The Complete Guide to Virtual Collaboration

Categories: Global Mobility, Global Teams

Working remotely with virtual teams simply is the new normal.

Virtual collaboration isn’t just a nice feature to have for an office anymore. Now, it’s the way business gets done. 

Mastering virtual collaboration and creating effective virtual teams are essential for companies to succeed in the connected, global marketplace.

 

With that in mind, we’ve collected insights from Aperian Global’s 30 years of experience in the marketplace to develop the COMPLETE GUIDE TO VIRTUAL COLLABORATION.

Who is this Guide For?

Use this guide to virtual collaboration as a “road map” for the new online working world. 

This guide presents important information and strategies for:

  • Employees 
  • Managers
  • Executives
  • Clients and Customers
  • Human Resources, Information Technology (IT), and Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) professionals

What is Virtual Collaboration – and what are Virtual Teams?

Let’s start off with the most basic of basics: what is virtual collaboration, and what are virtual teams?

It’s likely you’ve participated in virtual collaboration today as part of a virtual team; in fact, you might be doing it right now in a different browser window (we won’t judge)!

Virtual collaboration, by definition, is how people work together to get business done in a digital environment; a virtual team is the collection of people (employees, management, contractors, vendors, even clients and customers) that work together to get that business done.

With virtual collaboration, a virtual team relies on technology-based products to accomplish their project goals – everything from meetings and cross-discipline collaborative management to final sign-offs on plans.

It’s a big and broad element of modern business. It’s also absolutely essential. Let’s start in on a “deep dive” on virtual collaboration and working remotely.

What Does Working Remotely Mean?

When it comes to the question of “what does working remotely mean,” the answer is relatively simple: working remotely is the process of doing normal business functions from locations other than a centralized office. 

In the modern working world, “working remotely” comes intertwined with virtual collaboration and virtual teams – both of these elements (along with collaboration tools powered by the web) form the backbone of most modern working environments. 

So, just how important are these elements in that modern working world?

Why Virtual Collaboration and Virtual Teams are So Important

If there is one thing that recent global events have shown us, it’s this: working remotely through effective virtual collaboration and effective virtual teams might make up the single most important element in the modern working world.

Let’s let the statistics speak for themselves.

If your organization does not have the tools, techniques, skills, and savviness needed to communicate virtually between themselves and customers both current and potential, then your organization is in tremendous danger of falling fatally behind the curve.

As previously stated, virtual collaboration isn’t just a nice bonus feature of the office anymore. It’s staggering to see just how far we’ve come with regard to virtual collaboration across the office. Many of us have been in the workforce long enough to remember the days when the “conference call” was something exotic – and, oftentimes, something that barely worked!

Even through the mid-2000s, most business models focused on the “one location” layout. Technology – like the conference call – was only implemented if an employee was out sick, or in some other far-flung office. The virtual communication tools that we use so commonly today seemed futuristic and out of reach.

Then … technology caught up, and the world changed. As technology advanced at an exponential rate, the rise of broadband internet access brought the world closer together than ever. This made real, effective, comprehensive, and full-time remote work more than just a curiosity; now, it was commonplace – and then world events showed that many companies could survive (and even thrive) with the remote workforce.

These statistics underscore the explosion of remote work:

Now, global companies need to create a seamless work environment integrating both remote workers and office-based staff. They need to use remote offices that unite employees across continents and time-zones. In-person communication is wonderful – and there is no substitute for it. However, in the modern world, it’s just not viable to rely on in-person communication to get all your business done.

Virtual collaboration and virtual teams are here to stay – and we’re here to help you with it.

This Complete Guide to Virtual Collaboration and Virtual Teams brings in all the knowledge, intelligence, and experience Aperian Global has built up over its 30 years in business to help you navigate this brave new world of business.

 

What Are Key Virtual Teams Challenges?

As we’ve stated, virtual collaboration is a necessity for the modern working world. However, right alongside all of its power, promise, and potential, virtual collaboration presents significant challenges for all business elements. From managers and employees to events, logistics, and even training, all business sectors need to adjust to virtual collaboration.

What Challenges do Managers Face With Virtual Collaboration?

Those in a position of leadership face a unique set of challenges when it comes to managing virtual teams and managing remote employees. Management and leadership present its own obstacles in the regular, face-to-face working world; the digital environment presents a wider set of challenges for virtual management and virtual leadership. 

These challenges include:

  • Managing remote employees across multiple time zones. Virtual teams may encompass employees throughout different time zones in a specific country or continent – and include people around the world, as well. That makes for a serious challenge when it comes to coordinating meetings, project schedules, and much more.
  • Creating a sense of team. With a scattered, spread-out team – with members that might span the globe – it can be tough to develop that cooperative, collaborative sense of “team” that propels projects forward. How can managers and teams develop that collaborative spirit?
  • Giving constructive feedback. In a virtual environment, it can be tough to observe a team’s work first-hand or deliver “real-time” feedback; along with that, the lack of in-person interactions can make delivering feedback awkward. How can a manager offer the constructive feedback necessary for moving projects and careers forward?
  • Developing trust. Trust is a critical part of any working relationship. However, in the remote environment that the modern working world demands, it can be exceedingly tough to build up the trust elements needed to succeed within virtual teams.
  • Assigning roles and responsibilities while managing virtual teams. Finally, a virtual environment offers plenty of opportunities for “lost in translation” problems when it comes to specific roles and responsibilities. How can managers make sure employees are clear when it comes to roles and responsibilities?

