Online workforce

From the October 2021 print edition

Utilizing teams is a necessary component of conducting daily operations and addressing changes in the business environment. Globalization has forced companies to respond, change and adapt to ever-increasing competition in the marketplace. Virtual teams integrate the human element with technology. This article looks at how international virtual teams deal with cross-cultural relationships, share knowledge and integrate and adopt technology – all while facing the challenges of communication and end-user satisfaction.

Before the pandemic, these teams lacked training in operating virtually. This has no doubt hampered many interactions, as they struggle to embrace the reality of the situation.

This journey actually began at the turn of the century, with the number of employees working remotely from 2005 to 2012 increasing by 79.7 per cent. The prevalence of remote work also grew by 91 per cent between 2010 and 2020. Before the pandemic, the appeal of remote work was that the model provided employees with a convenient change while accommodating personal scheduling, health, and work-life balance while reducing commuting frustration.

Global experiment
A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group states that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to economic, health and social devastation while creating pockets of unprecedented opportunity, all as the world ran its biggest-ever workplace experiment. The results of this experiment have yielded some fascinating insights as to how organizations work. While some respondents did report a drop in product­ivity and employee satisfaction, a surprisingly large number stated that they have been able to maintain or even improve both productivity and satisfaction. This study also revealed a significant shift in employee expectations regarding the future of work, an appetite for flexible workplaces and an increased openness and adaptive attitude among managers in meeting organizational challenges and goals.

Additionally, the study reports that 75 per cent of employees stated that during the pandemic’s first few months, they were able to maintain or improve productivity (on individual tasks), however homebound fatigue eventually impacted these tasks. The study explained that for employees engaged in collaborative tasks (including exchanges with coworkers, working in teams and interacting with clients), their contributions were maintained. In organizations where managers were engaged in the new remote-hybrid workplace and in developing collaborative models with their teams (anticipate and manage) most concerns amongst employees were resolved. This led to sustained higher productivity.

An impressive 79 per cent of respondents indicated they were satisfied or doing better while able to maintain or improve productivity on collaborative tasks. This highlights the need for social connectivity within teams, which correlates to reported satisfaction. Meanwhile, social disengagement shows decreased productivity – also correlated to dissatisfaction with an employee’s performance. The year 2020 was pivotal. Virtual work was the modus operandi in keeping many businesses running rather than face annihilation. Virtual teams were often the only choice organizations had when dealing with novel global challenges.

Learning is key
Learning is vital for cross-functional teams in situations where businesses must react fast to provide the best results within tight deadlines. Collaboration across boundaries prevents non-productivity, preserves competitive pressure and unleashes ideas to manage unchartered waters. Many managers in various countries had to define and develop creative strategies to communicate across functions by forming ad hoc virtual business teams and to try to understand the different sociocultural challenges. They had to do this while addressing the individual contexts present in each employees’ circumstances. This ability,
or inability, of the manager to communicate and understand the different dimensions of the business and personal needs of their team members would decide the success of the organization.

Having the opportunity to work in a virtual environment can go a long way in preparing an organization to have the open-mindedness and flexibility necessary to be successful on the fast-paced highway to the virtual world. Virtual communication training may prove to be a valuable managerial toolset to help people develop the skills they need to communicate effectively and promote the out-of-the-box thinking that is so vital to any organization’s success.

As we set forth on new ways of living and working, managers in particular must understand that a workplace is more than just where an employee gets a paycheque. It is a social web, a beehive of activity, a place to escape loneliness, sometimes a safe place from abuse, a place to feel creative and many times a place where we come to contribute. Whether working remotely or onsite, those are the needs of our valued employees. As part of the team, we must meet those needs in a creative and stellar working environment.

Mahmud Khamis is a supply chain professional in Mississauga.