Common Challenges of a Virtual Team

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I work virtually; it’s a primary part of my business model. This arrangement suits my work process (and personality) perfectly. Not to say I don’t enjoy meeting clients and colleagues face-to-face, of course. In fact, when I’ve had an opportunity to meet a colleague in person, it has always made the working relationship better. It’s just not logistically realistic in every situation.

I love most things about the virtual team atmosphere – no travel, ramped up productivity, no geographic boundaries, a focus on collaboration, enhanced creativity, autonomy. But as much as I love working virtually, it’s certainly not without its challenges.

Whether I’m working with clients or divvying up tasks among my own team members, there are moments when I wish I could jump into my laptop and pop out in front of a colleague for a much needed face-to-face. Some things are just harder virtually. Or, more accurately, some things just need to be done differently when you work with a team spread out around the world.

I am a member of several virtual teams – leader of a few – and in my experience, there are a number of common stumbling blocks. These obstacles can stop the forward progress of any virtual team, and it can be hard to get back into the groove. Some of the biggest challenges of virtual teams that I’ve seen include:

  • Misunderstanding from poor communication
  • Incompatible communication preferences
  • Differences in work ethic
  • Lack of clarity and direction
  • Frequent second-guessing
  • Deficient sense of ownership and commitment
  • Inability to ask the right questions
  • Difficulty with delegation
  • Hidden incompetence
  • Mismatched skills/needs
  • Distrust and suspicion
  • Diminished productivity
  • Lack of empathy and personal connection

That’s quite a list, isn’t it! Not all of these challenges come into play for all virtual teams, but if even just one hits the team in a significant way, it can be detrimental.

Look at poor communication, for example. The inability to communicate effectively can make it impossible to accomplish anything when you work virtually. Or take communication preferences. If one person is a phone-only communicator and one is an email-only communicator, then it can be nearly impossible to work together unless someone is willing to change.

Despite the challenges, however, I have been a part of many successful virtual teams, and when you get the right mix of ingredients, the potential is unlimited. Building a productive and efficient virtual team requires foresight, planning, dedication and hard work. But it’s possible.

Stay tuned for my next post, outlining the 10 most important actions to take when creating a virtual team that thrives.

Thumbnail credit: leocub

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  • XLCowBoy

    Everyone comes together when a paycheck is involved.

  • SR

    The challenges faced by virtual teams can be grouped into 4
    1. Communication – poor communication skills, and techniques. Employers w/ significant virtual workforce should consider offering communication trainisng na dshould put in place rules for virtual communication
    2. Technology – picking the right technology or tool for your needs. most companies pick a tool by its price rather than its features. with such a wide array of choices from phone/chat (skype, IM) to web meetings (goto) to web q &a (webex) to virtual workspaces (sococo), it is prudent to pick one that fits your needs
    3. leadership/rules – virtual interaction needs its own set of rules (address questions to ‘a’ person, people wishing to respond need to make sure previous speaker has ended, no multi tasking etc). Every defined interaction must have a leader so no confusion on agenda or whose meeting it is.
    4. blended solution – with virtual teams it is important to have an annual or bi annual meeting where team members get to interact one on one. this reduces friction

  • http://www.sitepoint.com ShayneTilley

    Some of my team are in the office, others are sprawled across the planet. I’ve always found the the key ingredients that contribute to a high performing team remain the same, virtual or not, but the execution needs a little thought.

    A couple of things I’ve implemented of late. I made sure we had a unique team name, and an email alias to match. I had no influence on the decision, it was up to the group to work together and come up with something that depicted us. Once the name was decided it was also up to them to come up with a team theme song. The reason I did this (other than wanting a cool team name and song) what to get the team collaborating on something that wasn’t business critical, that everyone could contribute to at the same level, where there was no right or wrong answer, that had a deadline. A low risk, but an extremely valuable teamwork excise.

    The second change is I implemented something I called a ‘mushroom huddle’. Whenever a team member has a problem they need a 2nd opinion on, or just some advice, anything really, they can call one. It’s called over twitter, IM, email — whatever gets the message out. Then everyone in the team available at the time jumps onto skype we have a quick conversation and talk through the issues. The critical elements of a mushroom huddle are that they are not scheduled, whoever available jumps on at the time, and you only ever deal with one issue. It’s exactly what you’d do if you were struggling with something in an office, so I’m trying to replicate that in a virtual environment.

    When you really put some though to it — it’s not hard to replicate the team dynamic in a virtual environment.

  • W2ttsy

    i went from a tangible team to a virtual team at the start of this year when my team members and i moved interstate for work. We have actually found we are more effective in a virtual workspace than in a real one. Not sure whether this was the removal of distraction or maybe a need to be more accountable given the virtual nature, but its getting great results.

    some important lessons ive learnt:

    1) set up a collaboration area. We use Atlassian confluence, but basecamp would also work i guess. but a central place for documentation and all your business statements is a must. That way team members can add feedback or recap on things like values, mission statements and goals.

    2) set up some sort of task/issue management tool. We use Atlassian JIRA but trac, bugzilla or the like could work too. this adds to the accountability, where everything can be tracked and performance can be monitored

    3) switch to agile work practices. This makes task delegation and autonomy alot easy. We do a virtual stand up each morning over iChat and then another one during the evening to discuss the days progress

    4) leave your chat client open. You dont have to talk, but its there if you need to contact a team member. sometimes teams members and myself will leave a video or audio chat open while working just to have the ambient officey sounds.

    5) have chillout time where you just talk about anything. Sometimes talking about news or current events is a way to recreate the water cooler moment without actually having one…

  • Mel Silverman

    I am a virtual business lifestyle advocate and this post talks about what I am always talking about and that is working with virtual assistants. It does have a benefit. As an added reference to this post, it would be worthwhile reading the VBL blog and downloading the ebook for further reference.