How to Work from Home Successfully: What Challenges do Employees Face With Virtual Collaboration and Virtual Teams?

Managers aren’t the only parts of the workforce that face significant challenges when it comes to virtual collaboration. The digital landscape can prove to be a confusing and demanding workspace for those in non-management, as well. “How to work from home successfully” is a question constantly on the mind of these employees – especially if this is their first time in this environment.” 

Successfully navigating virtual collaboration is a key element to maintaining productivity and personal growth within an organization.

These challenges employees face include:

  • Building a rapport with fellow team members. Right along with wondering, “How can I work from home?” comes the question of “Wait, how do I get to know my team members?” With face-to-face work, employees have water-cooler interactions, team dinners, after-work drinks, and many other options to build up that friendly rapport needed for smooth communication. Those opportunities don’t exist online.
  • Understanding project requirements and roles. With virtual teams, the lines of communication and hierarchy can get blurred. In the absence of face-to-face interactions, it can be a struggle to figure out where you fit in with virtual teams and with virtual projects.
  • Coordination with managers and other team members. Virtual teams can be complicated. Managers and other team members may boast different work and communication styles across a virtual medium; this can be a gateway to frustration. Add to that the challenges of virtual teams working across different time zones, and effective coordination can be a significant challenge.
  • Utilizing the right project tools. How do you know the appropriate virtual collaboration tool for a specific task – or type of communication – when working remotely? With such a buffet of different options out there, it’s often a challenge to pick out the right online collaboration tools
  • Balancing work time with family time. People working from home don’t just face pressure from work – they also face the everyday challenges of life with family. Employees (including managers, of course) have to juggle their work schedules with the appointments and demands of spouses, partners, children, or extended family. “How can I work from home?” is a question that encompasses not just you but also the entire family.

What are the Challenges That Come With Virtual Event Logistics?

While developing, coordinating, and managing in-person events has traditionally been a logistical challenge, putting on digital events – from corporate meetings to project showcases and conferences – for a virtual audience creates a whole new set of things to think about. 

These challenges include:

  • Deciding the best technologies to use for virtual events. With the multitude of programs and tools out there on the market, it’s often tough to decide what type of software or hosting service can be right for your specific event. Some tools may not have all the capabilities you need, while others may have a “cap” on attendees. Choosing the right type of technology is a foundational key to success.  
  • Coordination and communication for attendees. The same logistical problems of in-person events still persist with online events. Invites and directions need to be sent out well in advance, and those various issues that always seem to pop up must be dealt with promptly. Add in the challenge of different time zones (for global events), and there are a host of details that must be dealt with before a meeting can even start.
  • Converting in-person events to a virtual format. Trying to bring your annual meeting or showcase online for one reason or another? Converting that tried-and-true event to a digital showcase presents a host of issues. What events will translate well, and which ones need to change? What needs to get added in, and what can get taken out? These elements must be thought through thoroughly before the event starts.
  • Protocols, manners, and best practices for events. For both internal and external audiences, an entirely new set of best practices, manners, and protocols must get developed. Who will speak, and when? How about time limits and presentation details? What audiences are appropriate for which events? Again, all of these elements must get thoroughly planned out before the meeting starts.
  • Keeping attendees engaged and interested. Finally, the big issue: what will keep attendees both engaged and interested in a virtual forum? Digital presentations may not have the same attention-grabbing power that an in-person event does. How can you keep your audience focused on what you have to say?

What are the Training and Online Onboarding Challenges With Virtual Teams?

As an organization, your people are your best asset – and proper training and smooth integration into your workforce are key when bringing in new talent. However, training and onboarding through virtual collaboration may prove difficult for both sides of the equation.

These challenges include:

  • Lack of face-to-face interaction between the new employee and their team. That get-to-know-you period between new employees and their team is crucial to start building initial relationships. With remote employees, those critical in-person interactions don’t have the chance to occur. 
  • An excess of downtime for a new employee during the adjustment period. After the online onboarding process and the training sessions wrap up, new employees may face an excess of downtime as they – and their managers – adjust to their new roles and put priorities in order. 
  • Feelings of isolation and confusion during the adjustment period. Joining a new organization is a big change in an employee’s life. As they settle in, it’s natural for some employees to feel quite confused and isolated as they adjust to their new environment (especially when working remotely). 
  • Missing critical information and techniques. In a face-to-face setting, employees can quickly get clarification for those little problems and confusing situations that pop up from time to time. However, in a virtual environment, those quick-answer situations may not be available. How can you make sure your employees have the information that they need?

What Are the Best Solutions for Virtual Collaboration?

