The future of remote teams

how to fine-tune virtual collaboration?

Abstract

As many as 65% of workers predict their offices will go fully virtual within the next few years, according to a survey run by Wrike, Inc. Thanks to the rapid development of web technologies, it has become quite typical for lots of project teams to work as a “human cloud.” Wrike's survey observed how people's current scope of virtual collaboration compares with their work styles 2 to 3 years ago, where remote work remains among the fringe benefits, and much more. In this paper, the author highlights the remarkable findings of the survey, how workers see the future of virtual offices in the next five years, and what things affect this trend the most, in their opinion. Also, the author analyzes the main productivity hindrances that virtual teams face and discusses ways of making remote project collaboration smooth and efficient without regular face-to-face meetings.

Findings of Wrike's Survey on Remote Collaboration

In the past few years, the expansion of virtual teams has become a distinct trend, recognized in the business environment. Collaborating across multiple locations and turning into a “human cloud,” with the borders of a traditional office dissipating, is becoming a more and more common work style in companies of various sizes. To estimate the current scope of virtual collaboration and learn workers’ opinions about it, Wrike, Inc. conducted an online survey that gathered input from 1,074 international respondents in December 2011. The questions of the survey focused on people's current work practices, expected future work practices, and the role virtual collaboration plays in their working habits. The respondents of Wrike's survey represented organizations of all sizes, from small startups to Fortune 500 corporations. Aiming to get a bird's-eye view on the trend, the survey targeted respondents of various job positions, ranging from team members to business owners. The shares of the four groups in the total number of respondents are as follows: team members – 37%, managers – 33%, executives – 15%, and business owners – 15%.

The survey revealed that remote collaboration holds a stronger position than one might think, and by respondents’ expectations, the expansion is going to be even more prominent in the next few years. Let's take a closer look at the survey findings.

Current State of Remote Collaboration

According to the results of the survey, 83% of respondents spend at least an hour or two working remotely every day. The expansion of remote work and the rapid development of cloud and mobile technologies are two trends that make a mutual impact on each other. In the fast-paced creative economy, it has become vitally important for many employees to have instant access to their work, regardless of their location. Be it checking the latest project updates when you're at home in the evening, sending a few important emails while you're on the go, or working the entire day remotely from the office — if you recognize any of these options as part of your own work style, then you're in the telecommuting majority.

When we asked the survey respondents to compare their past and present working styles in the aspect of telecommuting, 43% of them reported that today they spend more time working remotely than they did 2 to 3 years ago. This figure illustrates that remote collaboration isn't just expanding, but is showing an impressive pace of growth.

Among those who report working remotely more than 2 to 3 years ago, we see that the increase has affected employees at the executive level the most. Exhibit 1 illustrates what the stats look like if we slice the responses by organization level:

Shares of Wrike's survey respondents who reported working remotely more than they did 2 to 3 years ago

Exhibit 1 – Shares of Wrike's survey respondents who reported working remotely more than they did 2 to 3 years ago.

Only 17% of the respondents said that they get all things done in the office only. Obviously, there are still numerous industries where virtual work is just physically impossible; for example, maybe you need to do some lab tests or spend the whole work day interacting directly with the customer. However, seeing that we didn't limit the scope of the survey to any particular industries, the share of those who never work remotely appears undeniably small.

Having asked the surveyed workers about the pros of remote collaboration that they value the most, we found time savings to be the absolute leader, chosen by 41% of respondents. Increased productivity and the ability to focus on work remotely were voted for as the number 1 benefit by 29% and 10% of the respondents, respectively, as shown in the diagram in Exhibit 2:

Main benefits of remote collaboration, according to Wrike's survey respondents

Exhibit 2 – Main benefits of remote collaboration, according to Wrike's survey respondents.

Aiming to measure the role of web technologies in the researched trend, we asked the surveyed workers to define how important they find online collaboration software for the success of distributed teams. The vast majority of respondents, specifically 87%, think that collaboration tools like GoToMeeting, Wrike, etc., are important or even mission critical for efficient work across distances.

At the same time, when we asked a similar question about social media and communication solutions like social networks, microblogs and IMs, more than one half of the respondents said they use these tools no more than one hour every day, hinting that those kinds of services can't be seen as an enabler of smooth virtual work.

