In recent years, professional services firms have watched as more and more senior talent, especially women with children, have left their employ. Many of these valued practitioners are not jumping to other companies or starting up competing agencies. Rather, they are walking away from their careers (and in many cases high salaries) because their employers are unwilling or unable to provide them with the flexibility they need to balance their work and family lives. The decision is rarely an easy one, and many women would have welcomed the opportunity to remain in the workforce if truly flexible options had been available.

To stem the exodus, keep top talent, and remain competitive, professional services today must meet an imperative: They must create new arrangements to accommodate talented practitioners who need more choice when it comes to how, when, and where they work. They must consider ways to ensure that working parents (especially women) do not have to work long hours or travel extensively, but instead have the flexibility they need to raise a family or care for aging parents. And with Canada expected to experience a labour shortage that could begin affecting employers as soon as 2020, having these new work arrangements in place will become increasingly essential to the delivery of high-quality professional services.

This article will examine how adopting a virtual-team model can help organizations attract and retain that top talent. The article will first define virtual teams and explain why they are on the rise. It will then outline the various benefits of virtual teams (for both employers and employees) and look at some of their unique challenges. Finally, the article will outline best practices for designing and implementing new work arrangements.

Virtual teams defined

Any team whose members are not all physically under the same roof can be considered to be virtual, as long as the participants have complementary skills and knowledge that produce greater value when they work together than if they worked separately. A virtual team can be local, national, or global, with members from one firm or many. Teams can be made up of full-time, in-house practitioners or full- or part-time contractors. They are enabled by technology, which allows members to work from anywhere in the world with phone, Internet, and wireless access as long as they produce work that meets the firm’s and the client’s standards of quality, and the client’s deadlines.

Virtual teams are on the rise

The popularity of virtual teams is being driven by social change. Women now constitute nearly one-half of the North American workforce, and in nearly one-half of households, all adults are working. As well, more working adults are pursuing educational opportunities to advance their careers; they therefore need the flexibility that a virtual arrangement provides.[1]

When I was in the process of building my PR agency in 2008, I witnessed this social change first-hand and realized many senior women were caught in an unnecessary and intractable dilemma: how to pursue a fulfilling and meaningful career while meeting the demands of their personal and family lives. I spoke with dozens of senior women in the industry who were torn between the need to put in long, billable hours at their offices and the need to tend to matters at home. Some told me that they sacrificed family time by hiring nannies and placing their children in daycare. Others made career-limiting moves such as working four days a week or turning down promotions that would mean longer hours. And some of them left the workforce entirely or switched to less demanding careers because they were unable to balance their work and personal lives.

Many women also told me they wanted to avoid lengthy, stressful commutes because of the time they took away from time spent their families. They talked about scrambling for childcare when a child was home sick from school or they had to work later than expected, and described missing important school functions and other milestones in their children’s lives. Some also said they were frustrated by the traditional approach to “flex-time,” whereby practitioners work four out of five days, at a reduced annual salary. With this approach, five days’ worth of work is often completed in four, which can actually add to workplace stress rather than reduce it.

Talent is everything in professional services, and successful firms know that flexible work arrangements make them more attractive to a wider range of professionals. Recent studies have shown that flexibility is a growing trend. A 2011 U.S. study showed that the number of employees who principally work from home grew by 61 per cent between 2005 and 2009.[2] Two years earlier, Aon Consulting’s Benefits and Talent Survey reported that 97 per cent of organizations either planned to increase or maintain their use of virtual teams.[3]

An emerging approach: Lifestyle-driven virtual teams

Once considered a way for companies to reduce overhead, the popularity of virtual teams is now being increasingly driven by employee demand. This is especially true in professional services firms, where both full-time practitioners and part-time associates or consultants are becoming more vocal about their desire to have lifestyle-driven schedules. As such, some firms are beginning to offer an emerging approach to flexible workplace arrangements – a lifestyle-driven one that rewards results over face time, so practitioners can maximize the time they devote to their personal lives.

