Are ‘Remote Work’ and ‘Virtual Teamwork’ Synonyms?

Remote Work and Virtual Teamwork are as different as Ice Skating and Ice Hockey!

Interview with Sirja Sulakatko, Virtual Teamwork enthusiast

Ten years ago, the then 20-year-old Sirja had an important decision to take: While working full time in Estonia as a store manager, she had the possibility to take a 6-month internship with ADIDAS at their headquarters in Germany. Well, for most of us, this would be a choice between taking on a challenge vs choosing comfort, between learning something new or remaining in usual habits. An in-between solution was not an option for Sirja – no, she wanted it all and now. You may wonder how this is possible. True, in 2010 remote work was not as common as nowadays, but also not anything really sensational. Thus, what she did, was to work full time as an intern in Germany and also part-time for her Estonian employer. This experience made her curious to learn more about online working. First, she wrote a MA thesis on this topic and then continued her Ph.D. research simultaneously in two universities, at Estonian Business School and Turku University (Finland). On top of all this, she is a dedicated fan of Smart Work!
I must admit, first I was a bit worried before interviewing this vibrant and very promising enthusiastic young researcher… What if she doesn’t have much new to tell me? Don’t we all know already all too well that going online all and everything is different: there is more stress and it really does not replace any face-to-face meeting… Luckily, I ended up much surprised, REALLY surprised, when Sirja began sharing her Light Bulb Moments.

Q – Dear Sirja, by now you are very experienced in remote work, both in theory and in practice. Please tell us more about your first remote work experience.

A – Before moving to Germany to take an internship in ADIDAS, I suggested my employer KoduPaber AS to rearrange some of my responsibilities as a store manager. By that time my team consisted mainly of salespersons.  They agreed and as a result of this, I gave more responsibilities to one of my subordinates. When I returned, she took over the job as a store manager and I started a new job as a brand manager in the same organization.
My life in Germany looked as follows: I contributed to ADIDAS during daily working hours while my evenings were dedicated to ordering new products for the store in Estonia. I also communicated with my team in Estonia, but this communication was rather minimal and can definitely not be called virtual teamwork – I had my clear responsibilities and my team was managed by the new store manager. From time to time, some of them turned to me if they had questions that they could not solve themselves. This was kind of a Light Bulb Moment for me – I wished to have remote teamwork, but I didn’t know what it meant. Only about 10 years later when I was writing my Ph.D., I understood how different remote work is from virtual teamwork and how often we might confuse those two with each other.

Q – Could you please explain the difference between these concepts from your perspective?

A – While doing remote work, you are responsible for yourself only – you do not need to be aware of your colleagues’ work. Thus, the biggest hassle in virtual teamwork is the interdependence with your colleagues, as you really do not know where they are with their work. It is also difficult to understand if they have an optimal workload. Virtual teamwork is more challenging, especially when looking from a leader’s perspective because leaders and managers have less overview of the work processes in this situation and it`s more difficult to build trust and report in virtual conditions. For my Ph.D., I interviewed the leaders of remote teams working for Microsoft and Elisa. What these experienced team leaders told me is this:

If your regular teamwork is not working properly, then you have no good reason to hope that it will work better virtually either.
It is extremely difficulta to develop the team in remote mode if it just was not there in the first place already.

I would like to add one more key difference between virtual teamwork and remote work: awareness of what your team members are doing. This is definitely not about controlling but has much to do with communication and information flow instead. There is a tendency to overestimate one’s own contribution as being more significant than the contributions made by other colleagues. This is related to psychology – when one does not see the others working, the false impression tends to emerge, that they are not working at all.

Q – How to create Flow during virtual teamwork?

A – Many things happen naturally when we are in the same physical space. Team leaders should invest their time and energy into creating a similar feeling of excitement and a sense of commitment to specific challenges related to achieving the virtual team’s goals. It is particularly important in the case of virtual teamwork that team members know the wider context of the other members. How to achieve that online? The first rule would be to designate certain times and places when people can talk online about something not directly related to their work. It may seem strange in the beginning, but academic research shows it works. As a second step, it is very important at the beginning of each virtual team meeting to develop the context by asking “simple” ritual questions like: “what is the weather out there?” or “what is the time in your current location?”. All these are needed for developing the context and inclusiveness – both needed for having successful virtual meetings. We as human beings need to have a sense of awareness and connection with our colleagues, to increase the helpful and empathic behavior in virtual teams. We will be much more likely to offer a helping hand if we see our colleagues experiencing tough times. Therefore, it is not enough if communication is based merely on the task level. 

Q – Additionally to your work at Estonian Business School, you are also actively contributing to developing the Smart Work Association. How can external experts help and support teams which they do not know personally?

A – At the Smart Work Association, we have 3 main activities. To start with, we organize a ‘Quality Label’ competition, the “Remote Work Badge” for those organizations which can demonstrate the best examples of remote office work practices. Today we know that flexibility in work time and workplace is something that helps organizations to increase their ability to react quickly to the changing conditions (such as Covid-19), increase employee satisfaction, and build general effectiveness. And last but not least, it makes it possible to hire talents irrespective of their actual physical location.

We also offer 2 types of client services: remote-first aid for technology-related challenges and consultancy with a tailor-made approach. Nevertheless, there are similar patterns which we have discovered and therefore we now plan to develop a fixed consultancy through which we cover those topics. For instance, how to develop trust, set goals, measure whether the team jointly or team members separately are headed in the right direction and what is the amount of communication to handle. Self-management is definitely an important issue as well, especially setting boundaries while contributing to virtual teamwork. And – by the way – people often over-work themselves, and not under-work! 

Q – You just mentioned indicators are needed to better measure whether virtual teamwork is moving in the right direction. Could you explain this in more detail, please?

Well, Mailiis Ploomann (Head of Telecom Services at Elisa AS) explained to me in great detail, how she is leading her teams. It does not matter where the team members physically actually are. Let’s say there is a new person on her team. During the first meeting, they discuss the value this person will bring to the company. Then the leader and that new employee agree on certain indicators. Also, they explore whether this person can achieve these concrete goals already now or rather feels challenged enough to achieve those indicator goals in the nearer future. After 6 months they sit down again and analyze those indicators again. The employee should comment on them from his/her perspective and develop his/her personal goals based on those indicators which still need to be improved. Why is it necessary and where is the magic?  What happens is that the employee takes accountability for his/her work when the goals are not set by the team leader but the employee. This makes the employee fully independent in choosing the way to approach these goals. 

Q – How to survive the current remote work period without knowing when you will be back in the office and meet your colleagues face-to-face again?

A – Regular self-reflection looks like a great plan. You should ask yourself on a daily basis: how am I doing now? If you have your long-term goals and you are an achiever, it is easy to skip resting-time and lunches. It is important to look back and to learn what needs to be improved, how can I improve it, do I need any help from my team members. All in all, it is very important to understand what it is that prevents me from being as effective as I could be?

Q – Thank you for your suggestions to individuals, but what about your tips for the teams? Anything you would suggest they should adopt?

A – To start with, team arrangements are important. Each team needs to decide how they are going to work together. This is not to be confused with team rules which should be also set, by the team under the guidance of the team leader. Instead, I am referring here to an agreement made among the team members. Topics to discuss and agree on are: what is the motivation of each team member to be in this team and what do they like and not like to do? It is not common to discuss issues like these, but such discussions create a certain degree of mutual openness and make it more explicit if somebody is not good at something. It makes the achievement of the final task assignment easier if another team member actually is good at that particular area and maybe even finds her Flow in contributing it to the overall team output. It also needs to be decided which communication channels the team will use. 

SIRJA’S Tips for more effective team communication:

  1. I recommend using email only for official information, instant messaging for exchanging quick information and video calls for getting onto the same page.
  2. In video-calls make sure that in addition to your face also your hands are visible. Body language and particularly using hands is vital for helping us to understand each other while communicating. Also, if you wish to make eye-contact, look straight in the camera, not the image of your colleague on the screen.
  3. Decide among your team, which is the preferred responding time, since “quickly” has different meanings and interpretations to different people. 
  4. Agree on how you will be dealing with disagreement and conflicts – the general rule of thumb is to sort out disagreement in video or phone calls quickly, right before disagreements grow into larger conflicts. 
  5. If things are not going in the expected direction, then sort them out quickly. The worst thing that can happen in virtual teamwork is negative feelings being accumulated and then escalating into interpersonal conflict.

Interview prepared by Marge Sassi, Flow Enthusiast

Comment by Dr. Zoltan Buzady,
Academic Director of the 'Leadership & Flow Global Research Network':  
Dear Reader, You  might also wish to further explore some of the related leadership concepts: 
Management-By-Objectives MBO and Psychology, HBR, 2003
Dynamics of the Leaders-Follower Relationship, Book Chapter, Buzady, 2014
Teamwork and Personality, Cardona, 2006
Team contracting and interventions, Newton/Nappe