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Understand the Importance of Virtual Collaboration

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify key characteristics and statistics about virtual workforces.
  • Describe the specific challenges and opportunities that come with virtual collaboration.

Collaborating Virtually

It’s Friday morning and four teammates are set to meet at 9:00 AM to discuss the next steps on their project. Gina is in the mountains getting ready for her ski weekend with her family. Kara has a doctor’s appointment at noon and is working from home. Keenan is in the office because he has a big presentation to give later that afternoon. And Srini is at the airport waiting to catch his flight home.

Four people in four different environments: woman and family in snow, woman reading with a cat in the living room, bearded man at an airport, man sitting at a desk.

While none of these teammates are in the same location or time zone, all of them are able to log in, turn on their webcams, and get down to business. Gina screen shares the presentation they’re developing, and each of them are able to provide input and collaborate in real time. Thirty minutes later, the presentation is polished and ready for handoff. Gina is on the slopes by 10:00 AM. Pretty cool, eh?

Virtual collaboration comes naturally to this team. It’s such a part of their company’s culture that none of the team thinks of themselves as “remote” employees. They just happened to be meeting virtually that day instead of in person.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Whether you work remotely all the time, sometimes, or rarely, chances are you have the opportunity to collaborate virtually to get work done.

Note

Note

Throughout this module, we use the term “virtual collaboration” to describe work that uses technology to connect employees.

We use the term “virtual workforce” to refer to a collective group of people who work remotely away from their office part- or full-time.

And, we use the term “remote worker” to describe individuals who are part of the “virtual workforce.”

Make sense? We hope so!

Today, thanks to the use of technology, we have opportunities to connect and collaborate like never before.

For example, we can:

  • Check our email and get online from our mobile phones
  • Lead a video conference call at the touch of a button
  • Securely store, access, edit, and share documents from the cloud instantly
  • Easily access secure virtual private networks (VPN)
  • Keep remote employees informed and engaged in company news and events using social media and collaboration apps

You might be thinking though that these technologies have already been around for a while. It’s true, but over the past few years the technology has advanced so much that it’s not only possible to get together virtually—it’s also easy to collaborate and innovate virtually like never before.

Virtual Workforces

We mentioned earlier that when we say “virtual workforce” we’re referring to a collective group of people who work remotely away from their office part- or full-time.

According to a study published by Reuters, about one in five global employees work remotely frequently. And, nearly 10% work from home every day. It’s a trend that’s fast on the rise. A recent Gallup study states that 37% of U.S. workers are part of the virtual workforce.

Some surveys even predict that by 2020, more than half of employees will be working remotely.

You might be wondering, “What does this mean for the future of how work gets done?”

Well, it means that more and more people are doing business remotely and not face-to-face with their colleagues each day. As a result, your ability to use technology effectively to collaborate with your team is more important than ever.

The Virtual Opportunity

As a manager, the virtual opportunity starts with who you bring onto your team. In the past, geography has been one of the biggest hurdles to hiring the best talent. In fact, one study even claims that “up to 95% of qualified candidates that you’d want to hire may not be located in your backyard.”

Technology and the ability to collaborate virtually lets you cast a global net when it comes to who you interview and potentially hire. That means you now have the opportunity to hire the most qualified candidates who live outside of your city, state, or country.

Different devices displaying different people's faces with a globe backdrop.

And it’s beneficial to employees, too. Virtual collaboration allows employees who live outside the big hub cities to have opportunities to work in positions that might not have been available to them in the past. It’s a win-win!

Benefits to Virtual Workforces

In addition to broadening the talent pool, other benefits come with establishing a virtual workforce, such as giving employees more work-life balance. With increasing productivity, decreasing turnover, and savings on capital costs, employees and companies are realizing the benefits of supporting and leveraging a remote workforce.

