11 MIN READ
Working in a Virtual Team
Using Technology to Communicate and Collaborate
Marissa is a skilled professional who works as part of a virtual team. Her teammates are all highly competent, and she enjoys being part of a diverse and intelligent group. However, she finds the virtual side of her work challenging.
She collaborates closely with a few colleagues but has found it hard to build relationships with other teammates. Many of her co-workers are located in different countries, and they rely heavily on email, instant messaging (IM), and video chat to communicate.
She has often caught herself jumping to conclusions or misinterpreting emails, and sometimes the division of labor and project expectations are unclear. As a result, team interactions can be strained and unsure, and conflicts have arisen.
If you're part of a virtual team, then Marissa's situation may sound familiar. Virtual teams are commonplace. But, while they offer flexibility, increased job satisfaction, and higher productivity, virtual teams also come with a number of challenges that can undermine goals, relationships, and team effectiveness.
In this article, we'll look at how you can work successfully in a virtual team.
Virtual Teams and Remote Working
According to the authors Linack and Stamps, a virtual team is a group of people working across time and space and organizational boundaries using technology to communicate and collaborate. As such, virtual teams allow organizations to bring together people with the best expertise, regardless of where they live.
The number of people engaged in virtual work continues to rise each year:
- In their 2018 survey, Flexjobs found that there had been a 22 percent increase in telecommuting from 2017 to 2018.
- Owl Labs' 2019 remote workers report found that 54 percent of U.S. workers work remotely at least once a month, 48 percent work remotely at least once a week, and 30 percent work remotely full-time.
- Global Workplace Analytics claims that remote working grew 173 percent between 2005 and 2018.
Virtual teams can consist of professionals who work from home full-time or part-time, others who take part in mobile work (coming to a fixed office but working outside this space for part of the week), or people who work at a remote location.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on remote working. Entire organizations across the world are now suddenly required to work remotely from home for an indefinite period of time. This unprecedented global event has made it more important than ever to face the challenges that come with being a part of a virtual team.
Challenges for Virtual Teams
Working in a virtual team presents many challenges. When you can't see your colleagues face-to-face, and you don't have the social interactions that build relationships and rapport, it can be difficult to establish trust.
If it isn't managed correctly, this lack of trust can undermine everything that the team is trying to achieve.
Another major challenge is communication, especially when a remote team includes members from different countries and cultures. It can also be harder to pick up the visual cues (such as body language and facial expressions) that make communication flow, even when you're using video.
Finally, it can be more difficult to voice your opinion in a virtual team, and it can be harder to resolve team conflict.
Working Effectively in a Virtual Team
Fortunately, there are many tools and strategies that you can use to work successfully in a virtual team and tackle these challenges head-on.
Communicating in a Virtual Team
Effective communication is important within a virtual team. Open, honest communication not only helps you to avoid misunderstandings, but it will also increase your effectiveness.
To find out how well you communicate, and to get tips on how to improve your weaker areas, take our interactive quiz, How Good Are Your Communication Skills? Next, use the 7Cs of Communication as a checklist to make sure that your video calls, emails, presentations, and instant messages are as clear, courteous and timely as possible.
Try to listen actively when someone else is speaking, and never attempt to multitask. Give the other person your full attention – this is a sign of respect, and you'll understand them better, too.
If you work in a global team, learn good cross-cultural communication skills. Our article on Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas helps you to avoid unintended or embarrassing mistakes with team members from different countries.
Tools such as Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms present different communication challenges. Keep in mind that your team members' internet connection might not be as fast as yours, so speak slowly and clearly.
Before the meeting starts, make sure everyone can hear and see well enough. Encourage everyone to speak at some point and to ask for clarification if they miss something. Without visual cues, it's more likely people will speak over each other – be patient and try to recognize that no one is at fault when this happens.
See our article How to Run Effective Virtual Meetings for more information on getting videoconferencing right.
