Virtual teams are not a completely new idea. However, they’re a working model that more companies are adopting and more employees want. There’s a level of freedom that employees and managers have when it comes to working remotely. But managing virtual teams and facilitating virtual team development are different from working with employees on-site.
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What Is Virtual Team Development?
Virtual team development is the process of helping individuals grow skills in professional areas on a virtual platform. That growth can focus on hard skills that enable employees to perform better in their roles or the development process can focus on building a more connected team.
Virtual team management requires a unique perspective on what employees might be dealing with on a daily basis, the ability to resolve conflicts between teammates that aren’t in the same room, and empowering employees to grow in their skills and specialties. If you want to know what it looks like to manage and develop a virtual team well, you’ve come to the right place! Keep reading for the ins and outs of managing virtual teams.
Why is it important to know how to manage virtual teams?
Virtual teams are becoming more and more common as technology makes work easier and as businesses continue to grow. The option to be on a virtual team is also appealing to employees. In their Remote Work Report 2021, GitLab found that 52% of virtual team members find themselves more productive, and 48% say that they can work more efficiently while on a virtual team. For those considering reworking their teamwork structure to be more virtual-friendly, some of the benefits of managing a virtual team are:
- the lowered cost of not having to provide equipment or a physical workspace for employees
- the ability to hire the best employees for the job, regardless of location or mobility, and
- increased employee productivity and happiness.
GitLab also reported that 4 out of 5 people would recommend virtual work to others, and once virtual work has been introduced to a workspace, 1 in 3 employees would leave their job if that option was taken away.
So just why is it important to know how to manage virtual teams? Because sooner or later, you may find yourself with employees who need this option. Their felt needs, as well as productivity and flexibility, are major factors as to why you should consider virtual teams, but managing virtual teams and seeing them develop is different than leading in-person teams. It’s not a bad difference—the management principles are the same, but there are unique challenges and needs that you must meet. Find out below what some of those challenges are and how to lead well despite any bumps you may encounter.
What challenges do managers face in managing virtual teams?
“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”―Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
Every team, virtual or not, has a “teamwork” dynamic, but whether that dynamic is productive or unproductive often hinges on a manager’s ability to lead. Of course, employees’ work ethic matters, but a good manager not only understands how each of their employees works individually but they have insight into what boosts collective teamwork.
There are unique challenges to virtual team management that managers of in-office teams might not have to face.
1. Communication issues
Relaying information, tasks, updates, and new projects to your team can get bottlenecked when there isn’t clear communication. Virtual teams have the added barrier of not interacting in person, cutting out body language and vocal tone.
If you have team members who are across the country or even across the globe, “urgent” can become a waiting game as communication travels through time zones. Additionally, if you have team members from around the world, culture can play a part in different work styles.
Distractions, personal problems, frustrations, and more can lead to employee disengagement in any workplace, but virtual teams lack the buffer of face-to-face contact with their teammates that can keep them engaged. Disengaged employees can inadvertently decrease positivity and overall productivity, and can even cause other employees to be disengaged.
Technology is a huge blessing to virtual teams, but it’s also fallible. Managers face challenges from power failures to the wrong equipment, and they need to ensure their team isn’t set back by technology.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list of hurdles that virtual team managers have to conquer, these are some of the big ones that you will face week after week. These challenges can cause setbacks for your virtual team if you don’t address them early on or keep an eye on where there may be a potential breakdown.
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How do I structure virtual teams?
When it comes to structuring your virtual team, start with the basics of what’s important to your team. Management Study Guide recommends asking yourself two questions: what does the team stand for, and how will the team achieve its goal? Before you begin putting people in place and assigning tasks, it’s imperative to think through these deeper questions about your virtual team.
Along with answering these two questions, work with the best building blocks as you structure your team. The Harvard Business Review talks about 4 “rights” when it comes to developing the right virtual team:
1. The Right Team – Are the right people in the right places on your team?
2. The Right Leadership – Is your leadership benefiting your virtual team? What do you need to change to help them be productive?
3. The Right Touchpoints – When and how are you meeting with your team to ensure they’re heading in the right direction?
4. The Right Technology – Does everyone have what they need to succeed on a daily basis? What recommendations do you need to give to make sure your virtual team stays productive?
These building blocks are a good start in how to structure your virtual team! Aside from focusing on these items in your structure, you’ll also want to assign project point persons, whether that is someone who has been working on your team for a long time or someone who is well-experienced in the project at hand.
Make it easy for team members to get a hold of each other. Have an accessible team directory available for your virtual team to connect and talk through pieces of projects together. In other words, empower your employees! This is an important part of virtual team development. In a 2004 article in the Academy of Management Journal, Kirkman et. al found that “team empowerment was positively related to two independent assessments of virtual team performance—process improvement and customer satisfaction.”
