Best Practice

Challenges of managing virtual teams

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 are not pulling in the same direction. Thankfully, there are a number of strategies on hand to help you out.


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 both 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 times
  •         Poor communication

Needless to say, this can be problematic, and the effective management of such a team can come with its own set of challenges. We can look to Experteer for a real-world example. 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 are aware of this.
  •         Coordinate core contactable hours to ensure deadlines are met and the team are 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 needs 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.


To sum up: Happier individuals lead to happier results and an increase in group output and efficiency. From digital hangouts to transparent time management practices, the essence of keeping a virtual team together remains the same. It’s all about investing in people. Keeping sight of what drives and motivates your team – both as individuals and as a whole – can seem like a frequent chore, but it can also mean the difference between a group of disparate individuals, and a fully cohesive, driven team.


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