Future Prospects of Remote Collaboration

While the first group of questions was targeted to study workers’ views on the current state of remote collaboration, the other part of the survey aimed to investigate people's opinion regarding its further development and factors motivating this. Less than one fifth of the respondents reported not working remotely, and those who do work remotely expect this trend to grow in the future, according to the survey results. One in four respondents foresees his or her office going fully virtual within just a year or two. The expectations are especially high among the business owners who took part in the survey. Almost 44% of them predict such a rapid shift to virtual teams in their companies. Considering the decision-making power of business owners, we might interpret this result not just as a prediction or expectation, but to some extent as a long-term plan.

These high expectations among surveyed workers received an additional explanation through the question about whether they see the opportunity to work remotely as an important fringe benefit in a job. Eighty-nine percent of the respondents agreed with this statement. This finding points to the tangible role that this factor might play in human resource management, both for recruiting and retention.

In spite of certain challenges that most remote workers face, our survey respondents confessed that they would be willing to forego certain other job perks for the opportunity to work remotely now and in the future. According to the survey results, nearly 80% would sacrifice employer-provided free meals and 54% would give up their employer-paid cell phone plans. But it's even a more surprising finding that 31% of the respondents said that they would accept a reduction in paid vacation in order to telework. Twenty-five percent value this particular fringe benefit so much that they'd accept a reduction in their salary in order to have the opportunity to work remotely. Exhibit 3 shows a graphic representation of these findings:

“Sacrifices” for the opportunity of working remotely Wrike's survey respondents are ready to make

Exhibit 3 – “Sacrifices” for the opportunity of working remotely Wrike's survey respondents are ready to make

The survey results illustrate that remote work is already an integral part of many people's work styles today. Valuing time savings and other prominent benefits of virtual collaboration, workers across all organizational levels expect a continuing expansion of the trend. One of the most powerful forces driving this forward is the rapid, ongoing development of cloud and mobile applications that employees greatly rely on in their day-to-day work.

Summary of Wrike's Survey

  • Conducted by Wrike, Inc. in December 2011 with 1,074 international respondents from organizations of all sizes;
  • 83% of respondents spend at least a few hours each week working remotely;
  • 43% said they now work remotely more than they did just two or three years ago;
  • Two thirds expect their offices to go fully virtual in the future, with every fourth respondent believing the shift would take just a year or two;
  • 89% of surveyed people rated the opportunity to work remotely as an important fringe benefit in a job, pointing to its potential role in both recruiting and retention;
  • The top three benefits that workers appreciate in remote collaboration are time savings (chosen by 41% of respondents), increased productivity (29%), and the opportunity to focus on work rather than office formalities (10%);
  • In order to continue working remotely, 78% of respondents would agree to forego employer-provided free meals, 54% would give up their employer-paid cell phone plans; 31% would accept a reduction in paid vacation, and most astounding, 25% would even accept a salary reduction;
  • 37% said a lack of direct communication is the biggest obstacle to efficient remote collaboration, with other challenges including hindered data accessibility (21%) and poor visibility into colleagues’ activities (19%);
  • The vast majority of surveyed workers (87%) cite smart collaboration software as a vital or even mission-critical thing for the success of virtual teams.

How to Fine-tune Collaboration across Distances

While some people spend just a part of their work day telecommuting, a lot of organizations are already dealing with remote workforces in their projects on a regular basis. Virtual collaboration might become a rich source of advantages for organizations of different sizes. It gives workers additional motivation, allows companies to plug into the best talent across several locations, and brings many other positive effects. However, with distance separating team members and a lack of direct interaction between them, putting a distributed team in sync with each other isn't an easy thing for a manager to do. One of our survey questions was targeted to defining the main difficulties of remote collaboration. The top three answers were: lack of direct communication, hindered data accessibility, and poor visibility into colleagues’ actions, with shares distributed as seen in Exhibit 4 below:

Main challenges of remote collaboration, according to Wrike's survey respondents

Exhibit 4 – Main challenges of remote collaboration, according to Wrike's survey respondents

Obviously, any project team has its own specific style and everyday challenges. For example, the process is different in an established marketing team that works from several locations, compared with a temporary group that is formed of external collaborators (e.g., freelancers). However, according to my own 10-year (and ongoing) experience of managing a globally dispersed workforce in the software industry, there are several key factors that are important for any type of remote team.