Additionally, build a somewhat predictable calendar for your virtual team. Create rhythms of work for them so they will know what to expect on what day of the week and month of the year. Keep this rough calendar written out somewhere your virtual team will be able to find, like workspace software or through a Google calendar.
How can I manage conflicts and misunderstandings in virtual teams?
Conflicts and misunderstandings are bound to happen within any team and can hit virtual teams hard—they don’t have the benefit of daily face-to-face interaction and chances to naturally build trust amongst themselves. But don’t let this discourage you as a manager. Misunderstandings are a human experience, and as you guide your team through them, here are some key practices you can do to handle conflict well with your virtual team.
1. One-on-One Meetings
Let your employees know that you care about their needs by speaking with them one-on-one. This should be a confidential space where they can put any frustrations or confusion out in the open before it becomes a bigger issue.
2. Ask the Right Questions
In discussion with your team members who are in conflict—whether the conflict is task-related or relational—it’s essential to ask the right questions for clarity and to be unbiased. Asking the right questions, especially in a calm and empathetic way, can help diffuse tensions and bring the truth forward quicker.
3. Work on a Shared Workspace
Use project management software such as Asana or Hive so team members can see what work is to be done. This can help solve communication barriers about who is to do what in any team.
4. Engage in Team Building Activities
This is more of a precautionary measure to prevent conflict and boost trust, communication, and productivity within your team. Team members can work on problem-solving skills through these activities as well. Keep reading for team building activities for your virtual team!
Ann Majchrzak, a professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, found a similar thread among teams that were able to handle conflict well—an online discussion board. An open board like this can be set within a workspace software that your team uses and can give employees the benefit of anonymity for tough subjects. The Harvard Business Review summarized Majchrzak’s findings as to why these discussion boards are so successful:
- Problems don’t fester.
- People can properly vet an issue.
- Teams can avoid false consensus.
- The cream will rise to the top.
- Transparency builds trust.
- The online board becomes a natural repository.
Whatever your method to solve conflict within your team members, make sure to stick the tensions through and let your employees know that you hear them and care for them. This kind of virtual team development has the potential to strengthen your team in the long run. They’ll also learn that they can trust you as a leader to solve problems.
What are good virtual team building activities?
You may ask, “How do I build teamwork virtually?” Just like any team, virtual teams can benefit greatly from team building activities. These intentional moments or even days can help increase productivity, good communication, and relational trust within your team. They can also be a morale boost when you think your employees might be heading toward burnout from project after project.
Here are some virtual team building options for you to consider as you manage your virtual team:
1. Icebreakers and thorns/roses
Icebreaker questions are simple and fairly self-explanatory—make a list of basic but telling questions that team members can ask each in Zoom breakout rooms or in meetings that they set themselves. Let your team “break the ice” with one another and get to know more about each other than, “This is our accountant Tom.” Thorns/roses are also a simple concept. Whether as a whole team or in smaller groups, give your team the chance to open up and say what’s been a thorn in their side (something difficult or frustrating) or a rose (something that they want to share and celebrate).
2. Virtual scavenger hunt
This can be done over a video call platform like Zoom. Make a list of things that your employees might find around them wherever they might be working from. Give them a time limit (keep it competitive!) and let them “hunt” for those items.
3. Online quizzes and games
Websites like Kahoot! or Sporcle are packed to the brim with virtual games and quizzes over Zoom that your team can do together. You have dozens of topics to choose from, from geography to Disney characters to Harry Potter trivia and more. Set a video call with your team where you can play one of these games together. This is an opportunity for everyone to let loose a little bit and maybe show off some “random knowledge” that they have.
You can find more engaging virtual team building activities here. As Patrick Lencioni says, teamwork is the “ultimate competitive advantage.” Team building days are always a lot of fun, but there are more benefits than meet the eye, especially when you are managing virtual teams.
What are 3 important strategies to manage virtual teams effectively?
Managing virtual teams may come with a unique set of challenges, but there are some key strategies you can employ to ensure your team’s continual success as time goes on. Here are 3 strategies that are essential to any working team, but can greatly improve a virtual team.
1. Set clear work expectations
Aon Consulting says that “clearly defining the final work product, as well as the iterative steps to successful task completion, are key aspects of managing virtual worker performance.” When your virtual team knows what the end goal is and what’s expected of them, you help them rise to the challenge of managing themselves. Be as clear as possible when relaying what tasks need to get done, timelines for projects, and who is to do what.
2. Maintain a high level of communication
In onboarding, regular team meetings, and one-on-one conversations, prioritize communication. Don’t hesitate to even “over-communicate”. Important parts of communication, such as vocal tone and body language, can get lost as we interact through technology. Utilize as many forms of communication as possible (text, email, video meetings, etc.) but be sure to be consistent—make sure to stay within whichever communication method you begin a project on until the work is complete.