Raising Issues in Virtual Teams
At times, you might need to raise issues, or sensitive topics, with your boss, colleagues, or employees. When this occurs, think about how you're going to communicate.
Giving feedback and delivering bad news is best done in person. However, when this isn't possible, try to set up a video chat or phone call, rather than sending an email or IM. When your team members can hear your tone of voice or see your facial expressions, they'll less likely misinterpret what you're saying.
You owe it to yourself and your team to be honest about any issues that arise. Often, it's best to voice concerns as and when they happen. Be assertive, and learn how to manage your emotions so that you stay cool, calm, and collected.
Finally, learn good conflict resolution skills, so that you can manage conflict within your team objectively and fairly.
Useful Tools for Virtual Teams
Cloud-based collaborative file sharing, on platforms such as Microsoft Office 365 or Google Drive, can help teams to share documents and work together on projects.
If you're sharing your personal social media details, make sure that you're sharing information in a way that isn't likely to damage your career or reputation. (See our article Maintaining a Positive Online Reputation for more on this.)
When you're communicating with IM or email, be aware that messages can be easily misunderstood, particularly if they have emotional content. It's important to agree on ground rules together, such as whether or not to use emojis.
Relationship Building in Virtual Teams
When you work in a virtual team, it's important to make an extra effort with relationships. An important part of establishing relationships with teammates is building and maintaining trust.
Trust evolves differently in virtual teams. In an office setting, colleagues build relationships and trust through social interaction and collaborative work. Researchers call this benevolent or interpersonal trust. However, in a virtual team, colleagues build trust through reliability, consistency, and responsiveness – this is called ability-based, or task-based trust.
To build trust, start by keeping your word. If you agree on a deadline, or you make a promise to call a teammate, follow it up. When you demonstrate your integrity and work ethic, your team members will learn that they can rely on you. (See our article Five Ways to Build Rapport Online for tips on how to forge strong relationships remotely.)
Finally, be sensitive to your colleagues in different time zones. If a meeting is scheduled early or late in their region, keep in mind that they might be less vocal or engaged than other team members. Try to schedule a meeting that suits everyone or, at least, causes the least amount of disruption.
Coping With Isolation in Remote Teams
When you're part of a virtual team it's normal to experience feelings of isolation. You might also feel as if your organization has "forgotten" you if you often work remotely. If you are experiencing these feelings, take steps to combat them.
If your organization has a blog or forum set up to connect and support virtual workers, spend time using these platforms. If not, with your manager's permission you could set up a WhatsApp group for the team, or organize a "virtual happy hour" where the team can socialize outside of work on a videoconferencing platform. Apps like Kahoot provide quizzes and other games that you can play with your team.
Make an effort to engage and socialize with others outside of work, if you can. Meet a friend for lunch, or join a group focused on a hobby that you care about.
You might also feel disconnected from your organization when you work remotely. This is especially true if you're left out of the decision-making process. Or, maybe you feel that your standing or reputation in the organization has diminished because you are not there every day.
Avoid these drawbacks by staying visible, and use the PVI Model to uncover ways that you can stand out from the crowd. Check in with your boss regularly with project updates, and suggest improvements or future projects that might be valuable to the organization.
Finally, ask your boss whether you can meet your team in person, at least once a year. This can be expensive and time-consuming, but spending some time together will help you to build trust and strengthen your relationships. Assembling the whole team could also create unexpected opportunities or breakthroughs, especially if everyone sits down for some creative thinking or team-building sessions.
Virtual teams are increasingly common. Although this form of work can be productive and efficient, it may also present challenges.
Communication barriers, feelings of isolation, and a lack of rapport are all common in virtual teams.
You can work successfully within a virtual team by communicating clearly and honestly with your colleagues. Keep your promises, and respond promptly to their requests or needs.
Connect with colleagues through social media and other remote working tools. If you feel isolated, try to make time to socialize with your team on videoconferencing platforms, or meet with friends if possible.