Challenges of managing virtual teams
— May 4th, 2021
The concept of the virtual team can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the scope of setting up a diverse and flexible super-group (say, the guitarist from Led Zeppelin, the drummer from The Beatles, the bass player from Black Sabbath, perchance?) with an array of honed skills and specific talents may seem like a dream scenario.
But the reality of managing such a diverse range of individuals can often be a challenge fraught with personality conflicts and missed deadlines at best, especially if the group is not pulling in the same direction. Thankfully, there are a number of strategies on hand to help you out.
Digital engagement strategies for remote workers and furloughed team members
What it means to be part of a virtual team
Virtual teams are here to stay. As Assul Miguel writes, “Remote work is a tool which enables companies to remain competitive in an intensely globalized environment. At the same time, this carries its difficulties and fields of opportunity.”
The reality of managing a cross-culture, multi-time zone band of individuals can seem like an impossible task, but what it really boils down to is an understanding of the team as a whole and the forces that both drive and diminish the individual in what can become an isolating workspace experience.
Some of the pitfalls that dog effective management of such teams can be, but are not limited to, the following three areas:
- Low group dynamic
- Slow response time
- Poor communication
“The 2012 Virtual Teams Survey Report found that in the virtual workplace decisions take longer to make, the absence of visual cues makes it more difficult to collaborate, and building team trust is difficult. The survey also identified working across time zones as one of the biggest hurdles facing corporate employees.”
Righting the ship
What we can take away from this is that A, people work harder and smarter when they feel like they are part of a valued team, and B, that the team is only as good as the sum of its parts – those parts being equally valued individuals.
What makes the individual feel valued, vital, and relevant, is the ability to be able to contribute to the free exchange of ideas across the pay grade spectrum on an equal and fair playing field. Opinions should be encouraged and alternative points of view should be heard in order to promote a harmonious, free-thinking environment in which a team can flourish. This could be achieved by implementing the following methods of team management:
- Encourage re-analysis and experimentation via group brainstorming sessions to re-examine methodology in relation to the pursuit of individual and team goals, where opinions are heard and given credence.
- Set out a time management plan so that everyone is on the same page. Remember to include appropriate response time guidelines with an eye toward time-zone variances across the board, making sure that the whole team is aware of this.
- Coordinate core contactable hours to ensure deadlines are met and the team is up to speed with not only the overall goal but individual responsibilities towards that goal.
Focusing on the individual
At the end of the day, a team is only as strong as its members. Sebastian Bailey from Forbes writes, “While cohesiveness builds gradually in face-to-face teams, virtual teams often feel like no more than globally dispersed individuals working on the same project. It’s difficult to build an ‘all for one and one for all’ spirit via disjointed emails.”
To effectively combat this sense of disparity, you may want to invest in team-building exercises via global digital hangouts, encourage conference calls where all team members are present, and, perhaps most importantly of all, consider implementing one of the many social media apps that are available whereupon a closed group can be created explicitly to encourage social bonding – after all, every individual need their 'water cooler' moment, digital or otherwise.
A virtual hangout at this stage could be seen as something of a necessity. When creating this type of closed group it may be helpful to consider that:
- Encouraging accessible user profiles for each member of the team, stating common interests and likes including film, television, music, and literature can lead to frequent and less anxious ice-breaker moments.
- Getting into the habit of posting leading questions, with one eye towards the optimistic, may help encourage and reinvigorate debate.
- Above all else ensuring a friendly, informal attitude persists in these digital domains may be your number one priority. This is as much a 'staff room' as it is an ice-breaker, after all.
Taking it one step further
Successful management of a flourishing team relies on respect, trust, and communication. Knowing your team inside and out can be a constant challenge across a digital workspace, but it can be a great benefit to managers and team leaders alike when considering which approach to adopt in the pursuit of crafting a well-thought-out and balanced environment for the team to succeed.
And so, with this in mind, we can glance towards the realm of psychology for advice and guidance, starting with Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D. who writes, “Identity is never “final” and continues to develop through the lifespan. Knowing one’s identity accurately increases self-esteem and reduces depression and anxiety. When people are doing what they think they should be doing, they are happy.”
Being able to consider not only the overall identity of the group but being conscious of the identity of each individual member within the group is a likely model for success.
