Lifestyle-driven virtual teams: A new paradigm for professional services firms
The Workplace |
September / October 2012
Social changes in the workforce are leading more and moreIn recent years, professional services firms have watched as more and
employees to demand more and more control over how, when, and where they
work. The result, which is gaining increasing traction, is a rise in
lifestyle-driven virtual teams. 24/7? Running to Gate 9? Who needs
them. Especially when forward-looking employers can accommodate the
needs and wants of talented, ambitious employees by creating
lifestyle-driven virtual teams. This author describes how professional services firms that can make this approach work will make them employers of choice.
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
Virtual teams definedAny 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 riseThe 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
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
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. 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.
An emerging approach: Lifestyle-driven virtual teamsOnce 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
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
Virtual teams benefit employers and employees equallyIn 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.
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
Attracting and retaining a multigenerational workforceFor 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
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 productiveEmployers 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 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.
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.
Virtual teams come with unique challengesTo 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
- Managing conflict at arm’s length. Research has cited conflict management as a challenge for virtual teams, although it could be argued that less contact means less conflict.
Virtual teams succeed by using best practicesThe 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
 Executive Office of the President of the United States – Council of Economic Advisors, Work–Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility, 2011.
 K. Lister and T. Harnish, The State of Telework in the U.S.: How Individuals, Business and Government Benefit, 2011.
 B. Leonard, “Managing Virtual Teams,” HR Magazine, 1 June 2011.
 CultureWizard, The Challenge of Working on Virtual Teams, 2010.
 A. Konrad, Report on 2011 Women in Leadership Class Assignment: Connecting Ivey Alumni with HBA Students, 2011.
K. Ferrazzi, “Virtual Teams Can Outperform Traditional Teams,” HBR Blog
Network, 20 March 2012, available at
K. Ferrazzi, “Virtual Teams Can Outperform Traditional Teams,” HBR Blog
Network, 20 March 2012, available at
 Executive Office of the President of the United States – Council of Economic Advisors, Work–Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace CultureWizard, The Challenge of Working on Virtual Teams, 2010.
Lifestyle-driven virtual teams: A new paradigm for professional services firms - Ivey Business Journal