The future everyone used to talk about decades back is already here: virtual teams are a reality that many organisations must deal with.
So, if you’re a manager or an entrepreneur tasked with managing a remote or virtual team, I have good and bad news.
The good news is that technology makes it much easier to manage virtual teams, allowing you to overcome challenges in an unimaginable way even just ten years ago. The bad news is that there are still some unique difficulties associated with managing these teams which must be considered so the team can perform at its best.
But first, for those who are still new to the concept, let’s define what a virtual team is, how it’s different from other teams, and why they are important.
What Is A Virtual Team?
A virtual team is a group of team members that work together usually to accomplish a specific task or goal despite being geographically separated. This can range from distributed teams scattered across the same city or country to those based in different parts of the world and only communicating online.
In this digital age, virtual teams are increasingly becoming popular as technology makes collaborating easier without everyone in one physical location. This is especially true for work that doesn’t require everyone to be in the same place—such as software development, design, and accounting.
The Nature of Virtual Teams
Not all virtual teams are the same. The nature of a virtual team depends on several factors, including different forms of dispersion and what’s known as a “dispersion index”.
They can be dispersed in four distinct ways:
- Spatially separated (from “across the hall” to “scattered worldwide”),
- Temporally separated (spanning different time zones),
- Configurationally uneven (for example, five members in one location and two in another), and
- Culturally diverse.
To measure the impact of these different forms of dispersion, a “dispersion index” is usually calculated. This considers factors such as miles between team members, time zone difference, number of locations per team, percentage of isolated team members (those who are not part of a physical location), and uneven membership across sites.
Your main focus as a manager is to ensure that you know the extent of the dispersion and to use the right strategies to manage this dispersed team.
Challenges of Managing Virtual Teams
The virtual team brings in its own challenges, adding to everyday management issues. Here are some of the common challenges that you might face when managing a virtual team:
- Communication challenges: With most employees working remotely, communication is often the first hurdle. Unlike in-person meetings, virtual communication requires more effort to stay effective. When not paid attention, unclear directions or missed instructions can quickly become a larger problem affecting the team’s performance.
- Trust issues: Trust can be hard to build and maintain when the team is not working in the same physical space. The lack of regular face-to-face time makes it difficult for managers to track what their teams are doing and how they are progressing with various tasks. There are cases of managers becoming even more micromanaging in a virtual setting, which can further alienate team members.
- Ineffective use of technology: Technology usage directly correlates with management being tech-friendly and updated on the latest tools and technologies. If not, teams can experience slow progress, incomplete work, and other productivity issues.
- Time zone differences: Working with cross-time zones or even across different countries has its own set of challenges. This can lead to difficulties in aligning schedules or managing overlapping meetings or working hours, resulting in longer turnaround times and potential communication gaps.
- Cultural differences: The team may come from diverse backgrounds and cultures. This could lead to misunderstanding or misinterpretation, leading to tension within the team. For example, a person from India may look for a holiday or time off for a certain festival, whereas someone from the United States would not think of it.
How to Manage A Virtual Team Successfully
Managing virtual teams can be a complex task, but if done right, it can potentially drive great results. Here are some tips for successful virtual team management:
Develop A Clear Vision And Delegate Roles
A major problem in the smooth functioning of virtual teams arises when team members don’t know the goal or how they can contribute to it. A bigger problem arises when everyone is working on the same thing.
To avoid confusion within a team, you should ensure that you provide clarity in terms of the mission and objectives, define expectations for each role, explain what success looks like, and set realistic deadlines.
Several project management tools are available to help you delegate roles, manage tasks, and assign specific responsibilities. Some of the renowned tools are Asana, Trello, and Slack.
No matter what SAAS you choose, ensure it has –
- Kanban board: For visualising tasks and tracking progress
- Individual task management: To assign specific responsibilities to team members
- Real-time collaboration: For quick feedback and discussions
- Chat function: For staying in touch with team members
Ensure Consistent Communication
Communication is the key to successful virtual team management. Problems only arise when communication channels are mostly one-way or when team members don’t feel like their voice is being heard.
Ensure to hold regular check-ins — such as team meetings or group calls — so everyone can stay on track and up-to-date with each other’s progress. Additionally, regular online video conferencing or group messaging helps foster a sense of togetherness and camaraderie among the team members.
Finally, be clear with feedback. Ensure that your communication is timely and constructive, and provide specific examples when praising or reprimanding team members.
Use Productivity Tracker
Measuring the team’s productivity is difficult when you’re not there to observe each team member. To ensure that everyone on the team stays focused and productive, you need tools to track their progress.
Using a productivity tracker or time-tracking software allows you to get an overview of the work being done by each team member, how long it took them, and if they are meeting deadlines.
Tools such as Time Doctor and Toggl can help you monitor your team’s productivity levels.
Since virtual teams don’t get the same recognition as in-house teams, ensure to give out generous appreciation and acknowledgements whenever possible.
Also, know that the quality of work is more important than the time spent in front of their screen.
Quick monthly check-ins or performance reviews can provide an opportunity to assess team members on their skills, knowledge and attitude.
Create Social Connections
The workplace environment helps create social connections between people in a physical office space, which is difficult to replicate when working remotely.
To ensure your virtual teams stay connected, you should encourage the team members to get to know each other better and even create social events online. This could include virtual game nights, happy hours, or other fun activities to help the team bond.
Virtual teams should also be allowed to connect with their in-house colleagues if possible. This helps them feel like they’re part of the same team, no matter where they are located.
Use Productivity Tools
Apart from productivity trackers, many other tools can help make remote working easier and more efficient. These include:
- Collaboration tools like Google Workspace,
- Task management tools like Trello and Asana,
- Video conferencing tools like Webex and Skype,
- Document-sharing tools like Dropbox and Google Drive,
- Project management tools like Basecamp and Monday.com,
- To-Do applications like Todoist.
Whatever tool you choose, just ensure that you’re not technologically lagging behind, as that can really slow down your team’s productivity.
Managing virtual teams is no easy task, but it can be made easier with the right strategy and tools. The success of a virtual team depends on how well you manage them, so ensure you have the necessary skills and tools to take your team to the next level.
A startup consultant, digital marketer, traveller, and philomath. Aashish has worked with over 20 startups and successfully helped them ideate, raise money, and succeed. When not working, he can be found hiking, camping, and stargazing.