One way to alleviate any strains in communication is to have a weekly video call meeting with your team. You can do it at the beginning of the week to discuss upcoming work or at the end of the week as a way for each team member to update everyone on their part in projects or work. This should be a time where you reconnect and allow employees to ask clarifying questions. Again, don’t be afraid to over-communicate.
3. Build relational trust amongst your employees
In every work environment, it’s necessary for employees to know they can count on their teammates. With virtual teams, it can be difficult to build relational trust because team members aren’t interacting in person on a regular basis. They might feel like they’re working with strangers or they’re simply a small piece of a puzzle. Building relational trust helps employees to become and stay engaged in work and in the organization overall. Doing team building activities, icebreakers, and making room for your team to get to know each other is key in building trust.
An easy way to implement these strategies, as foreshadowed above, is to meet via video call as much as possible. Whether Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype, seeing faces and hearing voices helps bring clarity and build relationships.
We also suggest scheduling an occasional face-to-face meeting. This may be difficult for virtual teams that are spread across states, time zones, or even countries, but if it’s ever possible, put a meeting on the calendar for your team to meet face-to-face. These interactions are priceless and make room for relationships to be formed that can help projects and communication go smoothly as your team continues to work together. In these face-to-face meetings, make sure you combine work-related activities with relationship-building moments such as going out to eat.
How do you make virtual team meetings more fun?
Since most communication and virtual teamwork happens via video calls and meetings, you’ll want to keep your team members engaged as much as possible. Virtual team meetings can be fun, even when information about work is the main subject of the conversation. Some tips for making your virtual team meetings fun include:
1. Allow employees to socialize
You can bring icebreaker questions to the meetings or simply ask how everyone’s week has been or something they have learned. Give people room to respond to each other and dialogue.
2. Provide visual aids in meetings
This can include Keynote or Powerpoint presentations, pictures, and infographics, or even videos and TED Talks. Mixing up media can help your virtual team stay engaged and can even give them skills in running meetings themselves.
3. Bring an element of surprise
We’re talking about something goofy. Show up to a meeting in a costume. Use a funny background. Put on a cat filter. Sometimes what a team needs is a little nonsense to lighten up their day, especially if they’re in the midst of tough deadlines or projects!
4. Keep meetings short and to the point
This might seem like a given, but it’s much too easy to become long-winded in a meeting. Over-communicate, yes, but be aware of your team’s attention span. Have an agenda for your meeting and stick to whatever time limit you originally set. If you find yourself in a rabbit trail of questions or explanations, apologize to the team and let them know you can discuss anything they need further explained in a separate meeting on your preferred communication channel.
5. Introduce new business or work concepts
If you are able to spend more time bettering your understanding of your work or your management skills, share what you’ve learned with your team. Think through what would benefit your virtual team, develop them, and empower them in the workplace. If you’re in an industry that deals with clients on a regular basis, help your employees become better company representatives by developing them in this manner.
There’s no reason your virtual team meetings should be boring or tedious. Keep your employees engaged, and watch for their reactions as a gauge for how meetings are going. In order for that to happen, encourage your virtual team to keep their cameras on during meetings as much as possible. You might also want to check out this list of quick team building activities for your next meeting for different games you can play to keep your virtual team engaged.
Other things to consider when it comes to managing virtual teams:
As you focus on managing and developing your virtual team, remember that they are still a team. They still have similar needs and experiences as employees who work in an office together. Be sure to keep each of these in mind as you lead your team:
- Onboarding – Virtual onboarding is the process of training new members and making them truly feel like a part of the team. This step of hiring is crucial to establish expectations and integrate employees.
- Leadership Activities – Leadership activities go a step above regular team building exercises. They offer opportunities to for individuals to practice decision making, task delegation, and holding responsibility. This prepares them to step into a leadership role in the office.
- Effective Meetings and Events – Every team meeting or event should have an intention that leaves attendees feeling either inspired, motivated, or like they understand their given tasks. Ineffective meetings inevitably lead to more unfortunate meetings to rectify previous errors.
- Training – In order for employees to perform their best, it’s a good idea to train them! Teach new employees how to do their tasks, what your expectations are, and what resources they can utilize to get better or if they need assistance in the future.
- Retention – Retention is the ability or rate at which your organization maintains people as employees. A good retention rate means that once people start working at your company, they don’t leave for a long time. Companies can achieve this by investing in their employees and creating an unbeatable company culture!
Virtual teams are not a fad in the business world. They’re here to stay—technologies and software are matching the pace of what virtual employees are in need of, employees are recommending their friends to join a virtual team, and there’s a convenience for managers as they lead virtual teams. As you begin to look into managing virtual teams well and developing these employees, hang on to these principles and don’t be afraid to be innovative in your (virtual) workspace.