By Tara Powers

Companies around the world are currently experiencing one of the greatest shifts in how work gets done around the world. It impacts the way people connect, the way teams communicate, the way leaders build relationships, and the way organizations accomplish results. It can be a positive change for people, the planet, and company profits if approached mindfully and designed to embrace technology, prioritize communication and relationships, and support a strong appreciation of culture and diversity. This transformation is the rise of the virtual team.

In the global marketplace, people can work practically anywhere and anytime. Virtual teams cut across the boundaries of time, space, culture, and sometimes organizations. In fact, every single day more companies are relying on virtual teams to achieve significant business results. Rising costs, global locations, and advances in technology are top reasons why virtual teams have increased by 800 percent worldwide over the past five years alone. Some sources now estimate that more than a billion people will work virtually in the next few years. According to the World Economic Forum, virtual work is one of the biggest drivers of transformation in the workplace, and everyday new collaborative software, videoconferencing, and online project management software is being released for you and I to consume. Remarkably, the majority of virtual team leaders and team members have been given little to no preparation to work in this complex and diverse environment that creates a vast opportunity for supporting companies, leaders, and teams who are moving toward this diverse reality.

All aboard! The proverbial virtual team train has left the station and there’s no going back. Many organizations are using virtual or dispersed teams to reduce costs, connect talent across geographical boundaries, manage global projects, and improve productivity and collaboration. Not to mention that going virtual is a huge boon for corporate sustainability efforts — reducing greenhouse gases, gasoline consumption, and pollution. Virtual work also means that people can work from anywhere, anytime, which can help unemployment rates among the disabled, military families, people with special needs, and people living in places where a once-booming industry has disappeared, such as coal mining, auto manufacturing, steel, textiles, and more.

The use of virtual teams is continuing to grow and companies around the world must recognize the unique challenges of virtual teams and invest in ongoing training and support to realize the benefits. If managed well, you can expect virtual teams to be highly engaged, accountable, successful at collaborative brainstorming, goal setting, problem solving, and planning. These sections explain the reasons for virtual team growth and the global impacts that they have on the workplace.

Why virtual teams are rapidly growing

What’s really happening that is causing virtual teams to quickly become such a natural part of the workplace today? The following looks at it from a couple different viewpoints:

  • Employer: Virtual workers will save your company a whole lot of money, on everything from reduced sick time and absenteeism due to weather to office maintenance expenses.

Access to talent is another reason many employers are going the virtual route. When you need specialized knowledge or experience that you can’t find in your local talent pool, virtual work opportunities allow you to recruit anywhere in the world. Talk about competitive advantage!

  • Employee: Many employees have demands that require them to spend hours commuting to work. They end up missing their kids’ activities and don’t have time for self-care or work-life balance. As a result, they have high levels of stress, sickness, and burnout, which is why more than 85 percent of employees have reported they want to work remotely even if it’s part time. Virtual workers can get more done in less time because they can focus with limited interruptions during the workday. In return, they feel a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and happiness at the end each day.

Furthermore, recessions, layoffs, outsourcing, and downsizing prompt employees to hang out their shingle and start their own business to avoid bankruptcy and pay their bills. Many quickly find that they enjoy the benefits of being on their own — when they work, how they work, with whom they work, and what they work on. Many never go back to the traditional workplace; rather, they become teleworkers or flexible workers who can perform their jobs from anywhere in the world.

  • Technology: Advances in technology and the ability to connect with people from around the world in an instant are important reasons why virtual work is thriving. Collaborative technology enables you to reach out and connect with your team in a variety of different ways, in any given moment, for any reason.

Globalization effect

Globalization enables companies to expand their operations internationally. Globalization benefits companies in a variety of ways. Globalization:

  • Expands their customer base around the world
  • Lengthens the popularity of a trend or product (what’s hot in the UK may already be an established product in Asia)
  • Spreads out economic risk
  • Helps companies to test and expand in new markets
  • Provides access to international talent
  • Makes distribution less expensive
  • Helps companies manage seasonal fluctuations

Today companies have personal and professional relationships that span the globe and are necessary for economic well-being and growth. In order to meet customer needs and demands and access specialized talent, products, and materials, building global teams that work together to accomplish results just makes smart business sense.

However, having team members located in different time zones using different languages and living in different cultures, creates unique challenges and opportunities.

Generational worker shift

The workforce is changing. Baby boomers are retiring in droves, and Generation X isn’t far behind. By 2025, Millennials who are comfortable working, communicating, socializing, and developing relationships with people located on the other side of the planet, will comprise 75 percent of the global workforce, and members of Generation Z are just beginning to start their careers. It’s important to understand that both Millennials and Gen Zers are used to collaborating, getting answers, and solving problems alone or in groups over the Internet. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise then that working in a remote and virtual environment is a no-brainer for these generations and will cause this trend to continue upward for years into the future.