Virtual teams are becoming more and more common across the globe — from virtual assistants at small businesses to teams within big companies such as IBM to digital startups with fully remote teams.
The benefits are clear. According to Global Workplace Analytics, remote teams increase employee productivity, satisfaction levels, and can save a company more than $10,000 annually. That’s not including the benefit of tapping into a global talent pool.
As it becomes more common for companies to utilize remote workers, these businesses are discovering an influx of unique and new challenges related to managing virtual teams.
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What are some special challenges that virtual teams face and, more importantly, what are good solutions to the challenges in managing remote teams?
This article will cover some of the most common virtual team challenges and solutions:
1. Communication problems
If you want to foresee and fix one issue from this list, choose communication. It’s the cause of almost every other management issue. Managers provide direction at every step of a project or business initiative, so they need to be extremely good at communicating the strategy and understanding what’s happening within a team.
Efficient, effective communication is the cornerstone of any functioning group, and it is especially crucial for remote teams.
Coordinating virtual team members can be challenging, and communication can be a big stumbling block for many companies trying to successfully navigate remote hires.
When communication falters, a number of problems arise.
Of course, work progress suffers, but employees can also feel isolated from the team and company. As interactions fall off, this tends to lower morale. It’s crucial, therefore, to prioritize communication in any office.
- Make use of communication-based technological tools. Instant messaging, chat, and other two-way communication channels make sharing problems and potential solutions easier than ever.
- Keep these channels open, and consistently monitor them throughout the day. If an employee has a problem, idea, or thought that needs to be shared, you should be as responsive and available to a remote employee as you would to any on-site worker.
- While it’s not appropriate or feasible for every company, consider having a few in-person obligations for your remote workers. This strengthens their connection to the company, makes them feel more a part of the team, and increases the likelihood they stay engaged and communicative with the group. An annual remote retreat or meetups throughout the year are good solutions.
- If you do require an in-person obligation, be explicit and clear about these expectations within your telecommuting policy. A remote worker should know well in advance if and when an in-person appearance is necessary, as well as the logistics, such as who will financially cover transport to the office or event.
- Generally, it’s a good idea to try and clarify as much as possible about the role: what’s expected, which KPIs to measure, resources that are available and so on. It’s very important to clarify these things with your virtual employees, as they have no other medium to find out such details.
Finally, a more practical yet potentially time-consuming suggestion is to check for understanding after each meeting. Before you end, make sure everyone knows what their next steps are, then check if these match and if the interpretations are aligned. This is very important in remote teams where you’re relying on emails, chat, and calls. Usually, you’re managing all of them combined. Important details can easily get overseen, skipped or misinterpreted.
2. Scheduling difficulties
Working with a remote team offers the potential for increased productivity, but managers must also overcome some virtual-related inefficiencies. For example, one of the most difficult challenges is managing workers across several time zones.
When all of your employees, virtual and otherwise, are in the same geographic region, it’s easier to set clear expectations concerning hours worked. However, if your remote employees are located around the globe, coordinating work time can be tougher. When time zone differences are significant, as in your day is another employee’s night, this can be especially taxing.
Further, it can be difficult to know if your team is working. Are they logging in for scheduled shifts? Are customer support questions being answered? If you’re waiting around for a virtual employee to respond to a crucial e-mail, that quickly leads to unnecessary downtime and lost productivity.
- Whenever all employees are meeting (via phone, teleconference, or video conference), find a time that falls within everyone’s workday. This might mean first thing for some and end of the day for others.
- If the time difference really makes coordinating schedules impossible, get creative. For example, record meetings for employees who can’t attend live. This way, they can view and/or hear what happened.
- Collect feedback regarding meetings via e-mail. This gives everyone the opportunity to chime in; even those who couldn’t attend while it was actually happening.
- Use email to document big and important announcements such as process changes, company directives, and other important announcements that don’t require a meeting, but are nonetheless important.
