Managing A Virtual Team – Part 1

Virtual teams are on the increase and it is estimated that by 2020 this way of working will be the norm for half the UK workforce. But research also shows that most managers simply aren’t equipped to manage a virtual team because managing a virtual team is very different from managing office based staff.

Perhaps this is why 2 out of 3 managers fail in their first attempts of doing so. This failure happens because the manager tries to apply the same rules and practices to their virtual team as they used for an office based team. They don’t consider what’s different about a virtual team, and this leads to the problems they encounter.

There are a number of key issues that the manager of a virtual team must consider in order to ensure they don’t fail. Let us take a look at some of these, together with some suggestions on making them work in practice.

The first problem is a lack of understanding. By definition a virtual team is virtual because the team members are separated by geography. In its simplest form a virtual team may work in a different building in the same country. But virtual teams can also be separated by time zones. Again in its simplest form this may be across different shifts in the same building.

Where team members are separated across different countries (and so time zones) language and culture differences can also cause issues in management.

No two virtual teams are the same, so whether your team is partly or entirely virtual, you will need to consider the specific situation of each team member and appreciate that not one size of management fits all.

The solution is to embrace and accommodate the diversity within your virtual team. By learning how to accommodate the differences between team members you will be much better positioned to take advantage of the unique perspectives and fresh ideas that come from the different team members.

It is also important that you familiarise yourself with the applicable laws, policies, or standards in the various countries your virtual team members work in. Most importantly, talk to your team regularly and find out if their needs and those of the rest of the team are in alignment.

The next big problem to overcome is poor communication. It is hard enough to communicate effectively when you can do this face-to-face, but with a virtual team such face-to-face time is (at best) limited.

When you move away from face-to-face communications misunderstandings are far more likely to occur. This is because we pick up many of the nuances and context of the communication from the non-verbal elements.

It is therefore important that a newly formed virtual team meets up in person as early as possible and agrees how to work and communicate effectively together. This is sometimes called a team charter.

When you manage a virtual team, remember that different people will have different means of verbally expressing themselves and they may not always understand what you are saying. Slow down when you talk to them, avoid jargon, obscure words and local or regional phrases.

Email is frequently used as the communication tool of first resort for virtual teams so it is important that all emails you send get straight to the point and are kept short. If you find that you are emailing backwards and forwards about a particular topic to a virtual team member, then it is best to switch to a more information rich media – such as a phone call, video conference or (if possible) a face-to-face meeting.

In part two of this blog we will look at some of the other issues managing a virtual/remote team can create.

Managing remote teams training can help managers understand and deal with the challenges of leading a virtual team to success.