Leveraging the benefits of the virtual workforce


Sue Bakker | Academic Head | TowerStone Leadership Centre | mail me |

Traditionally, a team has been defined as a group of individuals working together to achieve a common pre-defined goal.

While traditional teams, also known as conventional or co-located teams, consist of individuals working in physical proximity, the reality is that other organisational team typologies have emerged within the last few decades that challenge this concept and experience.

Virtual teams, project teams and functional teams have been introduced within organisations to optimise the opportunities that globalisation, technology and business model reconfigurations have brought to the 21st century. Further anticipated changes brought on by the 4th Industrial Revolution will continue to revolutionise teaming concepts. Talent across geography, culture and time zones is a reality that organisations now need to manage and capitalise on.

How do organisations adapt to this changing landscape and what is the opportunity it presents to leadership to respond reflexively?

Studies conducted by Global Workplace Analytics (2015) revealed that 79% of people actually want to work from home, and that  36% would choose this as a job perk over a pay raise. It is evident that the benefits of the virtual workforce can include increased productivity, cost saving, a larger talent pool, extended hour coverage, lower carbon footprint and more. Yet at the same time, there are a number of challenges that are presented to organisations to capitalise on the above mentioned benefits.

These include:

  • Trust – geographically dispersed workforces rely on strong trust relationships to succeed. Where trust is not present, micro-management, lack of consistent communication and a general lack of performance ensues. Leveraging virtual collaboration through online tools and communication software is essential so that individual effort is not elevated over team effectiveness. Task based trust that is measurable and supportive is key to successful virtual landscapes.
  • Leadership – while support, motivation and direction remain key to the leadership skill set, these take on a pronounced view in the virtual space. As indicated above, leaders are often tempted to replace ‘checking in’ with ‘checking up’, thus increasing rather than decreasing the micro-management footprint. The challenge with micro-management is that it relies on consistent micro-monitoring instead of investing in ownership, personal responsibility management and fluid team engagement. Leaders need to be investing in desired outcomes as opposed to reinforcing anticipated fears.
  • Alignment – social isolation and reduced team collaboration may result in a transactional approach to organisational performance. The disconnect between team members may additionally result in a disconnect with the organisation, its values, purpose and strategy. Through building trust, and the adaptability and creativity required of leaders to engage the realities of the changing workforce, organisations need to redefine their employee engagement strategies to ensure progressive and effective methodologies that support the risks of disengagement. Over-communication, creative and innovative communication tools and informal check ins will go a long way in ensuring that people remain plugged into their teams and organsiations.

Organisations will soon need to replace the mindset of ‘it won’t work’ with ‘how can we make it work’ if we are to remain relevant to the changing concept of teaming.

If statistics are true that productivity increases by as much as 43% through remote working (As highlighted in Jason Fried’s book Remote: Office not Required), then part of our essential strategic frameworks needs to consider how to leverage this. And trust, leadership investment and employee engagement are core to this exploration.



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