There are many challenges involved in leading virtual teams and I know that many of you here either work with virtual teams or teach online sometimes (in addition to offline).
So, in this post, I want to cover the challenges you might face when managing or being part of a virtual team, and importantly I’ll cover a few of the solutions.
The challenges of working in virtual teams can be grouped into four categories:
- engagement (of team members with one another)
- and logistics (anything that has to do with organizing and coordinating a team).
So let’s look at each area in more detail and then afterwards we’ll look at some solutions.
The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams
Staying and Keeping the Team Motivated and Motivation
It is far easier to be distracted – As the members of a virtual team tend to work independently, and often from home, it is easier for them to get distracted from their work than if they were working in an office.
Risk of burnout due to loss of separation between work and personal life – While more flexibility is a good thing, there is also the risk that the boundary between private life and work becomes blurred.
So, staff may be tempted to check their emails late at night, for example, or to keep working on the computer until late to catch up. This can lead to burnout.
Accountability may be harder to maintain – As staff members work remotely and far away from scrutiny, they may feel less accountable than they might do if they were in an office with a manager always able to check on them.
Engagement can be harder when working in virtual teams
Hard to socialize and to build trust and cohesion among team members – Working in separate locations, it is harder for people to socialize and get to know each other.
Normally, in an office, people get to chat about different things by the water cooler or as they make a cup of tea or coffee. This does not happen if people do not work in the same space.
Harder to share common ground – Because virtual team members can be very diverse (from different organizations, countries etc.), they may find it hard to share things in common.
This, in turn, can have a negative impact on the trust they feel towards each other. Trust is important in a team because it provides people with a sense of safety, which allows them to relax and work better together.
Feeling of isolation and disconnection – As team members work alone, never engaging in chats with anyone, they may feel isolated.
Cultural diversity – While cultural diversity can be an asset for creativity and innovation, it can also be a barrier to communication and trust.
Communication and Managing Virtual teams
Decreased body language cues when communicating – When communicating online, via email or instant messaging, for example, we lose the ability to see the other person’s body language and the intonation of their voice.
This can lead to a feeling of discomfort and to misunderstandings.
Using the phone and audio conferences at least allows us to hear the other person’s voice.
Video conferencing is the best method to communicate if we cannot meet face to face, as it provides us with some visual cues. However, as yet, nothing can completely replace the richness of face-to-face communication.
Misinterpretation of written text – Because of what we have just mentioned, it is easy to misinterpret the written text.
Many of us will have experienced reading an email and thinking it was abrupt or rude when the sender did not have any intention to be rude.
It is just that other cues are missing to reveal the mood of the person writing.
In addition, when we write emails, we often try to be as concise as we can, which can be misinterpreted as rudeness.
Ignoring communication and/or lack of communication expectations – This can happen particularly with emails. Sometimes you write to someone and they do not reply as soon as you think they should.
- Is it because they are ignoring you?
- Did they overlook the email as they have too many messages in their inbox?
- Are they currently working on your query and it is taking time to provide an answer?
- Are they not checking their emails because they want to focus on an important task?
There is no way for you to know unless there are communication etiquette guidelines that set rules as to when and how people should reply to emails.
Logistical Challenges When Working in Virtual Teams
High reliance on technology – When it comes to technology, it is important to employ the right technology and always have a backup plan in case something goes wrong.
A traditional team is less reliant on communication technology when it comes to communication between staff, because you can always get up and go and talk to somebody at their desk. In a virtual team, this is not possible and you cannot communicate without technology.
Lack of IT support – There is no IT staff on hand to come to people’s computers to help them out and this is a real issue for some people.
Managing across time zones – If the time difference is big, it can be very challenging to talk to each other. Asynchronous (i.e., happening at different times) communication methods, such as emails, may be the only option but this can slow things down.
Sometimes though you need to communicate quickly and you need to find solutions to manage this problem.
It can also be very easy to confuse or mix up the time zones when arranging online meeting times.
