4 Challenges of Virtual Team Management

As the world gets flatter and flatter, more and more companies are employing remote workers, sometimes in entirely different countries. It’s no longer as rare to find a company whose team consists entirely of remote workers.

Virtual teams aren’t going away any time soon, and neither are the management obstacles associated with them. Whether you’re considering putting together a virtual team or already have one in your employment, it’s necessary to know how to adapt to these relatively newfound work settings.

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The challenges that virtual team managers aren’t entirely different from those faced by face to face (F2F) teams. They tend to suffer from the same problems that F2F teams tend to face.

However, these problems are slightly different because of the remote aspects of their work. Hence, the solutions required to combat these problems are also somewhat different. Here are five different challenges virtual team managers often face and how to overcome them.

P.S. Learn everything you need to know about virtual teams and how to manage them; sign up for SSA Academy’s WSQ course on leading virtual teams today!

 

1. Team Rapport

The most obvious challenge with a remote team is the difficulty of building team rapport. Social interaction is confined to the virtual sphere, which may make it harder to establish strong working relationships.

There are, for instance, no team lunches or dinners to get to know each other, and no pantries or watercoolers to make forced small talk.

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Consequently, social and emotional isolation amplify the physical separation of remote work. It makes it that much harder for a virtual team to be comfortable enough to trust one another and feel psychologically safe around each other, which is crucial for team performance.

 

Solutions

  • Manager-employee personal relationships
    Make it a point to befriend and get close to each team member to make sure no one is out of the loop or left out.
  • F2F meetings
    Where possible, organise annual retreats or F2F meetups so that people have some way of putting a face to the name.
  • Informal channels of communication
    Provide chatrooms exclusively for non-work-related conversations like sharing memes or GIFs. Informality can be very useful in making people feel a sense of belonging to the group.

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2. Communication problems

 

Under-communication: Role ambiguity

The costs of a lack of role clarity can be much higher in virtual teams than in F2F teams. If there aren’t already sufficiently comprehensive performance tracking mechanisms in place (more on that later), people can end up going off on tangents, doing double work, or prioritising the wrong tasks.

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Miscommunication: Lack of social cues

Since virtual team members have much more restricted access to the social cues that F2F teams take for granted, the chances of miscommunication are higher. They can’t, for example, read body language or sense sarcasm as easily as F2F teams can. It leaves room for more misunderstandings to occur than usual, as well as for the ensuing ambiguously negative sentiments to snowball into full-blown meltdowns.

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Communication styles: different wavelengths

When your team isn’t just virtual but culturally diverse, you also have to deal with intercultural conflicts that are bound to occur. Even if your virtual team isn’t facing a culture clash, differing communication styles can mar effective communication.

 

Solutions

  • Hire people who communicate well
    Look for people who write well, since most virtual team communication will take place in chatrooms and emails
  • Cultivate open communication
    Make it a team habit to identify and highlight problems immediately before they snowball so that it prevents unnecessary build-ups of negativity

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  • Establish role clarity
    Virtual team members naturally have more freedom, so it’s even more crucial to ensure that everyone is clear about what is expected of them as individual employees and as a team
  • Standardise specific modes of communication
    Agree on an email response time, how often to have video conference meetings and what times work best for everyone, or designate a specific time frame every day where everyone has to be signed on to chat

 

3. Engagement

 

Purposeful work

Virtual team members tend to feel disconnected from the larger picture; they understandably sometimes feel as though they’re working in a vacuum. Put simply, they’re more at risk of being demotivated from feeling that the remote work they do doesn’t benefit anyone or meaningfully contribute to greater organisational success.

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Self-motivation

One of the crucial aspects of staying self-motivated is being part of a supportive community. When you’re surrounded by like-minded people who have similar aspirations and motivations, you can feed off their drive to power your own. Virtual teams have less access to this than F2F teams. Again, if there’s no team rapport, they’re also less likely to sustain their self-motivation in the long term.

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Work-life balance

Paradoxically, remote work can make you more susceptible to work-life imbalances. Having a little more freedom in determining your schedules and work processes means that you also need to be more vigilant about balancing (or integrating) your work and life.

For example, virtual team members can’t see if you’re continually staying late in the office, how often you’re working on the weekends, what time you start and stop work every day, and so on.

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Solutions

  • Regular check-ins:
    Cultivate strong one-to-one relationships with virtual team members and use this to segue into coaching them and keeping their motivation levels up.
  • Celebrate team and individual successes:
    This can make a massive difference in helping team members, especially virtual ones, feel that they’ve done good, meaningful work that helped move the whole team forward

 

4. Performance tracking

When you delegate tasks to your virtual team members, you can’t just take a leap of faith that the work is going to get done. Since you can’t physically see it getting done, it’s even more crucial to ensure that you have the right mechanisms in place to track individual and team performance.

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With great freedom comes great responsibility. Similarly, with greater autonomy comes greater accountability. You need to know at all times, what’s done and what isn’t, whether your team is being productive and efficient enough, and whether they’re facing any obstacles or challenges to performance on a personal or team level.

 

Solutions

  • Utilise digital productivity tracking tools:
    The team at Buffer, for example, use iDoneThis to report what they managed to get done every day

 

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