These lifestyle-driven virtual teams may not be a realistic option for all industries, or even all professional services firms, for example, those consulting firms that require staff to travel or be on site to meet with clients. However, the model can work for most professional services firms because much of their work is knowledge-based and often performed by individuals. As a result, it can easily be transferred to a home office with the right planning, processes and project management in place. When implementing this model, firms must also remove the focus on billable hours, and instead focus on the number of hours each associate wants to work  – while planning project resources and compensation accordingly. This differs from the traditional model in which each practitioner must focus on billable-hour targets.

For practitioners, there is some risk involved in using the virtual model, as they are not guaranteed a regular pay cheque. Experience has shown, however, that some part-time practitioners who are compensated hourly actually earn more than they did as salaried employees, even while working significantly fewer hours. This is particularly true of practitioners whose quality work and outstanding client service make them an obvious choice for recurring account management roles and back-to-back projects.

Virtual teams benefit employers and employees equally

In a 2010 study, 80 per cent of respondents said they were part of a team based in various locations, while 63 per cent indicated that nearly half their team members were located outside their home country.[4] Supported by technology, practitioners are able to be as efficient and engaged as they have ever been while keeping far greater control over their work schedules and environments.

The traditional billable-hour-driven agency model often requires practitioners to work 60 or more hours a week. However, the lifestyle-driven virtual model permits practitioners to be selective about their hours and often their projects, naturally making for a happier, more satisfied, and less-stressed practitioner. A company that can offer this kind of flexibility will find itself with better options when it comes to hiring and retaining talent, especially individuals with specialized knowledge and skills. This arrangement, which encourages true balance, will also create more well-rounded employees who will bring their varied experience to projects and who will be motivated to remain in the workforce. Many practitioners will also find the benefits of this model just as important as incentives such as paid vacation time, health benefits, and pension contributions. Indeed, it is hard to put a price on this type of flexibility.

With the ability to bring on skilled team members when needed, professional services firms are better able to handle peak workloads, project work, and short-term assignments. For any particular project, they can hand-pick key team members from their roster of talent, regardless of where the individual is based. This means they can usually offer clients their “A team,” not whoever happens to be available. With infrastructure in place for teleconferences and other online collaboration, travel and other overhead expenses are reduced, if not eliminated. Margins improve accordingly and, most important, firms are able to offer a more family-friendly structure that attracts top talent who want to add balance to their working lives and still have a fulfilling and successful career. And since associates work on a freelance basis, each person’s performance is crucial to securing future projects. As a result, everyone is motivated to do their best and to collaborate effectively with other team members to produce quality work and results.

Attracting and retaining a multigenerational workforce

For many practitioners, particularly those who embrace the philosophy that “work is something you do, not somewhere you go,” the increase in virtual teams is a welcome development. This applies to the future workforce, too. A recent study by Dr. Alison Konrad[5] of the Richard Ivey School of Business found that undergraduate business students in her class (most of them women in their early 20s) yearn for a meaningful career that allows them to contribute to business and society while maintaining balance in their lives.

In the study, students were asked what an employer could do to make their chosen career more attractive. The most frequent responses were flexible hours, the ability to work from home, no face time, and a family-friendly culture. Surprisingly, these are many of the same characteristics sought out not only by working parents but also by people nearing retirement and wanting to slow down their schedules.

Professor Konrad’s study shows that employers who most closely meet the lifestyle demands of a multigenerational workforce are in the best position to attract and retain the most desirable talent.

Virtual teams are more productive

Employers need not see flexibility as either a concession or an additional cost for retaining talent. Research has shown that virtual teams are, on average, more productive than in-house teams. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review[6] suggests that properly managed virtual teams can lead to “increased efficiency and better business results,” for the following reasons:

  • The best talent is more easily leveraged.
  • With fewer office-related distractions and less small talk, more work gets done more quickly.
  • A “follow the sun” schedule enables people in India to take over from people in North America before passing work on to people in Japan.
  • A diversity of views allows for a more critical evaluation of projects and information.