Physical distance – This can be a challenge if and when the need arises to meet in person.
10 Practices to Ensure Motivation When Managing a Virtual Team
So let’s good at some example solutions but focusing on the motivation issues that we have discussed above.
1. Hire the Right Person for the Job.
The first thing is to hire the right people who can work in a virtual team. Working remotely is not for everyone and a virtual team member needs to have some specific characteristics, such as self-management, being a good communicator, and not missing a regular social working environment.
2. Provide Onboarding Training
When a new member joins a virtual team, arrange for them a proper onboarding process (i.e. an introduction to their team and to the organization and its mission and culture). Just because they work remotely, it does not mean that a new virtual team member can do with just a short e-mail or conference call with the rest of the team and a bunch of documents that they are supposed to read and digest.
If at all possible, meet with the new employee in person, at least when they start. Bring them to the headquarters of the company (if practical) so they can see what it is like and introduce them to some people there.
Arrange a video conference with the rest of the team and take your time to introduce the new team member.
It is also good practice to assign the newcomer to a mentor, someone to build a connection with, and who can answer questions quickly.
3. Set Clear Expectations for the Virtual Team Members
This is important for accountability. A team member needs to know exactly:
- which tasks they are expected to carry out and how
- what their goals are
- any work and team processes they need to follow
- their role and responsibilities
- and the required level of virtual interaction with the rest of the team.
Expectations should be clear and set upfront.
4. Set Clear Goals (Aligning Individual Goals with Overriding Team Goals).
Team members need to know exactly what their goals are and their individual goals need to be aligned with the goals of the team as a whole. This way, they will see how their role fits in, how they are helping, and that what they are doing matters for the whole team.
5. Monitor and Assess Performance
Performance management is important for virtual teams too. If you monitor and assess your teams and each member individually, you can determine if team members are taking responsibility for their actions.
Collecting feedback from your team members is vital to help identify impediments that need to be overcome, for the team to improve its performance.
6. Empower Your Virtual Team Members
Your virtual team members need to feel empowered to do their job.
If you give them the authority to make decisions, they will feel a higher level of commitment.
7. Make Sure the Employee is Comfortable.
This refers to the physical environment in which they work. If they are happy to work at home, make sure they have access to support and advice to make their workstation safe and comfortable.
If they prefer to leave their home, you can provide arrangements for them to work in shared offices. This way, even if they are not working directly with those around them, they will still have some social interaction with other people.
Working in an active busy office environment, can facilitate work and boost motivation for the remote worker.
Also, keeping their work and home environment separate can help them concentrate on work when in the shared office and disconnect when they are at home.
8. Provide the Right Tools and Training if Needed
This is vital to allow employees to do their job properly. They need access to the most suitable technology and training to know how to use it.
9. Provide Support and be Accessible
It is important for you to be accessible to provide support should the employee need it.
This is the case for every employee but even more so for a remote worker who cannot see you in person. So, it is a good idea to phone your remote employees daily, even for a short chat to know if everything is well and get some feedback.
It is also a reminder to them that they are not alone. Alternatively, you could touch base via email or instant messaging. The contact does not need to last a long time, but it must be regular.
10. Give Rewards (Both Tangible and Intangible)
Reward your team members for their achievements. This is a very good way to boost morale and motivation.
You need to highlight both individual and team successes.
You can set, for example, an intranet page with all the positive feedback the team receives from customers. Or you can hold an annual celebration meeting somewhere, or a team away day where they can experience something nice together.
Tangible items are sometimes more appropriate for expressing appreciation. For example, a thank you note in the post or a voucher. Do not underestimate the power of tangible items in strengthening connections.
Solutions for Managing Engagement, Communication, and Logistics with Virtual Teams
So we’ve looked at 10 ways to overcome the ‘Motivation‘ issues that can occur when managing and working with virtual teams. That leaves engagement, communication, and logistics.
Those all are detailed in length in the training course materials that you can use for teaching managers how to manage virtual teams and you can find information below:
Dr Paul Symonds
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