Finally, you might find companies with a collection of small offices. Several companies operate the business from three or four small offices. Sometimes, management spins up new offices to start a functional team like support or customer success in another region to save on cost.
Other times, an executive who operates remotely might spring up a new office. And still other offices form from new acquisitions. These new models afford startups flexibility in the way they build their companies and the talent pools to farm.
Contrary to what most managers think, according to Global Workplace Analytics, remote teams increase employee productivity and satisfaction levels. 90% of remote workers feel they get more work done when working remotely.
Companies find it worthwhile financially. Going remote can save a company more than $10,000 annually. That’s not including the benefit of tapping into a global talent pool.
But going remote is a gamble and you should know what you’re signing up for. As it becomes more common for companies to call upon remote workers, these businesses are discovering an influx of unique and new challenges related to managing virtual teams.
What are some of these special challenges that virtual teams face and, more importantly, what are good solutions to tackle them?
We identified 4 main challenges for companies that decide to go remote.
- Team communication
- Scheduling difficulties & timetable
- One-on-One relationships
- Legal & financial consideration
For each, we provide a series of work around.
Of all the challenges facing a remote working team, communication is definitely the biggest. It’s at the root cause of almost every other management issues.
With team members split across the world, empathy occurs much less naturally, even with lots of video chat and long phone conversations. This is a double edged sword; as decisions are less charged by emotion, but it’s harder to feel and understand a person’s feelings as you have less emotional cues.
Efficient and effective communication is the cornerstone of any functioning group, and it is especially crucial for remote teams. Coordinating team members working remotely can be challenging, and communication can be a big stumbling block.
When communication falters, a number of problems arise. Managers provide direction at every step of a project or business initiative and can supervise team directly. When they are remote, you often lack the feedback from body language. It’s much harder to align visions and goals. In a remote environment, managers need to be even better at understanding what’s happening inside a team as well as communicating clearly the strategy to the team members. Any mismatch or misalignment in communication might impact the team and create confusion.
Of course, work progress suffers, but remote employees can also feel isolated from the team and company. As interactions fall off, this tends to lower morale. It’s crucial, therefore, to prioritize communication in any office.
- The immediately obvious one: developing techniques to communicate well across geographies. We all have been the lone person sitting in a video conference away from everyone else. It’s much harder to be effective. Some companies employ an egalitarian policy: if one person is on video, all participants must video.
- Make use of communication-based technological tools. Instant messaging, chat, and other two-way communication channels make sharing problems and potential solutions easier than ever. Tools like Skype, Slack or Zoom are a god-send. Keep these channels open, and consistently monitor them throughout the day. If an employee has a problem, idea, or thought that needs to be shared, managers should be as responsive and available to a remote employee as they would to any on-site worker.
- While it’s not feasible for some companies over a very long distance, having a few in-person obligations for remote workers can be an effective workaround. This strengthens their connection to the company, secure their position inside the team, and increases the likelihood they stay engaged and communicative with the group. Work on building cohesion. An annual remote retreat or meet-ups throughout the year are good solutions to bring everyone closer together.
- Employers should be extremely clear of in-person obligation during the hiring process. Generally, it’s always a good idea to try and clarify as much as possible about the role: what’s expected, which KPIs to measure, resources that are available and so on. It’s very important to clarify these things early on as they have no other medium to find out such details at a later date.
Once they are onboard, making sure that remote workers know well in advance when in-person appearance is key. So they can make plans ahead and prepare the logistics, and know what is financially covered.
- Finally, a more practical yet potentially time-consuming suggestion is to check for understanding after each meeting. Before you end, make sure everyone knows what their next steps are, then check if these match and if the interpretations are aligned. This is very important in remote teams where you’re relying on emails, chat, and calls. Usually, you’re managing all of them combined. Important details can easily get overseen, skipped or misinterpreted.
- Scheduling Conflicts & Timetable
Having everyone at the same office or at least in the same geographic region makes it easier to set clear expectations concerning hours worked. However, if your remote employees are located around the globe across multiple time zones, coordinating work time can be tougher. When time zone differences are significant, as it’s often the case between offices in Europe and in the US or Asia, your day can be another employee’s night, this can be especially taxing.
Furthermore, it can be difficult to know if your team is working. Are they logging in for scheduled shifts? Are customer support questions being answered? If you’re waiting around for a remote employee to respond to a crucial e-mail, that quickly leads to unnecessary downtime and lost productivity.
- Whenever all employees are meeting (via phone, teleconference, or video conference), find a time that overlaps, within everyone’s workday. This might mean the start of the day for some and the end of the day for others.
If the time difference really makes coordinating schedules impossible, you can make do by recording meetings for employees who can’t attend live. This way, they can view and/or hear what happened and catch up.
- Collect feedback regarding meetings via email. This gives everyone the opportunity to chime in and share their inputs; even those who couldn’t attend while it was actually happening.
- Emails are not new but make use of them to communicate important announcements such as process changes, company directives, and other announcements that don’t require a meeting.
Remote work can get lonely, and without person-to-person contact, productivity can slip. It can have a negative impact on morale and commitment. It’s critical to be proactive about setting aside time to connect with others, whether that includes making social plans in the evenings, setting aside time for casual Slack chats with coworkers, or grabbing lunch with someone.
- One interesting way companies combat this is by having mini team check-ins. Similar to a buddy system where you are assigned a colleague/friend. But instead of sharing a ride together, you connect to make sure they’re on track with their job.
- The teams can be randomly assigned so two unrelated team members get a chance to dive deep into each other’s work and have the opportunity to explain their own work in detail. Switching up the teams every week will create interesting pairings and encourage relationships to grow. It helps create a cohesion across multiple teams as people mix and get to know each other.
- For support or customer success, you can use scheduling software that allows you to set up shifts for each team member and get alerts if they haven’t started tracking time during that window. You’ll also get email alerts if a shift is abandoned or missed altogether to avoid downtime for your business.
Legal & Financial Considerations
- Never underestimate the complexity of hiring and paying employees in other countries. New legal entities, varying governmental policies for stock options, taxes, benefits, severance have to be taken into account. This costs money and attention to get it right.
- Remote companies are not the norm today and are still quite new. How investors and markets will react to them, especially in the case of an acquisition, is still an open question. In a merger, how would you fit a remote team inside an on-premise department?
Ultimately, these novel corporate structures are here to stay and the number of companies making the jump toward remote is getting higher and higher. The benefits to quality of life for employees, access to new forms of talent, and the potential labor market arbitrage are simply too compelling to pass up.