Ajay is a top-performing regional sales manager in rural Kerala, employed by a renowned multinational agriculture company. An old timer with the firm, Ajay leads sales for his region, spread over a 4000 square-kilometre stretch of Palakkad, the largest district of the state. Although he operates from the ‘rice bowl of Kerala’ in Southern India, the way Ajay manages his work and time today is markedly different from what he used to do 15 years ago, when he had joined the firm straight out of college. On a given day, Ajay would have to travel for hundreds of kilometres at a stretch to meet with key customers and channel partners. During these rounds, he was usually cut off from his colleagues, his manager and the organization due to poor connectivity and a lack of digital penetration in the hinterlands. It was tough to connect with his customers as well, which meant he would spend a lot of time on the road meeting clients.
Things have improved rapidly over the past decade. While he continues to criss-cross the district to meet with stakeholders, Ajay is also empowered with a handful of digital tools provided by his organization. An internal communications platform allows him to instantly connect with his two direct reports (who operate from different parts of the district), his manager (who is based in Chennai), his colleagues (spread all over the country), and other employees across the global organization. A workflow management platform allows him to quickly log orders and get instant approvals from required departments. A farmer connect app allows him to reach out to hundreds of farmers at the press of a button. In effect, he is equipped with cutting-edge digital tools that help him be more effective as an executive.
While technology may allow teams to come closer together, it is essential that managers create opportunities for virtual team members to connect regularly
The reality of virtual teams
We typically associate virtual teams with IT or software companies, wherein interdependent teams of consultants from all over the globe work on different parts of the same problem. However, improved connectivity and modern technology allows organizations of all kinds to bring their workforce closer together, thereby allowing for better collaboration between far-flung team members. As we saw in the instance above, a digitally-savvy organization in the agriculture industry can leverage the latest in technology to help its remote team members be better in sync, thereby enhancing performance.
A Harvard Business Review article points out that in a “survey of 1700 knowledge workers, 79% reported working always or frequently in dispersed teams. Armed with laptops, Wi-Fi, and mobile phones, most professionals can do their jobs from anywhere.”
Digitalization provides geographically dispersed employees with enhanced productivity tools and the opportunity to foster meaningful connections, both inside and outside the traditional boundaries associated with a firm
However, not all virtual teams are successful. The success of virtual teams is dependent on several interconnected factors, and here we encapsulate some essential ingredients for leaders and managers. These elements can potentially make or break the performance of dispersed teams.
- Fostering boundaryless connections: Today, technology can allow us to break through barriers and expand our ‘circles of influence’ as defined by Stephen Covey. We operate in a boundaryless environment wherein like Ajay, we can potentially influence a broad range of internal and external stakeholders. However, it isn’t sufficient that team members are merely aware of the latest technological developments. Managers leading such teams must proactively champion and encourage the use of such tools to ensure meaningful adoption to its appropriate end.
- Maintaining the human touch: While technology may allow teams to come closer together, it is essential that managers create opportunities for virtual team members to connect regularly. This is critical to create and maintain relationships, and may even require employees to travel and meet with their counterparts in other parts of the world. This is especially important during milestones such as onboarding, kick-offs, interim reviews, celebrations, etc. In addition, the Ivey Business Journal recommends a host of ongoing activities such as virtual birthday parties, virtual coffee breaks etc. interspersed throughout the year.
- Identifying the north star: Managers who help identify and constantly clarify the vision for the organization can get executives to rally around a common cause. All-hands meets and regular online check-ins with team members offer opportunities for managers to help reinforce these aspects of work. Additionally, clear goals, key result areas, and well laid out processes can help remote teams understand how they can contribute to the vision. It is perhaps that much more essential to spell out the roles and associated tasks in greater detail for virtual teams.
In summary, digitalization provides geographically dispersed employees with enhanced productivity tools and the opportunity to foster meaningful connections, both inside and outside the traditional boundaries associated with a firm. Consequently, executives today have more flexibility in the way they manage their work and their lives, and the potential to generate greater impact through their work. However, leaders and managers who proactively champion digital ‘ways of working’ by way of some of the ideas listed above, stand to reap the rewards of a boundaryless world.