As of late 2009, more than 25 million U.S. employees—about 15 percent of the total workforce—were working outside a corporate facility at least one day a week, and that percentage is projected to grow to more than 26 percent by 2015, according to the Future of Work Institute. Given that trend, connecting and engaging teams in a distributed workforce is becoming an increasingly important challenge for business owners and managers. At the same time, however, most organizations continue to find genuine value in physical presence and face-to-face interaction, and that aspect has to be incorporated into tactics, policies, guidelines, and management techniques for distributed workforces.

Virtual teams present unique challenges that are culturally biased and can be counterproductive unless managed effectively, according to a 2010 report, The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams, by RW3 CultureWizard, an intercultural training consultancy. Among the most common challenges the survey found for virtual teams were managing conflict, making decisions, expressing opinions, and generating innovative ideas in a virtual environment. Inability to read non-verbal cues, absence of collegiality, difficulty establishing rapport and trust, and a sense of isolation were among the issues raised by workers on virtual teams.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for connecting and engaging distributed workers in ways that increase productivity and maximize the cost savings inherent in a distributed workforce, but the experience of organizations that have successfully deployed this strategy suggest several common attributes:

  • Maximize face time, using face-to-face meetings to launch teams and hosting physical gatherings as often are resources permit.
  • Use highly participative approaches, with managers reaching out proactively to distributed employees to make sure they understand their input is valued.
  • Handle serious conflicts face-to-face when they arise, keeping in mind that the ostensible cause of a conflict may mask deeper issues related to other matters, such as trust or respect.
  • Define and publish formal policies and procedures for distributed work. These should be extensive and cover everything from legal issues to financial disputes and potential misunderstandings. They should spell out, for example, what equipment and services remote workers are expected to use; who owns the equipment and pays for the services; when and how the employee is expected to be accessible to managers, coworkers and, if applicable, customers; etc.
  • Maximize use of shared databases to promote collaborative work approaches. Keeping all team communications in a shared database also provides a valuable historical document that can be an effective learning tool for new members as they are added to the team.
  • Set clear performance and productivity benchmarks, communicate them clearly to distributed workforce members, and make sure they understand their work will be evaluated against them. The guidelines should include information about how they will be evaluated and how those evaluations will affect their compensation. This fosters a sense of accountability and helps managers track cost savings and productivity improvements—or lack of same—resulting from the use of remote workers.

“People in distributed workforces—virtual, mobile—have to communicate, work independently and be accountable to get work done well,” says Patrice T. Collins, vice president of product development at corporate learning consultant ESI International. “Once people know the rules and goals for getting work done together virtually, there are key technologies that help people maintain personal contact and produce the best results.”

Learn more: