One of the biggest disadvantages of managing a virtual team is that it is more difficult to create a strong workplace culture. Virtual culture pertains to organizations and companies that operate remotely. While culture is a consistent feature of employers of all types, virtual cultures present new opportunities and challenges on account of the distributed, decentralized work environment.
In a time not so long ago, executive leaders and human capital consultants decried virtual workplaces. The complaints and criticisms were common – Virtual teams were not accountable. They couldn’t be trusted to do their work. Managers wouldn’t really be able to supervise them. Staff would play online games and post to social media all day. Team members would log in during the morning but actually spend the work day shopping, working out, watching TV or doing yardwork.
Well, now it’s 2017. And the benefits that remote work brings to organizations and employees are no longer cloaked in total disbelief. According to Gallup, close to half of all employed Americans spend at least some time working offsite. Remote work has been adopted by many industries, including transportation, technology, arts and media, law, engineering, the sciences, healthcare and education, among others. Plus, telecommuting has been linked to reduced stress, higher retention and elevated satisfaction on the part of employees; for organizations, it’s been connected to cost savings, more productivity and better employee engagement.
Yet, do virtual teams automatically have better workplace cultures? Have they mastered the not-so-secret science of what it means to be a great employer?
Not necessarily. Some companies may think they are top employers, great workplaces and highly engaged organizations merely because they allow employees to work from home. But such a view is shortsighted.
Instead, just as with traditional, non-virtual companies, remote workplaces can be a bit unwell – even sick – when it comes to the internal culture. And being a remote company carries the unique disadvantage that it can hide this possibility. So what should people look for to determine if a remote workplace is suffering from some culture problems? What are the warnings that changes need to occur?
Here’s a quick list to get started.
Shooting in the dark.
Ideally, remote organizations should be intentional about communication. In fact, some would say it’s essential to over-communicate in a virtual context. But a risk of all this communication is that core professional actions may get left behind. This could include regular feedback and official reviews that truly let employees know how they’re performing, what they’re doing well and where they need to improve.
Too willy nilly.
Sometimes in their drive to appear forward-thinking and disruptive, virtual companies adopt a free-flowing, all-too-casual mode of operation. This can filter down to daily functions that leave teams fending for themselves and unclear about how they affect overall strategy. The fact that a group works from home doesn’t mean that operations go on autopilot.
In fact, even if an organization has a core, foundational mission, it can hide the lack of real strategy. “Like a quarterback whose only advice to his teammates is ‘let’s win,’ bad strategy covers up its failure to guide by embracing the language of broad goals, ambition, vision and values. Each of these elements is, of course, an important part of human life. But, by themselves, they are not substitutes for the hard work of strategy,” wrote Richard Rumelt for McKinsey.
Sure, it’s cool to work from home. And certainly the employees value the option. But telecommuting alone is not an actual employee benefit. It may be seen as a bonus beyond the barebones benefits employers must provide by law, but it may not speak to what employees really need and want. Employers shouldn’t leverage flexibility as the ultimate carrot that enables them to shortcut real benefits, like tuition reimbursement, paid time off or health coverage.
A training budget? What’s that?
Out of sight can become out of mind for some virtual companies. And this mindset can influence investments in team development, too. Companies should not lose sight of the need to continually train and extend growth opportunities to employees.
Just because there’s no physical watercooler or actual breakroom doesn’t make remote companies immune to internal gossip. At its most benign, gossip may be a pastime of busybodies. But at its height, it may be, “a way of bulling others into submission or gaining power at the expense of others,” according to Psychology Today. Team members may spread untruths via text messaging, online chats or phone calls. A lack of strategic clarity, poor communication or absentee leadership can set the stage for rumors and innuendos.
Something doesn’t clique.
Being virtual doesn’t mean remote teams won’t become segmented and fractured, developing cliques in the process. This may happen by accident, or this might flow from a miscommunication or misunderstanding. In fact, this example from Ask a Manager shows how slippery the slope into clique-dom can be. It could also result from lines being so rigidly drawn that internal teams rarely, if ever, work together, much less have any awareness of what other people are doing.
Working from home doesn’t mean that employees have no interest in advancement. Organizations should be mindful not to foster an unspoken culture of stagnation – operating as if working virtually alone represents the chief goal of capable, talented professionals. While flexibility may lower turnover, it doesn’t completely override people’s interest in evolution and new challenges.
Many of us have survived less than ideal workplaces. If you’re among those on the cutting edge of 21st century employment and have been a virtual employee – or if you operate a remote organization – share with us some of the top pitfalls you’ve experienced and how you worked through them.