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Virtual teams vs traditional teams: the key differences to help you lead both

by Jun 24, 2020Leading yourself and your staff

For a virtual team, the challenges experienced by a traditional team increases manifold, particularly when it comes to communication, cohesion, and collaboration. These are the reasons for many small accounting firms not wanting to explore remote working and they are also the reasons that many small accounting firms are struggling now.

As many small accounting firms are being forced to become virtual for the foreseeable future, this means that leading virtual teams is now an essential skill for the survival of the small accounting firm. Are you struggling to adapt to managing a remote team? To help you make that transition, this article outlines the key differences between virtual teams vs traditional teams.

Virtual teams vs traditional teams: 7 key differences

There are many differences when comparing virtual teams vs traditional teams, but these key differences below are crucial to success. These factors are what will enable you to lead your small team and manage a virtual team effectively.

1) Selection of team members

As a small accountancy firm and a team, you have to get the right people on board. This is true whether your team is working in the same office or whether they are spread out all over the world with offshoring, the only difference is how these team members are selected. Put simply, when it comes to traditional teams, team members are largely selected based on their functional skills; in virtual teams, team members are largely selected based on core competencies that are in addition to these skills.

So what am I talking about and how can this help you lead your virtual team more effectively?

Working virtually brings challenges, challenges that are not easy for everyone. Lack of face-to-face interactions and social focus in a virtual setting might lead to isolation and loneliness. Lack of ‘in-your-face leadership’ calls for managing ambiguity, proactive networking, exceptional time-management and self-discipline, and on top of that, the ability to learn new technologies and collaborate across a distance.

What I’m getting at is that it doesn’t matter whether your team members are the most skilled people at what they do if they aren’t able to perform in a virtual team environment. This means, if you’re going to lead a virtual team more effectively, you need to provide additional support to help them with these skills and you need to have these at the forefront when hiring new members.

2) Organisation structure and support

While authority and hierarchies may support traditional teams and result in increased performance, remote working needs a flatter organisation structure. This is a key difference between virtual teams vs traditional teams. Given that your small accountancy firm probably already has a pretty flat structure courtesy of its size, this means it should be easier for the smaller accountancy firms to adjust than the larger accountancy firms.

To survive this massive adjustment period where working on-site just isn’t an option, firms will need to adjust their structures to one that is more supportive of remote work. All team members (regardless of the hierarchy) will need to pull together to create a virtual culture that encourages creativity and collaboration, and one that delivers results. This will involve much higher levels of communication and support to overcome the challenges that are arising from social distancing.

While this will be a massive adjustment for many, adapting your structure and level of support during this time is critical to success.(Help your team members create a new routine when working from home)

3) Leadership style

When a team is co-located, managers can take more of an active role in controlling day-to-day activities and monitoring employee performance. For example, you may have been taught the management technique of ‘management by walking’ about. I.e. walking the floor of the office and being visible and approachable to team members. This is a big reason for firms opting against remote working as it is assumed that the ‘command and control’ leadership type is what results in better productivity and performance. While this is true or not, small accountancy firms are now in the position where they have to run their business virtually and this type of leadership just isn’t possible.

To be successful in a virtual team setting, small accountancy firm owners need to have strong leadership skills and a style that is more democratic and coach-like. This means making intentional decisions, delegating not just tasks but authority too, and working with the team rather than just managing them. To manage a virtual team successfully, there is no room for weak leadership, otherwise, this will negatively impact the team.

However, the challenge for many owners of small accountancy firms is that they may have received little or no leadership training in their career. And we are hearing this now with our members. Virtual working has helped them see exactly where there are issues with their team, certain individuals and how their firm actually works in practice. Working together in an office often papers over any cracks in how the firm works. It’s also much harder for other team members, when working virtually, to cover up any other team members’ performance issues.

Get the right skill-set and mindset to be a strong virtual leader:

4) Communication and problem-solving

It should come as no surprise that virtual teams struggle more with misunderstandings or gaps in communication. With that being said, however, a lot of managers probably don’t realise just how much information is being exchanged during ‘informal discussions’ while in the office so they are not accounting for this now that they have to manage their teams virtually. If you’re struggling to manage your team remotely, it may be due to the fact that you are not compensating for this water cooler chat that usually takes place in a traditional work setting. To do this, create an informal group thread where team members can engage in more casual conversation.

