Your technology facilitates it, your people appreciate it, your type of work can sustain it. Yet how do you turn the ability to work in virtual teams from a concession into something that strategically benefits your company?

By ‘virtual teams,’ I mean geographically dispersed groups of in-house staff who engage in interdependent tasks for shared goals and projects. I don’t mean just any odd group of remote colleagues.

In a translation company, a virtual team may be a group of project managers serving the same clients. Or a team of translators with the same mother tongue revising each other’s work or concurrently translating different parts of the same text.

It may also be a language technology group troubleshooting and processing files for the aforementioned colleagues, or a management team directing the whole show. In a virtual team, these people interact electronically rather than face-to-face and can be based in different offices, time zones and even continents.

Virtual teams, real costs

The prospect of eliminating office-related overheads may appear to explain the popularity of virtual teamwork. The reality, however, is that few of us with remote-working setups have abolished offices altogether.

Indeed, it’s common for translation companies to maintain both the office infrastructure, with the associated costs of rent, lease, electricity, furniture and hardware, plus the extra technology and remote setup needed to support virtual teams.

STP has physical offices in four locations, with nearly a hundred desktop PCs – and a large number of remote workers – connecting to the same virtual server every day. The company provides the hardware for both the office and remote environments. So we could hardly say that we facilitate remote working for cost-saving reasons.

Many translation companies build global networks of staff so that they can provide a 24/5 service. To turn work around as quickly as possible, projects are handed from colleague to colleague, and from one time zone to the next. In this context, the need for virtual teams is clear.

In truth, however, most of us have our virtual teams much closer to home: in the same continent, country or even town. We bear the inconvenience of geographically dispersed teams, but reap none of the rewards of around-the-clock cover.

Some employees claim that they’re more efficient when working from home. While it may be true that an empty house holds fewer distractions than a crowded office, I have little statistical evidence of STP’s translators or PMs becoming more productive after transferring from the office to a home-working arrangement. This, therefore, cannot be the reason for favouring virtual teams either.

So why do we do it?

Everyone agrees that there are numerous disadvantages inherent in virtual teams. Communication suffers from team members’ inability to read nonverbal cues. Virtual meetings allow no time to build relationships, which in turn leads to an absence of collegial spirit and makes it difficult to establish trust and rapport.

Virtual teams, in our experience, find it more difficult to express opinions, manage conflicts and make decisions. They’re also harder to monitor, support technically and engage beyond their routine tasks.

At STP, we support virtual teams because they allow us to hire from a greater pool of talent than any single office location can offer. They also help us to retain employees who start in an office but face change at some point down the line. The employee wants a change of scenery, their partner moves, their growing family brings a new need for flexibility, or they simply struggle in an office environment.

When these employees are allowed to work from their chosen location, they remain loyal and stay with us for longer. If they work from home, they save hours in travel time, are able to attend to personal or family matters and can adjust their working environment to their personal taste. The employer, meanwhile, should benefit from having a member of staff with increased focus and energy for their work.

Training and comms: the keys to virtual success

One of our biggest challenges with virtual teams at STP is providing adequate training, support and mentoring for newcomers during the first six months of their employment. Face-to-face contact with a supervisor or teammate is just so much better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust.

We manage this by having all newbies complete a week of office-based induction training – an essential foundation for effective teamwork later on. This means, however, that we must keep enough senior colleagues working in those locations to help the newcomers. Sometimes the right colleagues are simply not in that office, and need to be brought in temporarily for the initial training period.

During their induction week, new employees meet our senior managers and other key members of their team. Then, when they eventually slot into their place in their own virtual team, they are assigned a mentor. They also join Yammer, our company social network, where we have 80 different collaboration groups. Some are compulsory for everyone, some are team-specific, and some are down to the interests of the individual.

From there, nearly all our collaboration and communication takes place online. We do small meetings and one-to-ones on Skype. We use tools like TeamViewer for help with technical troubleshooting, when someone wants to shadow another colleague, or when IT or language technology needs to take over the control of somebody’s computer remotely.

All of our large internal meetings have a virtual element to them – some people attend in person, others join via GoToWebinar – and many meetings are recorded for those who could not attend at all. To ensure efficiency and effectiveness, we’ve found it’s a good idea to ban multi-tasking during all virtual meetings.

Remote, but not detached

When managing virtual teams, it’s particularly important to be able to measure their work output. Both managers and team members must be clear on what the key indicators of success for that team are. Managers should then track productivity consistently, both at individual and team level, and share the results with their team as quickly and transparently as possible.

It’s equally vital to set up virtual ‘water coolers’ where employees can meet online for informal chats. We have an open group called Coffee Break in Yammer for this purpose. Unlike in the real world, though, everyone else can easily listen in to the smart, entertaining exchanges that take place there – and even give the occasional shy thumbs-up.

Often the discussions end up providing a delicious mix of professional and personal insight. It was on STP’s Yammer, for instance, that I first learned how rude it is to end an instant message with a full stop. Something my very unvirtual children had shockingly allowed to go unchecked for years.