Today’s technology has made it possible for companies to connect employees from all over the world to tackle some of their most critical business challenges. With over 40 percent of employees today spending at least some time working remotely and about 30 percent doing so 80-100 percent of the time, organizations need to make sure they are adopting consistent strategies for managing virtual teams effectively.
One of the biggest challenges of virtual teams is that they face obstacles that their colocated counterparts often don’t have to worry about. From miscommunication to confusion over who should be working on a given task, the nature of working virtually requires team members to put more thought into their daily work. Organizations can’t expect to simply provide collaborative software and leave it to these teams to sort out the details.
Here are a few strategies that can help make virtual teams more effective:
Maintain Clear and Open Communication
While maintaining good communication is important for any team, it’s especially important in virtual teams due to the lack of nonverbal signals. Email and chat applications may allow for easy and instantaneous virtual communication, but the lack of visual cues and signals like tone of voice increase the likelihood that messages can be misinterpreted. These misunderstandings could lead to confusion, frustration, or in some cases, even conflict.
Without direct, face to face interaction (in person or using video), other physical cues can go unnoticed. A team member may be concerned with an issue, but if they don’t actually raise the point, the rest of the team will remain unaware that anything is amiss. Since open communication is so important to building and fostering trust, it’s important for virtual team members to be as forthcoming as possible in their interactions with one another. They cannot afford to be ambiguous when relaying information that could be vital to the team’s performance. Successful leadership also depends upon clear communication.
Virtual team members must also be more up front about what they need from others and what information they don’t know. Problems or concerns that might be easily addressed in a physical office can go unmentioned if team members aren’t proactive about asking questions. With so many virtual communication channels available, although it’s easy for someone to be left out of the loop, it’s also relatively easy to pull them back into a conversation. Whether in meetings or in regular communication, asking short and specific questions can keep teams informed and productive.
Establish Clear Guidelines
Due to the geographic distribution of virtual teams, it’s vital that clear guidelines are put in place to ensure that work is completed efficiently. Several team members may be located in different time zones or be available outside of a traditional 9-to-5 schedule. They may also choose to handle their workflow differently than other members, which could potentially create confusion around team goals and make managing virtual teams more difficult. Team members should have a clear sense of everyone else’s work patterns and habits, as well as what dependencies exist between tasks. If someone cannot begin work on one portion of a project until another team member has completed their portion, there needs to be a clear process for how that work can be done effectively that works for everyone’s schedules.
The freedom of the virtual workplace has its advantages, but it also creates the possibility of overload and confusion. When anyone can be contacted at any time, some team members may feel the need to communicate extensively and at all hours of the day, while others only reach out when they need something and only during work hours. Without guidelines that stipulate when people can be contacted, who needs to be included, and what communication channels should be used, team members can quickly be buried under a mountain of emails and notifications, many of which may not even be applicable to them. Establishing ways to clarify reporting relationships is one of the critical steps in making virtual teams work.
Build Better Relationships
Research has indicated that the absence of regular contact with coworkers is the leading cause of job dissatisfaction among virtual workers, contributing to lower productivity, reduced engagement, and higher turnover rates. When team members have good relationships with one another, they cooperate more effectively and become more invested in everyone’s success. For leaders, these relationships make managing virtual teams much easier.
These social bonds take time and effort to form, however, especially when working virtually. When possible, it can be tremendously beneficial to organize face-to-face meetings one or two times every year. Ideally, the virtual team’s initial kick-off meeting should be held in person to establish a good foundation for future relationships. If face-to-face meetings aren’t feasible, advances in video conferencing have made it easier to involve multiple team members in regular meetings. While it may seem minor, the benefits of seeing meeting participants over video go a long way toward making them feel more connected.
Virtual teams should also make some effort to encourage more interaction between team members. While people in a physical office may go to lunch together or to dinner after work, remote employees don’t have the same luxury. Scheduling virtual hangouts that are unrelated to work can help to promote social interaction and strengthen the relationships that are critical to making virtual teams work (e.g., group texting during a sporting event or popular television show).
Given that team members may have vastly different schedules, these meetings may be difficult to organize, but they can be tremendously beneficial. Even setting a few minutes aside during a conference call to connect and talk about what’s going on in everyone’s lives can help create the emotional bonds team members need to trust one another and come together in the face of challenges.
Managing an effective virtual team can be a challenge for many companies. Fortunately, these relatively simple strategies can lay the groundwork to enable remote workers to be more productive and engaged. With virtual work becoming increasingly common in today’s fast paced business environment, organizations should put careful thought into how they can maximize the success of these teams.