8 MIN READ
Managing Virtual Teams
Team Working That Overcomes Time and Location
Our working habits are changing. Advances in communications technology mean that more and more organizations are expanding their horizons.
It's never been easier for companies to operate across international borders, and many professionals are taking advantage of technology to work from home.
As a result, there has been enormous growth in the number of organizations relying on virtual teams to get their jobs or projects done.
Like any conventional team, a virtual team consists of a group of people who interact to complete interdependent tasks and work towards a common goal. But instead of working in the same office, the team members work in different places, often at home, and in different time zones. And they may never meet their co-workers face-to-face.
Members of a virtual team interact through a wide variety of online channels, such as Skype, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Asana. You can explore the pros and cons of these and other options in our blog, Top 10 Remote Working Apps.
Building a Virtual Team
Virtual teams often evolve rather than get planned that way. Whether you consciously decide to set up a virtual team or your virtual team has evolved, it's likely to be for one or more of the following reasons:
- In response to a crisis or emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic, when governments imposed severe restrictions on travel and social interaction.
- To take advantage of the choice of best skills and personnel, irrespective of your business's physical location.
- To offer 24-hour coverage by team members working across time zones.
- To reduce office overheads by having team members work from home.
- To enable cost effective and flexible resource scheduling: you can scale up or down as demand requires.
As a member of a virtual team, you can benefit from greater flexibility and freedom from many of the constraints of office working. Among the benefits you may find are:
- Being valued for your skills, irrespective of your physical location.
- Not having to face the waste of time, discomfort and cost of commuting.
- Working from any place you choose.
- Working at times that suit you.
- Physical disabilities are far less likely to be a hindrance.
When you set up a virtual team, the world is your oyster! You can recruit people with the right skills, irrespective of their location. You can take advantage of having team members in different time zones to offer your customers or clients round-the-clock availability or accessibility.
Also, you can easily bring in people who work on a part time basis, and easily integrate experts who need only contribute for a few hours each month.
On the one side, this means enormous flexibility. On the flip side, you face the challenge of managing people you may never meet, and dealing with people from widely different cultures, languages, and with different personalities.
You and your team members will face many challenges. Issues and difference can arise because of team members' different cultures and backgrounds. Each person has different expectations, different experience and different working styles. The team must work hard to ensure each person can contribute effectively and to ensure the team pulls together towards the common goal.
Challenges of Managing Virtual Teams
The single biggest challenge that virtual teams face is communication. Without the usual face-to-face daily exchanges between team members, you and your team members must make extra effort to communicate effectively.
For example, there are no chats by the water cooler, and it's not so easy to socialize outside office hours. So you need to make up for the loss of informal communications, make good use of communication technology.
Encourage your people to stay in touch and get to know one another better. Schedule daily or weekly remote get-togethers, using the apps and channels we mentioned above. You can also keep your people engaged and "in the loop" by experimenting with one or more of the following:
- Intranet team notice board, updated regularly with team news.
- Intranet team room, where people can share photos and get to know each other.
- Regular team newsletter.
- Team meetings by teleconferences.
- Occasional face-to-face meetings.
Above all, though, your communications infrastructure must work smoothly, and people must be happy using it without being hampered by inconvenience and with little thought for cost.
Recruiting for a Virtual Team
Recruiting and managing virtual teams is another challenge. It is not a given fact that a good team member in the conventional sense will perform equally well in a virtual environment. Your team members must be self-motivated, results-oriented and able to work independently. And of course, each team member must also be able to communicate effectively with the team lead and his or her team colleagues.
To manage a virtual team effectively, you must learn the strengths and weaknesses of each team member. And that's all the harder without daily, face-to-face opportunities to casually monitor and mentor each person.
Working remotely, you must give each team member the guidance and support they need and also build trust in each person's abilities and reliability. It's important to create the virtual equivalent of an "open door policy". Make sure team members know how to get what they need from you and encourage open and frequent communications.
Incentivizing and Rewarding Virtual Teams
Another management challenge is monitoring performance and aligning incentives. If this is important for successful management in a normal environment, it is absolutely fundamental to success with virtual teams.
You must choose whether to reward people for what they deliver or for set hours each day. Aligning incentives well can make management and monitoring much easier.
For example, a sales agent could be paid for each customer call they make. Whilst a service support executive may be paid for set hours to ensure you can provide a reliable response to urgent support calls. A journalist, meanwhile, may be rewarded for each article or for the number of good quality words they deliver.
In virtual teams, team building must be a very conscious process and effort. Stripped of the natural benefits of team socialization and trust building, the manager of a virtual team must provide the means and opportunities for team building that compensate.
Without the benefits of informal communication and casual chat, managers must actively and regularly communicate direction, ensure that team members know what they need to know, and that make sure that team members feel supported and appreciated.
More than this, team members working virtually should feel that they have the same opportunities for appreciation and promotion as those "at head office."
Managers must constantly work to avoid the very human error of giving preference to people they can see and whose hands they can shake. You can learn more about this in our article, Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work.
When managed effectively, your business and your team members will be able to enjoy the successes and benefits of working in a virtual team. Done properly, there can be huge advantages to virtual team work!
Changes in working patterns and advances in technology mean that more organizations are embracing the creation of virtual teams.
They offer considerable advantages, but can also present some challenges.
For example, virtual teams are not restricted by borders or time zones, and they offer people much greater flexibility. But it's important to maintain close and effective communication with your team members, and managers must avoid bias and give their virtual workers the same opportunities for recognition and reward as "traditional" office workers.