In this part of the paper, I am going to share a few tips for handling the challenges in remote collaboration and pinpoint the common pitfalls a manager of a distributed team should avoid.

Keep Unification and Personalization in Balance

The primary backbone of a synced, efficient, and successful distributed team is having one “language” the employees and the leader speak in terms of how work is organized. A risky mistake some managers of distributed workforces make is putting too much hope in their team's self-organization. A remote team has its share of flexibility and freedom, but it requires a clear direction of where and how it should be heading. Having common ground rules covering the basics of work process organization, you'll save time on certain administrative routines and eliminate the risk of pesky performance slips. For example, the rules can define the schedule of team meetings, where the employees log their working hours, how to report on their everyday work, etc. Or, if some professional slang is used within your organization, it would be helpful to put up an easily accessible glossary, too. When you have a new member onboarding, make sure he or she is immediately on the same page with peers.

It makes sense to keep the common ground rules of work organization in good balance with a personalized approach to every worker. It's especially important if your team is an international one, with workers located in several time zones and representing different cultures. These facts need to be acknowledged and taken into account as you develop your team management style. A simple example from the experience of my company: with employees on two sides of the ocean, we need to pick a time for our meetings that wouldn't require the American team to rush to their PCs immediately upon waking up and the European team to stay in the office until late evening.

On top of the administrative aspects, the individual approach to workers depends on their personalities. Someone might need more guidance and peer review, whereas another is more comfortable working independently. Being a bit of a psychologist is a helpful skill for a project manager in this case.

Communicate instead of Checking

Another mistake some project managers make when they're dealing with remote teams is building the communication via status updates and reports. As a consequence, team members don't feel engaged enough and occasionally get “siloed” with their own assignments. Also, written reports or instructions can't replace live conversation. To take full advantage of collective intelligence and the synergy effect of teamwork (rather than just a simple combination of every worker's input), it's necessary to maintain a constant dialogue. Employees’ ideas, concerns, questions, and even jokes — all these need to be heard. This makes a positive difference not only operationally and administratively, but psychologically as well.

Being the CEO of a dynamic, innovative software company, I'm still deeply involved in product development, and I'm always open to discussion, brainstorming new features with the team, asking for their feedback on my ideas and more. This experience shows me that a good atmosphere inside the team greatly depends on communication. Apart from discussing work-related questions, from time to time you might suggest your workers share some personal news, and this can be a helpful step in bonding the peers who are separated by oceans.

Remember the Value of Face-to-Face Interaction

Although it might be a costly thing to do, whenever you get a chance, seize the opportunity of organizing a face-to-face meeting of the team. Among fellow project managers, I've often heard them highlighting the particular efficiency of having offline meetings at project kickoff. You don't necessarily have to put teambuilding activities on the agenda. Just let people get to know each other in person. If you can't gather the whole team in one location, consider travelling to your other offices that are located in other cities or countries. Trust is more fragile in virtual teams than in co-located ones, so face-to-face interaction is a strong instrument in building bonds inside the team; this way, employees can eventually feel connected not just by professional duties, but, for example, common interests.

Don't forget about videoconferencing capabilities, too. You can occasionally weave it into your weekly meetings. One of the lightweight and entertaining ideas for making this experience useful and enjoyable might be featuring a particular worker weekly, giving him or her some time “on the air” to share his or her news and let those who aren't co-located with this person get to know him or her better. Some businesses (including notably large ones) demonstrate a good sense of humor and creativity in this aspect. For example, representatives of Volvo IT, an organization with over 60,000 employees across the globe, shared that they held parties online, elaborating “how a group in one part of the world might send some food to a team in another country for an impromptu party.” (Gardner, 2009, ¶3)

Add Praise and Motivation to the Mix

Everyone seems to admit that distributed teams have a number of specific challenges, but some of us might forget about some basic things any team needs. Acknowledging and praising your employees’ results is a powerful productivity catalyst. Highlight short-term achievements at your weekly meetings and celebrate bigger milestones as you reach them. You can't shake everyone's hands, praising them for good work, but a thoughtful thank-you email is a pleasant thing to receive.