When it comes to these new, more flexible, and lifestyle-driven work models, the following axiom applies: a happy employee is a productive employee. And also one who shows up more often, as demonstrated in a study that tracked the decline in absentee rates among employees who participated in a flex-time program.[7]

Virtual teams come with unique challenges

To be successful, virtual managers must be aware of the challenges of overseeing virtual teams:

  • The absence of non-verbal communication. Subtle indicators such as the silent nod of approval or the raised eyebrow of disapproval are eliminated in virtual teams. Words of praise for a job well done should be conveyed in virtual meetings so that practitioners know they are on the right track.
  • Working across time zones. Schedules for meetings must be sensitive to team members in multiple time zones. In extreme cases (such as a team with practitioners in both Asia and North America), the number of common waking hours is limited and finding meeting times can be difficult.
  • The difficulty of building rapport. Rapport is essential for functional team work but often difficult to establish and develop when people don’t have the opportunity to meet in person and get to know each other. This can be overcome by facilitating social interaction between team members.
  • Over-reliance on email and telephone communication. The narrow communication channel available to virtual team members can lead to a sense of isolation. It can also cause frustration if colleagues err in causing email overload by their efforts to provide information.
  • Managing conflict at arm’s length. Research has cited conflict management as a challenge for virtual teams,[8] although it could be argued that less contact means less conflict.

Virtual teams succeed by using best practices

The growth in popularity of virtual teams has prompted a number of researchers to take a closer look at what makes the good ones work. They have found that the most successful teams follow these best practices:

  1. Institute strong leadership. Executives must fully support the virtual structure and be aware of the potential challenges of managing a virtual team. They should consistently monitor the team’s progress to ensure deadlines are being met and budgets are on track.
  2. Choose the right team members. Individuals should be selected with a view to forming a successful team. Not all practitioners will thrive in a virtual environment. Those who are self-reliant and self-motivated will fare best.
  3. Set expectations from the start. Articulate objectives and define team member roles up front to avoid the possibility of overlooking or duplicating aspects of the work. This is especially important given the geographical distance between members of a virtual team.
  4. Implement strict protocols. Establishing protocols will ensure that each team member knows when and how quickly to respond to action items, and will determine the steps to take when a team member fails to do so. Team meetings should be run by a strong chair. People should be prompted to give their opinions as opposed to volunteering them. Digressions should be discouraged as they tend to disengage other team members. Multitasking during meetings should be prohibited.
  5. Use proven processes. Teams need processes that govern the way they work and how the work will get done, from being aware of individual responsibilities and decision-making procedures to the consequences of poor work or missed deadlines. Virtual teams have little margin for error when it comes to project management, as problems can go unnoticed and grow into major issues.
  6. Manage timelines and budgets carefully. Often a project budget will dictate the number of hours that can be charged to a client. Because freelance practitioners are paid according to the time they take, budgets can easily be exceeded if not properly monitored.
  7. Establish meaningful project milestones. Milestones should be implemented to chart a project’s progress and act as checkpoints for the timeliness and quality of virtual team work.
  8. Encourage interaction. Leadership must ensure that team members have some mechanism by which to develop strong working relationships. They should also bring team members together by organizing social functions every few months to help them build rapport.
  9. Communicate more efficiently.Virtual teams can be connected by various technologies, including phone, email, instant messaging, as well as video and web conferencing. Use more than one of these options so team members can choose the technology they’re most comfortable with. In addition, more communications do not necessarily mean better communication. Too many emails can lead to information overload and cause important issues to be overlooked. The key is to convey only relevant information, and to do so clearly and consistently.
  10. Minimize team conflict. Although conflict can lead to better ideas and solutions, conflicts within a virtual team should be dealt with immediately, because they can escalate quickly. Virtual teams do not build rapport as easily as other teams, and managers may have to become more involved in conflict resolution. 

As employees begin to demand more and more control over how, when, and where they work, we will see a rise in lifestyle-driven virtual teams. Many practitioners, particularly those who are parents, are losing interest in highly demanding jobs that require long hours and extensive face time and travel. Yet these professionals still crave opportunities to pursue their careers while maintaining balance in their personal lives. Forward-thinking employers will recognize that they must embrace lifestyle-driven virtual teams to secure a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting the talent they will need to be successful. Professional services firms that can make this approach work will be in a better position to minimize the impact of the impending labour shortage.