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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.