Luckily, there is a wealth of solutions out there to meet every challenge that virtual collaboration might throw in an organization’s way. Let’s break down these solutions by category here.

What are the Best Remote Management Tools for Virtual Teams? What are the Top Online Collaboration Tools?

In order to make sure your entire team – from leadership to management on down – has the best and smoothest virtual collaboration experience when working remotely, having the top online collaboration tools and the best remote management tools are absolutely key.

These can be as simple as an app that goes on a smartphone, or as comprehensive as an all-in-one project management software. Whatever their function, the best online collaboration tools and remote management tools increase problem-solving ability while enhancing productivity and efficiency.

Here are just some of the best tools you should consider for virtual collaboration:

  • Microsoft Teams. With a full suite of workplace features, Microsoft’s entry into virtual collaboration is one of the most comprehensive products out there. Microsoft Teams boasts chat and video conferencing functions, file storage, and plenty of application integration with other needed workplace programs. It’s especially useful for organizations that already work with the other Microsoft programs – it features a shared workspace with programs like PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and OneNote. Various pricing options are available. An important note: Skype for Business – owned and operated by Microsoft – will be entirely replaced by Microsoft Teams by mid-2021.
  • Slack. With a tagline of “Be less busy,” Slack is a software program that helps businesses, employees, and clients communicate in real-time. Comments get automatically segregated into project channels that can be searched later, a rarity in most virtual collaboration systems that don’t provide a means for retrieving older messages. Users can communicate with each other in real-time, and the organization recently unveiled a voice feature, which enables project members to record their notes on a per-project basis. It’s one of the best free screen sharing apps out there, too. There are various price-points available depending upon your project’s size, but if you need more reassurance of how user-friendly and manageable Slack is, consider this: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is using it.
  • Asana. Keeping track of to-do lists and project statuses is a challenge in any collaboration when working remotely, especially those that are being produced and managed by large companies. Facebook founder Dustin Moskovitz created Asana in 2008 as a project management system for team projects. Unlike other virtual project management tools, Asana has keyboard shortcuts, making editing and note-taking faster and easier. It can also get used to sort assignments and manage to-do lists, making it easy to use for complex projects. An inbox feature was added in 2012 to let users send notes within the application instead of relying on email systems or other outside communications programs.

What Strategies are Best for Managing Remote Employees and Managing Virtual Teams?

In the virtual collaboration world, it’s essential to find the perfect balance of virtual management. There’s always a delicate balance between overmanaging and undermanaging – especially for those that are managing in the virtual realm for the first time. Looking for that balance?

Here are some strategies.

  • First, step back and examine the work. Think long and hard about the details of the project. Determine how often you need to check in with the team or individual and stick to that schedule; later in the process, if you’re finding more (or less) check-ins are necessary, adjust as needed.
  • Try to add in social or personal check-ins. Virtual working environments can be stressful and isolating. A quick message or scheduled time for a personal chat can be liberating, refreshing, and extremely needed to break up the steady pace of work. Try it – you might be surprised at how effective they are.
  • Also, encourage expanded connections. Make sure that the connections between team members are as strong and open as the ones between employee and manager. Encourage team members to schedule times for check-ins or virtual “coffee breaks.” These help boost morale, keep teams aligned, share achievements, and even solve a few problems along the way.
  • Be aware of differing workstyles. In a virtual working environment, the differences in people’s workstyles can become magnified – leading to confusion, frustration, and costly delays in the process. Try using a tool (like Aperian Global’s GlobeSmart Profile, for example) to help define, understand, and overcome work-style differences.

What is the Best Way to Use Virtual Collaboration for Organizational Training?

Another common challenge when it comes to modern virtual teams? Bringing on new employees. The onboarding process can be long and stressful for both parties in a face-to-face environment; the virtual world exacerbates some of these challenges. 

So, how can an organization make this process easier? Here are some suggestions:

  • Overprepare. The more detailed the guidance, the better it will pay off down the line. Ensure every little detail that an employee needs to know is written down somewhere they can access it easily; think of everything they might need to know (even the common workplace knowledge you might take for granted at this point) and provide it to them.
  • Check in on a regular basis. Put more check-ins on the calendar than you usually would – at least for the first few months. That type of open communication will prove valuable at the start.
  • Introduce them to their colleagues! Be sure to put a face-to-face webcam introduction on the calendar. Start this interaction early with your essential team members to get familiar with each other and build up trust and camaraderie.

The Advantages of Virtual Teams: Benefits of a Virtual Workforce

As we’ve outlined here, the virtual workforce brings with it many challenges and a significant number of benefits. As the world grows increasingly smaller, virtual collaboration allows for borders to disappear – both the physical ones between cultures, and the traditional “borders” that constrained business to certain time zones, locations, countries, markets, and more.

Embracing the opportunities virtual collaboration and virtual teams present to the marketplace is an absolute must for companies of all shapes and sizes. By working with the suggestions and guidance detailed here, companies can secure their foothold in the new digital environment and carve out a sustainable – and profitable – place in a marketplace full of active, cutting-edge competition.

Looking for some helpful guidance with virtual communication in a global fashion?