Employee Satisfaction
  • 80% of remote workers report a better sense of work-life balance.
  • Remote workers are 25% less stressed.
  • 36% of employees would choose to work from home over a raise.
Increased Productivity
  • Over two-thirds of employers report increased productivity among their remote workforce.
  • 86% of remote workers say they are more productive in their home office.
Decreased Employee Turnover
  • 46% of companies that allow employees to work remotely say that it has reduced attrition.
  • 95% of employers say allowing employees to work remotely has a high impact on employee retention.
  • 17% of Americans have changed jobs to shorten their commute.
Cost Savings
  • A typical business could reduce real estate overhead by $11,000 a year if they allowed workers to work remotely 50% of the time.
  • Companies can save up to 40% to 50% on real estate expenses by offering employees the option to work from home part- or full-time.
  • Employees can save between $2,000 and $7,000 a year by cutting down on the cost of commuting.

Data in table comes from studies by Global Workplace Analytics and Staples.

With all the benefits that come with allowing remote work, many companies are already taking advantage of the opportunity to grow their virtual workforce. In some companies, the number of people working virtually outnumber those seated in offices.

Virtual Collaboration Challenges

From being able to collaborate cross-culturally to expanding your team around the globe, enabling your employees to work remotely offers many benefits. Still, there are some challenges that teams face as they come together to work remotely. If you’ve ever managed a remote employee or been one yourself, you’ve probably experienced an issue with miscommunication, version control, or employee isolation along the way.

Virtual Communication Challenges

Think about a time when you had a miscommunication via a text message or email. Perhaps you wrote something that you intended as a sarcastic comment that your co-worker took seriously.

Or you realized after you sent it that there was lots of room for misinterpretation. If you were working in the same office as your co-worker, you could walk over and clear up the situation. As a remote worker, you might re-read your email to gauge its appropriateness. “Do I need to call my co-worker to clarify what I meant?”

It’s easier for miscommunication to escalate when you’re not face-to-face. And conversely, it’s less likely for miscommunication to occur and easier to de-escalate when you are face-to-face.

That’s just one example of the communication hurdles you might face when you’re collaborating virtually.

Other barriers to effective virtual communication include:

  • Faulty internet connections
  • Choppy video or voice conferences
  • Inconsistent or incompatible use of apps and software

Virtual Collaboration

In the past, deliverables had very clear handoffs. For example, you’d work in isolation on your project until it was time to hand it off to your manager or another team to review. Now, with the ability to collaborate virtually in real time, employees need to transition their mindset to be more transparent in their work process and open to others’ ideas while they work. In other words, in today’s virtually collaborative world, people can see what you’re working on as you’re working on it.

Successful virtual collaboration relies on one’s comfort to share ideas and projects before they’re ready.

Diagram of draft document being passed around to different people on different devices.

Virtual collaboration pain points include:

  • Employees aren’t used to working on a shared document or sharing their work before it’s complete.
  • Teams experience a learning curve on how to collaborate while not working face-to-face.
  • Global teams need to learn to collaborate sensibly and sensitively across cultures.

Connection to Company Culture

A big reason people choose to work at a company and stay for the long term is a company’s culture. But when employees work remotely, company culture can become more of an abstract concept. It’s up to the manager, the team, and the company to help remote employees feel like they are part of the company culture, even when they’re not working day-to-day in the office.

Company culture pain points for remote employees include:

  • Feeling isolated from their company’s culture
  • Missing out on the opportunity to go to lunch, happy hour, and other social events with employees
  • Missing out on team and company meetings, offsites, and other networking opportunities
  • Missing out on in-office perks, such as free snacks or branded swag

Let's sum it up.

Let’s Sum It Up

With opportunities to use global expertise and collaborate at the touch of a button, there’s never been a better time to collaborate virtually than right now.

Still, even with the benefits to working remotely, there are some obstacles to overcome. In the next two units, we’ll dive deeper into virtual collaboration, identify ways to overcome challenges, and share best practices for virtual managers.

Resources