As people, our identities are created and affected by internal and external stimuli, and a key fact for managers to be aware of when physical face-to-face interactions are not an option is the way in which our written words and virtual correspondence impact and influence the remote worker.
Digital engagement strategies for remote workers and furloughed team members
What is needed for effective virtual teams?
In order for a virtual team to operate effectively, there must exist a certain level of trust between its members. When individuals are spread out across different locations, and often different continents, it is difficult to keep up regular and efficient communication.
This lack of connection and access to regular updates can jeopardize the level of trust between teams, ultimately affecting the standard of their work.
When it comes to building trust, it’s important to realize that this is not something that happens overnight but is instead the result of a joint effort from team members to reach out and build relationships with each other no matter the distance between them.
By getting to know each other on a personal level, and making an effort to communicate more through the platforms available to them, team members will come to understand that they can rely on each other to reach shared goals and objectives.
One of the major keys to success when it comes to managing a virtual team lies in finding ways to collaborate effectively despite geographical divides. Software tools are a great option to aid virtual collaboration and make it easier for remote teams to work alongside one another.
By implementing project management software, team members will be able to keep a close eye on what tasks are being completed by others in the group. This makes it easy to work on shared projects without there being any overlaps and allows each individual to play to their own strengths.
Any capable team leader understands the importance of ensuring each member of their team is engaged in their work. When employees feel as if contributions are not valued and appreciated, it will be evident in the standard of their work. Leaders must help them understand that the work they do is important and of value to the team.
Once each person sees that what they do plays a part in the team’s overall success, it will motivate them to continue to work hard and improve their overall engagement, motivation, and sense of job satisfaction. Furthermore, teams that possess engaged employees consistently perform better, leading to high profitability and retention.
Keeping open lines of communication is essential for virtual teams to overcome the physical distance between them. Thankfully, in the digital era, there exist endless ways for workers to keep in regular contact with one another.
By utilizing IM messaging services, team members can communicate in real-time to discuss project details, collect information, or provide important updates. Video meetings are also an effective way for remote teams to stay in contact with one another, and work great for one-on-one meetings or team building activities.
In certain situations, where virtual workers are located in the same city or area, it can be beneficial for leaders to organize a kickstart, face-to-face meeting for team members to get to know each other in person before they begin interacting virtually.
Benefits of Virtual Working
Lower office costs – Remote working allows leaders to save on office costs such as rent, electricity, computer equipment, etc.
Greater availability of talent – When leaders have the option of hiring workers from anywhere in the world, it opens the door to a much wider talent pool. It also provides the opportunity to offer potential recruits higher salaries or incentives as a result of the money being saved on running an office.
Retention of employees – Many workers enjoy the benefits and flexibility that come with working from home, and having the opportunity to do so will make them satisfied to remain in their current roles.
Lower employee costs – Depending on the location they live in, employees with the same capabilities and skillset can demand significantly different salaries. Being able to hire employees from destinations with low costs of living, is an effective way for leaders to cut back on expenses.
Reduced travel time – Not having to drive to work every day or spend endless hours on public transport is not only a major benefit for employees but for the environment.
Increased productivity – With flexible working, fewer office distractions, and reduced travel times, remote employees have many reasons to be more productive than those based in the office.
Access multiple markets – By recruiting remote employees in multiple locations or areas they wish to expand to, companies have the ability to easily access new markets, without having the costs associated with opening a physical working space.
A 24-hour workday – By hiring employees from different time zones, organizations can allocate shifts that cover an entire 24-hour period, greatly increasing the amount of work that can be completed in a standard working day.
Back in 2014 Richard Branson stated that: “One day, offices will be a thing of the past” and it appears he was on the right track. In an increasingly modern and globalized world, virtual teams have become a way of life. However, the running of this type of team does not come without its fair share of challenges, and issues regarding culture, coordination and communication are common problems that must be addressed by team leaders.
To succeed in managing a high-performing virtual team, leaders must work hard to create open lines of communication, assign clear roles and responsibilities, and let every individual know that their input is appreciated and valued.
Without taking this action, leaders run the risk of having a team of unmotivated and isolated employees, out of touch with the team's goals and objectives. Nevertheless, by taking appropriate action, leaders will reap the benefits of managing a virtual team such as saving on employee and office costs, having access to workers from all over the globe, and possessing a strong workforce of engaged and satisfied employees.