Other communication issues that virtual teams can suffer from are delays in fixing a problem or reaching a consensus. This can be due to distance or time zone differences as you can’t just pull the whole team into a meeting like you can in a traditional setting. Or do a quick shout out around everyone in the office. As a result, quick decisions and problem-solving are harder to achieve. To minimise these issues, make sure you have the right practice management software in place to provide and receive frequent status updates; you will also need a shared database which everyone can access and see all the necessary information, and you will need to agree on deadlines and schedule regular team meetings.

5) Training and tools

Every team, whether co-located or distributed, needs the appropriate training and the right tools to be able to work effectively. (And especially small accountancy firms!) When it comes to virtual teams, however, this is absolutely crucial.

Within a firm, the training process is more established, systems are streamlined and the tools to support them are usually already in place. When it comes to virtual teams, especially when in this situation you haven’t had the time to prepare for it, you may have to do this alongside creating new daily structures and meeting deadlines which just makes it that much harder.

There are many tools available today to aid remote working, you just need to invest the initial time to find what works best for your team and to train them on how to use it.

Remember that productivity cartoon where the cavemen are trying to drag a crate with square wheels and they turn down the suggestion of circle wheels because they are ‘too busy?’ Bear this in mind when you’re trying to implement new software! While any change is going to take up a lot of your time and effort initially, it will serve to make the whole team more efficient and your life easier. Apps and software such as Zoom, Asana, Go-To-Meeting, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and

Monday.com, are all commonplace among virtual teams and all serve to bridge that distance. And specialist Accountancy Practice Management tools such as Senta and Karbon (as well as the other newer cloud based practice management tools) will also help your virtual team work more efficiently. Remember, if the tools aren’t there to support your team, then the team can’t be successful.

Read: What caused us to put in place a new practice management system in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis?

6) Relationship building

Looking at the key differences of virtual teams vs traditional teams, relationships are a big one. It makes sense, of course, since traditional team members meet in the workplace every day so it’s easier to develop those close social ties; they strike a rapport with each other when they interact face-to-face while virtual team interactions are more task-focused. With a lack of verbal cues and gestures in a virtual setting, it is this limitation in personalisation that makes it harder for relationships to develop among virtual team members.

While it is true that it is easier to build relationships in the office, this doesn’t necessarily mean that relationships will develop. People are different and being around each other for the majority of the day, 5 days a week can be a challenge in itself. In the case where team members don’t get on for whatever reason, this perceived distance between them can cause a team to suffer just as much as actual distance could.

So what is the take away from this? Relationships and trust take time and effort, regardless of whether the team are sitting together or are distributed across the globe. While it may take more effort to build relationships in a virtual team, relationships can be just as strong or stronger even despite the distance. In some cases, it could be due to the distance.

7) Shared purpose and understanding

A team has to have a shared purpose and it must achieve a shared understanding. If it doesn’t, then you will experience problems with performance, cohesion, and growth. Again, this is perhaps easier to achieve in a traditional setting where actual communication is taking place but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be achieved virtually.

A shared understanding can’t be accomplished with documentation alone. What I mean by this is that outlining the vision for the firm and team values in a document and emailing them to your team won’t be enough. (It wasn’t right before the COVID-19 crisis hit, and it’s definitely not right now.) You need to be having the right conversations, reminding them of where they fit into the firm and why what they are doing is important, as well as instilling these values in everything that the team is doing. More often than not, good documentation is often the result of good conversations so have these conversations intentionally. If you develop a shared purpose and understanding as a team, this will make a massive difference to your productivity, performance, and growth moving forwards.

Successfully lead a virtual team

As we said at the start of this article, it is looking like small accountancy firms will be virtual for the foreseeable future. This means that for better or worse, leading virtual teams is now crucial to their success so practice owners need to be able to make that transition.

Despite the challenges that virtual working brings, these can be overcome with strong leadership; leadership that focuses on communication and collaboration, and using the right tools and technology to build trust and cohesion. Hopefully, using these key differences between virtual teams vs traditional teams, you can make that transition.