Overcoming Roadblocks to Effective Virtual Teams
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses were offering their employees more flexible, work-from-home options. The sudden switch to lockdown life made virtual teams a necessity for businesses used to an in-person model. Remote collaboration brings a host of challenges. However, virtual teams are an asset when treated as an effective tool rather than a temporary substitute.
Changing Your Point of View
As a management and productivity consultant, I have seen many clients struggle with the effective implementation of virtual teams. A big part of the problem is that they are trying to recreate the experience of an in-person team in an online forum. Collaborating with colleagues on a screen or in a chatroom will never be the same as an in-person meeting. As soon as you give up that expectation, you are ready to unleash the potential of virtual team management.
An effective virtual team can be productive and efficient. According to the American Psychological Association, remote workers have a higher level of job satisfaction. Their performance is at the same level as in-person colleagues and often slightly better.
Handling the Challenges of Virtual Teams
Remote groups involve a unique form of teamwork. Once you embrace it as a working model, you can address the challenges of virtual teams. The common roadblocks that most virtual managers encounter include:
- Team trust issues
- Problems with technology
- Personal support
- Team accountability
Developing Team Trust in the Virtual World
Your team members must rely on one another. In an in-person setting, trust develops over time as people see completed projects and have positive interactions with one another. As a manager, you will need to take steps to help your team develop trust. Some of the techniques that I find work best for virtual groups include:
- Highlighting the gifts and relevant experience of team members.
- Pointing out individual moments of excellence.
- Providing time for social interaction.
Improving Team Communication
Virtual team communication can be a challenge. In an in-person meeting, team members can see non-verbal cues such a facial expressions and body stance. It is also easier to gauge differences in tone. Sarcasm works with people in the same room, but it can create confusion in a text.
Managers must take a different approach for virtual meetings. Most online meeting platforms work best when only one person speaks at a time. This setup can be frustrating during a brainstorming session. Some managers have all participants stay muted unless they are addressing the group. Others use a round-robin meeting style where team members speak in order one at a time.
Another way to improve communication and increase trust is to make each team member responsible for a portion of the meeting. The online forum makes it possible for some team members to coast by allowing more talkative members to dominate the time. In some cases, tech-savvy employees have figured how to automate their virtual presence. An effective virtual manager will make certain that every voice is heard.
Using Technology Effectively
Some people are more excited about technology than others. When a virtual team begins, everyone must be on the same page. Each team member may have different computer hardware and internet speeds. If technology gets in the way of productivity, you may need to help your employees upgrade their systems.
Using technology effectively will involve training. First, you must confirm that team members are accessing the right resource for their virtual meetings. You may have to spend some time helping employees learn the basics so that they can share their screens, mute themselves and send real-time messages.
Supporting Remote Employees
If you are working with a virtual group used to working in an in-person mode, they will need support as they adapt to the change. Newly remote employees can struggle to maintain appropriate boundaries between their work and home lives. They may find that they are tackling work projects long after their official work hours, a practice that can lead to burnout.
Virtual managers cannot control the work practices of their employees in the same way that they can in an office. However, they can set examples and clarify expectations to maintain a healthy work culture. Some ways to support virtual team members include:
- Using hour-tracking software to make certain employees are not working too much or too little.
- Offering tips for creating a home office workspace.
- Enforcing a policy of no after-hours emails or work-related communication.
- Help employees with accessing the right resource for mental and emotional support.
- Setting an example of appropriate work/life boundaries.
Setting Goals and Expectations
Determining the effectiveness of a team is different in an online setting. You might walk through an office and see your employees at work. You can receive an immediate response about project progress. For virtual teams, breaking larger goals into smaller pieces offers a better assessment tool. Developing clear expectations and timelines will help increase productivity while working from home.
Consulting for Both Virtual and In-Person Teams
At the Leonard Productivity Intelligence Institute, it is my goal to help managers develop effective teams in every setting. Whether you manage a team that is in-person, virtual, or somewhere in between, I would be thrilled to work with you.