Remote work has become a new normal for many organisations. Depending on which poll you read, 60-70% of workers who transitioned to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic would prefer to continue working remotely as much as possible. This shift towards location-agnostic work has led to an exponential growth in virtual teams.
While virtual teams allow organisations to leverage talent and expertise across geographies, managing a distributed workforce does come with its own set of challenges. Communication issues, lack of facetime and cultural differences can create roadblocks to collaboration and alignment. However, with the right strategies and tools in place, these hurdles can be overcome. Leaders who embrace flexibility and focus on outcomes over face time will be best positioned to unlock the full potential of virtual teams.
Exactly What Are We Talking About?
For our purposes, a virtual team is a group of people who work remotely from different locations and use technology to collaborate. This distinction is important – technology is the glue that brings people together…if used effectively.
Virtual teams communicate and collaborate primarily through various digital tools like video conferencing, chat apps, file-sharing services, and project management software allowing them to effectively work together without having to be physically present in the same room or office. Team members may meet in person occasionally, but the bulk of their interactions and workflow happen online.
With advancements in communication technology and internet connectivity, virtual teams have become an appealing work structure for many organisations. They provide increased flexibility, access to global talent pools, and the ability to quickly scale teams up or down based on workload and projects. Businesses today leverage virtual teams to improve productivity and efficiency while reducing costs associated with travel, relocation, and office space.
One of the biggest benefits of having a virtual team is access to global talent pools. Since team members can be located anywhere, organisations can hire the best talent for a role regardless of location. This allows companies to build highly skilled and diverse teams. With the ability to hire top talent around the world, virtual teams have the potential to be more productive than traditional teams.
Virtual teams can also lead to increased productivity. Without commuting time or distractions of an office environment, remote employees often accomplish more while working at home. Team members can work during the hours that are most convenient and productive for them. Working virtually also allows employees to avoid wasting time commuting and eliminates distractions around the office.
Significant cost savings is another advantage of virtual teams. Businesses can save on real estate expenses by allowing employees to work remotely. With fewer employees working on-site, companies can maintain smaller offices. Virtual teams also reduce costs associated with commuting, parking, electricity, office supplies and other expenses tied to physical office space. Overall, having a distributed workforce translates into lower overhead for organisations.
So, What’s the Downside?
Managing a virtual team comes with unique challenges that require adaptive leadership. Without the benefit of frequent face-to-face interactions, managers must find new ways to build trust, streamline communication, and overcome technological barriers that can hamper productivity.
One of the biggest challenges of leading a virtual team is establishing trust among team members. When people don’t see each other regularly, building interpersonal bonds that facilitate trust and cooperation is harder. Managers need to be more intentional and proactive when developing relationships in a virtual setting. Having regular video calls instead of just emails and chat messages can help. Promoting interaction between team members by scheduling virtual social events and team-building activities is also important.
Communication can also suffer in a dispersed team environment. Misunderstandings happen more easily when communication is primarily written rather than verbal and visual. Lag time in responses can stall progress on projects. And employees can feel isolated without the casual communications that happen naturally in an office setting. Managers need to establish clear communication standards and norms for the team. Using videoconferencing instead of phone calls or emails for complex matters is recommended. Regular meetings should also be scheduled to touch base and provide opportunities for team discussion.
Lastly, technological issues like unreliable internet connections or incompatible platforms and tools can hamper productivity for virtual teams. Managers should investigate options for cloud-based collaboration tools and ensure all team members receive training and support for any new software. Clear protocols should be put in place for what to do when technological problems arise. Having patience and understanding when technical difficulties occur is also key.
With proactive efforts to build trust, optimise communication, and minimise technology issues, managers can successfully overcome the challenges posed by virtual teams. The keys are adapting leadership strategies to the virtual environment, being intentional about relationship building, and leveraging technology to best connect dispersed team members.
Best Practices for Managing Virtual Teams
Managing a virtual team comes with its own unique set of challenges. However, implementing some key best practices can help ensure your remote employees are engaged, aligned, and performing at their best. Here are some effective strategies for managing a virtual team:
With team members spread across locations, consistent communication is crucial. Set expectations for communication frequency and channels upfront. Daily stand-up meetings via video conference allow team members to align on priorities and surface any roadblocks. Regular one-on-one check-ins provide coaching and support. Chat tools like Slack facilitate real-time collaboration. Just be careful to avoid inundating your team with too many communication channels.