- Use scheduling software that allows you to schedule shifts for each team member and get alerts if they haven’t started tracking time during that window. You’ll also get email alerts if a shift is abandoned or missed altogether, ensuring that teams are working when they say they will and avoiding downtime for your business.
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3. Language and cultural barriers
Dealing with a globally diverse workforce can bring with it some big challenges, including cultural and language divides.
These differences can impact how employees interact with one another, how they prioritize project tasks, what they deem to be a success, and so on.
Managers must learn to navigate these differences in order to fully enjoy the benefits of a remote global team.
Virtual teams should be especially aware of management issues such as favoritism. This means preferring specific personality types or communication styles that appeal to them and avoiding the types that are outside of this default preference.
It’s natural to have an affinity for someone who has similar work habits and processes as you do. Remote companies are often about efficiency and getting things done, so people tend to go with their default preferences for the sake of finishing tasks sooner.
Over time, this will result in resentment and an overall decrease of productivity for your team. A habit of favoritism also excludes people from different cultures, which might limit the people you can hire, taking out one of the main advantages of remote teams.
- As part of a team-building exercise, allow remote employees to share insights and details about their cultures and geographic regions. This helps reduce cultural-related misunderstandings, and it strengthens bonds among team members.
- On the note of virtual team building, be sure to invest in that. Establishing and nurturing relationships between everyone in the team is a great way to retain employees, and increase productivity and overall happiness levels.
- If you catch yourself naturally relating better to someone from the same gender, background, communication styles or beliefs, make a conscious effort to reach out to the employees you’re having a harder time relating to. They’ll notice and appreciate the effort (as long as it’s genuine), and you’ll be investing in their long-term satisfaction in working with you.
Finally, be particularly clear about project goals, deadlines, and expectations. If your employees all know what you’re after, you’re more likely to get the results you need, even if barriers and differences exist.
4. Tracking remote employee performance
One significant challenge of managing employees remotely is ensuring that they accomplish all their job duties on time, efficiently, and up to your company’s standards.
For some remote employees, this will just be a matter of ensuring all their projects are completed and turned in on schedule.
For others, it is more important to be engaged in the work for a set number of hours a day. In either case, tracking their performance can be difficult.
This leads to two main challenges to leadership in virtual teams: ensuring all work is completed and ensuring virtual employees are using their time efficiently, effectively, and appropriately.
- For customer-facing team members in remote agencies, have a system in place to ensure open channels of communication between you, the customer, and the employee. If a customer doesn’t feel a remote employee is meeting expectations or hitting necessary benchmarks, you, as the manager, need to know this as soon as possible.
- When you manage remote workers, you have a lot less insight into how work is getting done. Again, this means you need to be especially explicit about your expectations. Employees must know what’s expected of them at all times, including if you’re concerned about hours logged or if you’re simply interested in the end product (regardless of time spent).
- Even remote teams can implement some rules about how work is done. Some virtual companies insist on employees working from an office or offer to pay for a coworking space if the employee chooses to work from one. This works well to provide a distraction-free work environment.
- To avoid problems, it’s helpful to have a quantitative way to evaluate a remote worker’s contributions. This way, if you’re in any way unhappy with the work, you can explain exactly why. This will make it clearer for the worker, and it helps get that employee up to speed about expectations as quickly as possible.
- Utilize employee productivity software to get the best sense of what your remote team is up to during the workday. Depending on the system you use, this platform could even provide intermittent screenshots to show you exactly which projects are being worked on, and what the status is. This tool provides invaluable data to you, and it encourages remote employees to stay active and engaged in company priorities.
Employee productivity and monitoring software gives you the quantitative data you need to have effective discussions about time management. For example, a remote employee might not realize how much time he or she actually spends on Facebook, or how behind they are on completing tasks. This software can illuminate that, and you can work together to increase productivity.
5. Lack of trust and cohesion within your team
Face-to-face interactions and daily communication create feelings of trust and bonding within the group.
With a remote team, you don’t have that same advantage, and that can lead to diminished trust and cohesion between you and your employees and even between the team members themselves.
