Working from somewhere other than a corporate office had become common practice. Whether you use the term virtual, remote, telework, work-from-home, digital nomad, location independent, or something else, these are people who are not physically interacting with their team on a daily basis.
Virtual team members may be in different time zones or even different countries. They may never meet their co-workers face-to-face. Yet they still need to be brought together in a productive and effective manner to complete the work of the team. This creates a different set of challenges for those leading these teams. While some of the challenges to leading teams are universal, some of the solutions are different in order to meet the needs of the virtual workers. In addition, there are some challenges that are unique to working in a virtual environment.
Challenges and Solutions
A big challenge with any team, virtual or other, is keeping everyone focused on the purpose of the team. People are frequently asked to join a team with little understanding as to what the team will do and why they are being asked to participate. When you’re in an office with the other team members, its easy to tap someone for clarification and to see how you are able to interact with others during meetings. This becomes more challenging in the virtual world.
When you are on a virtual team it takes extra effort to seek answers. You can’t lean over and whisper to the person next to you. You have to take initiative to pick up the phone and call or text or message someone. That takes effort. Most of us are not willing to make much effort when we don’t have a clear understanding of the situation.
That means the team leader must articulate and be persistent about the purpose of the team and why each individual is an essential member of the team. The leader must initiate regular check-ins to make sure each member is aware of what they need to contribute and how it fits into the big picture of the team. It should be clear at every meeting and upon every milestone, what the purpose of the team is and how they are progressing. This means that communication must be consistent and frequent.
Many virtual teams cite communication as a major challenge. Poor communication results in diminished effectiveness and decision making. When people aren’t working in the same office setting, it is more difficult to develop relationships and working friendships. It can be hard for people to understand how their work relates to the work of others on their team and how the work of the team contributes to the bigger company goals. It is easy for virtual workers to feel isolated which can lead to a lack of motivation and low-quality control.
While it does require some effort, communication can be one of the most tangible, and therefore easiest challenges to overcome. You need to have and execute a clear plan for communication. Everyone on the team should know how often to expect communications related to the entire team, and what the response expectations are. This plan should include frequent, transparent updates and sharing to keep everyone moving forward in the same direction. In addition, there need to be multiple tools available for communication sharing among team members in-between meetings.
By creating interdependent tasks and mini partnerships within the team, team members will be able to take on some of the responsibility for communication themselves. Having tasks that require team members to work together, generally requires them to communicate with each other. The more often people engage, the more they will learn about each other and develop a working relationship together.
When you see someone every day, it is easy to develop a sense for that person. A sense of their personality, their likes and dislikes, and to see their habits. This all contributes to the level of trust you will develop for that person. Without these daily interactions, developing trust within a virtual team can be very challenging.
Trust can be developed by setting clear expectations, and then acknowledging each person individually as these expectations are met. Virtual trust can be established when you see that someone is reliable and that you can count on them to follow through. You learn that you can believe them when they say they will do something.
Another important factor in trust building is knowing that the team leader will acknowledge you for achieving your specific assignments. In addition, colleagues that recognize each other and show support for each other’s work goes a long way in establishing trust. The more the team leader can facilitate opportunities for recognition and be aware of the validity of this recognition, the more trust the team will have in the leader.
Whenever you bring a group of people together, there are going to be some differences in work habits, values, and customs. The world of virtual work tends to create a larger and more diverse reach of team members, increasing the likelihood that team members will be significantly different from each other. We all have our own preferred way of working; the more diverse the team members are, the more diverse those preferred work styles are likely to be.
To address these potentially conflicting work styles, team leaders must create a specific team culture. This culture needs to show respect for the diversity each member brings to the table, while at the same time establishing clear expectations for how the team is to function and interact. Defining what the acceptable work behaviors are related to communication, collaboration, negotiation, and innovation, along with citing the decision-making structure within the team, will allow the team to capitalize upon its diversity rather than be overwhelmed by it.
Distance is a challenge that is truly unique to those on virtual teams. When people work in an office together, they naturally run into each in the hallway, stop by each other’s work space, and have the opportunity to sit together during lunch. These casual interactions invite people to get to know each other on a personal level, creates shared experiences, and furthers the relationship they have together.
One way the leader can help a virtual team address this challenge is by including bonding activities into the work. This may be anything from including social exchanges during meetings (having everyone engage in personal sharing about family, pets, vacations, hobbies, etc.) to having virtual contests that require them to work in pairs or trios. Essentially, you are creating getting to know you interactions to replace the random conversations that might occur around the water cooler.
Combining these belonging activities with frequent and open conversations (a specific type of two-way communication) will help everyone feel connected to both each other and the team as a whole. Virtual collaboration tools should be available and used not just in meetings, but also for ongoing work between team members. The easier it is to reach out, and the more reaching out is encouraged, the more cohesive the team will become.
Finding a healthy work-life balance can a challenge for anyone, but it can be even more difficult for virtual workers. There are all the personal distractions that come from working (typically) in the place you live. There are the challenges of odd work hours when accommodating different time zones. It is easy to feel like you are on call 24/7 when you are on a virtual team. You may receive messages at any time, and it can be hard to wait until you are in your established work hours before checking and responding to those messages. And healthy balance is a very individual concept; what is a balance for one person may not be a healthy balance for another person.
Virtual leaders need to be able to help their team members figure out what is a healthy balance for them. This may include having established work hours that are limited in length (no 24/7 expectations) and making sure they break up screen time and sitting with other activities that contribute to the team. These simple strategies are easy to forget when you are isolated from others, so the leader must be deliberate about calling attention to them.
Team spirit comes from a sense of pride in the work the team is doing and a belief that they will be successful in their endeavors. All of these challenges in focus, communication, trust, diversity, distance and balance can have a negative effect on team spirit. When you are separated by time and space it can be difficult to feel a strong sense of belonging and to understand that you are part of cohesive unit. But that doesn’t mean its not possible.
Leaders must actively serve, not just as the team captain, but also as the head cheerleader. The leader is responsible for identifying and removing obstacles to allow the team to move forward and to continually encourage the team members to focus on their shared purpose. Team members must feel that they are valued and respected not just as a team member, but also as an individual. Spirit is an emotional aspect of teams. Remembering that teams are made up of people can help remind leaders that a little humanity and kindness can go a long way in developing team pride.
Putting It All Together
The key to developing strong, cohesive and productive virtual teams all comes back to the interpersonal skills of the leader. The better these skills are, the more effective they will be in leading the team. In addition, by modeling these skills the team is more likely to mirror these relationship building skills. Interpersonal skills are all about the ways we interact with others, and all of the above solutions to common virtual team challenges center on how we interact with those team members and the culture we create for the team.
You may have heard the expression that the job of the leader is to remove the obstacles and then get out of the way. While the obstacles do need to be removed, when it comes to virtual teams the leader must be an ongoing presence. The virtual team leader must ensure that the challenges of working apart don’t prevent the team from working together.
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