Remote team members need clarity around objectives and how their work aligns with company goals. Set clear KPIs and use project management tools to track progress. Celebrate wins along the way to keep the team motivated. Performance reviews should be frequent and focused on growth and development areas. Without visibility in an office, virtual team members need extra guidance around priorities and performance.
With team members around the globe, cultural gaps can hinder teamwork. Provide cultural awareness training and resources to help bridge those divides. Encourage empathy and patience as team members get to know each other. Develop a code of conduct that establishes respect and inclusion as core values. Respecting different backgrounds and communication styles is key for a collaborative global team.
Trust is essential for any team, but even more so for virtual teams with geographically dispersed members. Trust is necessary for team members to feel safe and energized, leading to lack of collaboration and improved performance. Leaders of virtual teams need to take extra steps to build trust among their teams.
One important way to build trust is by having face-to-face meetings, at least initially. Meeting team members in person allows for relationship building through informal conversations and interactions that just aren’t possible virtually. Periodic face-to-face get-togethers, even for short meetings or social events, reinforce connections.
Team building activities, both virtual and in-person, are another great trust builder. Activities that allow team members to get to know one another personally help break down barriers. Games, sharing hobbies or interests, and off-topic conversations allow relationships to form.
Informal communication also goes a long way in building trust in virtual teams. Conversations that aren’t strictly work-related allow team members to find common ground and relate to one another. Leaders should encourage and make time for water cooler chat like in an office setting.
The more team members interact informally and relate interpersonally, the more they trust one another. And trust is the glue that holds virtual teams together to perform at their highest potential.
With team members spread across locations, robust communication tools are essential for managing a productive virtual team. Reliable technology enables collaboration, relationship building and oversight across distances.
Video conferencing has become invaluable for virtual teams. Seeing coworkers on video creates a sense of togetherness and engagement during meetings and one-on-one discussions. Tools like Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams facilitate screen sharing and video calls from any device.
Instant messaging maintains connection among team members in different time zones. Platforms like Slack allow for quick conversations while keeping workflows transparent. Instant messaging encourages asking questions and clarifying information in real-time.
Project management platforms like Asana, Trello and Monday.com provide transparency. All documents, data, discussions and tasks reside in a shared virtual workspace. Remote workers can get up to speed and follow project progress seamlessly. Managers gain insight into workloads and team engagement.
Leaders can foster team cohesion and productivity across virtual work environments using modern communication technology. The human connection remains integral, even when collaborating through a screen.
Managing a virtual team comes with unique challenges when measuring productivity and output. Without physically seeing your employees at work every day, how can you ensure they are actually being productive?
The key is to set clear, quantifiable goals that each team member is responsible for meeting. Goals could include daily tasks completed, calls made, emails answered, or measurable project milestones. Require team members to provide regular status updates on their progress. This allows you to spot potential issues early and course correct if someone is falling behind.
Utilise project management software to assign tasks, set deadlines, and track progress. Programs like Asana, Trello, or Basecamp provide transparency into who is working on what. You can view real-time activity and ensure deliverables don’t fall through the cracks. Automated reports allow you to pull hard data on individual and team productivity metrics.
Most importantly, focus on evaluating output and results rather than time spent working. Don’t micromanage hours as you may with an in-office team. Set clear objectives and provide the right tools for your virtual team to successfully accomplish them. Measure their success based on goals met.
Virtual teams are becoming increasingly common in today’s global business landscape. While managing a team spread across locations certainly poses some challenges, the benefits often outweigh the difficulties. Virtual teams allow organisations to leverage talent and expertise wherever it exists, unconstrained by geographic boundaries.
Looking to the future, we can expect to see virtual teams continue to rise in prevalence. Advances in communication technologies will help bridge the physical divide between team members. Cultural intelligence and emotional intelligence training can equip managers to better lead diverse, distributed groups. With proper implementation of best practices around communication, relationship building, and performance management, virtual teams have the potential to be highly productive, innovative, and engaged.
In summary, virtual teams are the way of the work world going forward. By focusing on inclusion, connection, and clarity across locations, savvy managers can unlock immense potential in their distributed squads. With a solutions-oriented mindset and the right tools, leading virtual teams can not only work, it can thrive. Though it requires conscientious effort, the payoff is worth it. Teams that embrace flexibility and diversity are poised to succeed in our increasingly interconnected world.