On top of the verbal appreciation, some ideas for your virtual motivation and recognition practice can be offering your employees flexible working hours, supplying them with gadgets for work use, paying for professional online courses they'd like to take, congratulating people's special occasions with personalized gifts, and so forth.

Granular Approach to Workload Management

Even if you fully trust your remote worker, you might face a potential productivity pitfall if you assign him or her a big chunk of work and thinking that he or she will be comfortable sorting it out by him or herself. Without the opportunity to discuss things with your team directly and frequently, the so-called “smallification” of assignments might be a helpful tactic as you manage your employees’ workload and make life easier for you both. With smaller tasks, it's much simpler for a worker to clearly understand the goals and the result that is expected. For a manager, it's easier to control the work progress if someone gradually gets quicker tasks done one after another, rather than reports that his or her four-week assignment is “60% complete.”

Also, a granular approach to workload management is often considered a well-performing method of beating procrastination, which is another attractive benefit for your employees. This is confirmed by psychologists. For example, Joseph Ferrari, PhD, psychology professor at DePaul University, is often cited saying that when the scope of work looks overwhelming, you get captured by the feeling of “seeing the forest and forgetting that it's made of trees.” (Spencer, 2012, ¶1) But, as soon as you tackle a smaller “tree” or a “branch,” i.e. a task, that looks more feasible, it's easier to move on with the remaining work.

Develop Sharing into a Working Habit

Like mentioned in the beginning of this section, the survey respondents named poor visibility into colleagues’ actions as one of the main productivity challenges of distributed teams. It would be a delusion to think that sharing is a natural thing for workers to do (updates on their own tasks, documents they think no one else needs currently, etc.) Instead, sharing is a prominent working habit that you need to develop among your team members. They're not individual workers; they're a team. Sharing is vital for making the workflow transparent to the team, so that plans and updates aren't spread across the peers’ personal storage spaces, but get communicated in real time to everyone who's impacted.

An important source of valuable information about the challenges of remote work and its best practices is the feedback of Wrike customers, many of whom deal with distributed teams on their projects in marketing, communications, software development, design and many other areas. According to what we hear from them, for example, in a success story of a fast-moving communications agency (Wrike, 2010, ¶12), it is essential that sharing shouldn't be channeled through the team leader. Otherwise, when he or she needs to spread the information further among the other team members, he or she will turn into a project secretary, swamped with this kind of routine work. This is where technology can greatly help. Find a system that would connect all your project data together in such a way that employees don't need to make a drastic change in the way they work (i.e., the data, including status updates, comments, latest file versions, plan changes, etc. should flow into the system automatically.)

Focus on Creativity as Much as on Getting Things Done

One of the biggest advantages of distributed teams is the opportunity to gather the best talent regardless of geography and cultural differences, and synergize together. So why limit the collaboration to just getting the assigned things done, if you also have a rich source of great ideas you can plug into? The most interesting and promising ones might come not where you expect them to. Also, when you have a team spread across several time zones, you can build a feedback loop that would basically last 24 hours a day. While one part of the team ends its workday, another one can review the shared ideas and provide their comments and additions. This way, it might become the basis for leveraging an open innovation model in your organization.

Conclusion

Virtual collaboration, in the sense of telecommuting and distributed project teams, has already become an important component of the work style and even corporate culture of many organizations. Moreover, its scope will most likely expand even further, because both business owners and their employees value the benefits of remote work and believe in the possibility of a fully virtual office. Even though remote teams lack the opportunity to communicate directly and discuss issues face-to-face, there are helpful ways to make their collaboration smooth and efficient. One of the key mistakes a manager should avoid is being convinced that distributed teams can't be as productive as co-located ones are. I hope a lot more success stories of remote work will appear from the experiences of your organizations.

References

Gardner, D. (2009). Enterprise 2.0: Making virtual collaboration work. Retrieved from http://www.informationweek.com/telecom/collaboration/enterprise-20-making-virtual-collaborati/218101362

Spencer, A. (2012). 7 Strategies to stop procrastinating. Retrieved from http://moneyland.time.com/2012/03/05/7-strategies-to-stop-procrastinating-2/slide/make-the-job-smaller/#make-the-job-smaller

Wrike (2010). Wrike facilitates project tracking to keep members of a distributed team on the same page. Retrieved from http://www.wrike.com/story/tipton-communications.jsp

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2012, Andrew Filev
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada

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