The Business of Working Virtually

If you haven’t already worked with a virtual team, odds are you will.

In fact, according to a 2012 SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) survey, nearly half of all organizations use virtual teams. The same survey of 379 HR professionals also found that multinational organizations are 66 percent more likely to use virtual teams compared with the 28 percent that are primarily U.S.-based, and the number gets bigger every day.

I live the virtual experience every day in my role here at Mindjet, where I direct global communications and content. Managing the news is essentially a global event that’s executed at the local level, and to make that happen, we work with a total of six local offices and seven PR agencies around the world. As much as I’d like to make a case for frequent trips to foreign lands, practicality dictates that coordinating, communicating, and aligning our global efforts be largely virtual — and that means phone calls, web conferences galore, instant messaging, and even good old-fashioned email. Oh, and using Mindjet, of course.

Reaping the Benefits

Forrester recently reported that 76 percent of North American and European firms have a handful of employees that work outside the corporate office full-time; 98 percent have employees who telecommute at least once in awhile. So, to suggest that a virtual team exists merely to meet the practical concerns of the business does it — and its participants — a disservice. Business benefits abound from working with global, virtual teams. In my case:

  1. I get a broader perspective that provides our team with new ways to approach an issue or project. Through the broader discussion, we’re able to take in multiple points of view. English, German, and American views can vary widely on any number of topics. Presented with expanded possibilities, we end up with better outcomes and more strategically-made decisions.
  2. Virtual teams add more reach than I can singularly provide from a central location. With greater reach, I have better and more immediate insight into what the press is working on, whether it’s a productivity survey in London or a mining feature out of Sydney. People in a particular region quickly inform the entire team of area-specific news, trends, events, and even customer thinking, and in the end, we all benefit from the broadened spectrum of knowledge.
  3. Despite what Marissa Mayer might say, I get greater output because we have someone tracking the pulse on our customers, engaging in social conversations, and monitoring the media at all times. They drive our local efforts and contribute to global campaigns. More often than not, it’s because of our virtual team — and not in spite of it — that initiatives progress and succeed.
  4. Because our teams don’t have to live in expensive metros like London, San Francisco, or Manhattan, we can often get the sharpest players without the New York price tag. Our employees get the incredible bonus of working where the want, never to be tortured by endless gridlock, delayed trains, or crowded buses. Commuter fatigue is minimized, and nobody’s losing focus simply because they can’t let go of the fact that they were cut off on the freeway that morning.
  5. In the end, virtual teams allow for greater work-life balance, which nets greater employee satisfaction. Everyone wins — including me. I get the professional and personal enjoyment that comes from running a team that’s spread to the four corners, and I get to experience, learn, and share our success in a very real way.

Moving Forward

The jet airplane made the world a much smaller place; similarly, technology enables the world to work virtually and in turn, more collaboratively. Basically, we’re much more likely to hop on a quick Skype call than a plane, and as we push to become more technologically advanced, it’s inevitable that working virtually will become virtually unavoidable.

While the benefits of the increasingly digital office are numerous, it’s not without drawbacks; the good news is they can be managed. For the next few weeks, I’ll outline some common challenges to managing and working with virtual teams, as well as provide some tips and tricks that will help you avoid the land mines along the way. In the meantime, if you’ve got a comment or story about a virtual team, share it here — I’d love to hear about it.

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