What is the difference between a remote team and a virtual team?

Millions of people started working remotely this year to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 throughout the workplace. This trend is set to continue at least for the foreseeable future, and since the pandemic began in late 2019, the two keywords that have been used again and again in business circles are “remote” and “virtual.”

Many people use these two words interchangeably, assuming they mean the same thing. While the overall meaning is the same, subtle differences are vital to small business owners and managers across industry lines.

The remote vs. virtual debate should matter within your office. Not sure why? Not all remote is virtual, and not all virtual teams work remotely. It may help to understand the definition of each.

Defining Remote Teams

What is remote? Team structures that meet this definition are those where all employees, or team members, are geographically isolated from one another but report to a single manager.

The key here is that every team member falls under the responsibility of one person- usually a leader or manager.

For example, imagine a single company in which ten medical writers are working on the issue after issue of a publication sent to clients. Each works remotely from his or her home office.

Each writes about a different topic for a particular issue of an upcoming publication. The similarity here is that they all report to a single manager.

That manager helps to direct each employee on the next issue, makes assignments, and handles all of the personnel decisions involved for that team.

In short, a remote team is assembled to complete pieces of the same project, and everyone on that team answers to the same leader or manager. The most important thing to remember about this model is that they may be physically located in different cities or countries. Remote working is quite common in many industries, particularly in the technology sector and in small businesses across the globe.

What is a Virtual Team?

Virtual teams are also comprised of many employees. They can be geographically isolated from each other, but that’s not always the case. They’re all working together on a single project.

The key difference is that they each report to a different manager. For example, imagine a large hospital system is creating a COVID-19 vaccination drive.

The team must include some different professionals, including nurses, pharmacists, technologists, doctors, social workers, and so on.

Each of these professionals may work from a different location, but some of them may be at the same campus. Either way, they all report to someone within their department – the nurses report to a nursing manager, the pharmacists report to the pharmacy manager, etc.

Virtual teams work this way so that every team member has the tools, equipment, and knowledge necessary to contribute to the project in a meaningful way.

Suppose the social worker reported to a pharmacy manager in the example above. In that case, he or she may not be able to access the necessary tools to make a solid contribution to the team.

In summary, a virtual team is a team of individuals working together to complete a specific project, but each team member answers to a different manager.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Each Model

So, how do you choose the team structure that makes the most sense for your organization? Understanding the pros and cons of both models may help you make the right decision.

Remote teams . . .

  • Experience low overhead costs, as no office space or furniture, is needed, nor are there utility bills to be paid.
  • Tend to experience high employee satisfaction rates.
  • Can utilize talent from across the globe.
  • Tend not to be socially close to each other, as very little interaction occurs.
  • Tend to have lower customer ratings as customers don’t understand how remote teams operate.
  • Present a higher data security risk.

Virtual teams . . .

  • Have no limits or boundaries on working hours.
  • Offer greater scalability.
  •  Experience better productivity rates.
  • Tend to be more fragmented because each member reports to a different leader.
  • Experience greater communication gaps due to varied leadership styles.

Making the Choice to Meet Your Needs

The remote vs. virtual debate is not likely to disappear soon. Instead, it will only continue as companies try to find their new normal in the days and weeks ahead.

Whether you choose a remote model to meet your company’s needs or a virtual model, understanding the demands of your project at hand, the needs of your employees, and the culture of your brand will help you make the right choice.