This means a couple of things for remote teams.
- Team-building and trust-establishing exercises are particularly important.
- Remote managers must be comfortable trusting their employees and giving them a lot of freedom.
Even in the most cohesive and functioning remote team, there’s simply going to be less oversight of remote employees.
If you’re prone to micromanaging, you might never feel comfortable with the inherent freedom remote workers have to complete projects at their own pace and according to their own working styles.
- Employees need feedback often in order to correct problems early on and become satisfied, top performers in their role. Be sure that all managers are giving frequent feedback to address any issues, blockers or challenges people are facing. This will help the managers to develop trust with the team members and give them the flexibility needed to make virtual teams work.
- Put a premium on video conferences. Seeing each other’s faces is the next best thing to meeting in person.
- Trust your employees, but also utilize time-tracking software. It keeps everyone accountable and can help team members feel confident in the hours they put in.
Emphasize the importance of your company culture and your willingness to be there for your employees. Despite being spread across multiple offices — or even multiple countries — it’s important for employees to feel valued, heard, and trusted.
Bonus: How to manage conflict in remote teams
Conflicts occur on any team, but on a remote team where face-to-face communication happens less frequently, noticing them is more difficult. As a remote team manager, you need to see those conflicts when they arise and have a plan to combat them.
A problem that’s unique to virtual teams is that there are no coworkers to vent with over coffee, and time zones make it difficult to have a real-time conversation regularly. The real fighting may be happening in private messages or emails that the rest of the team is not copied on.
Even for remote teams, team infighting is enough to make someone not want to sign in every morning or start looking for work elsewhere.
How to resolve conflicts in a remote team
It’s important to actively seek out any signs of conflict, such as changes of tonality in any messages or emails. If someone typically uses exclamation points and emojis but suddenly stops and switches to short responses like, “Ok,” and, “Sure,” it could be a sign he or she is unhappy with someone on the team or the project.
The same thing goes for participation in group threads. Watch if one team member goes out of their way to avoid mentioning someone else or stops engaging entirely.
Once you have identified a possible conflict, it’s key to get proactive and solve it. It will likely escalate if the management doesn’t get involved, so step in as early as possible.
This does not, however, mean that you should micromanage and watch everything your team does and says like a hawk. Ask questions in the right times and occasionally check in with individual team members.
Set up a meeting to deal with remote team conflict
- Set an agenda: This does not need to include every single detail of the meeting, but it should outline objectives and any relevant background information to help get everyone on the same page.
- State the problem: Channel your inner lawyer and begin the discussion by stating the facts. This is not a place to pass judgment one way or the other but instead to sum up the facts as you know them up to that point.
- Allow each person to share: Once the framework is in place, allow each team member involved in the conflict to share his or her perception of what’s going on. Be clear that this is not the place for others (including you) to agree or disagree. Rather, it’s a means for everyone to feel that their voices are being heard.
- Create a plan: Once the facts and opinions are on the table, you may be able to work through an action plan on the spot. Or you may need more time to reflect on what’s going on before you come back to the team with ideas on how to fix it. Either way, be clear about the next steps. The last thing you want is more confusion about how the situation will be resolved.
- Gain buy-in: Whatever the solution is, everyone involved needs to get on board. Otherwise, it will never work, and you will all find yourselves right back in the same situation before too long.
- Check progress: Don’t just forget about the problem and go back to business as usual. Schedule a follow-up meeting to see how things are going and address any related items that may arise. Keep an eye on other types of communication, too, for signs that team members are reverting back to past behavior.
Successfully managing a remote team can offer your company huge benefits, but meeting the associated challenges takes time, practice, and patience.
Don’t expect every new system to immediately work. Rather, be diligent about identifying existing and potential challenges you and your remote team face. Then, be open to trial and error and creative problem-solving in order to find the solutions that suit your particular managerial style, company, and remote team.
This post was originally published September 29, 2017, and updated April 2019.