To those who have worked as part of a virtual team, it may come as no surprise that research shows virtual teams face more challenges to stay effective than face-to-face teams. And not all virtual teams are equal: challenges grow as team members spend more time working apart, as more of them work virtually, and as the degree of separation (in both working hours and physical distance) increases. Communicating through electronic media is where many of the challenges stem from for virtual teams: the more it is used, the less effective virtual teams are.
This is because when communicating through electronic media, team members share less information with each other, have a harder time interpreting and understanding the information they receive, and give delayed feedback. Further, electronic media makes it harder to spot non-verbal cues, such as tone of voice, warmth, attentiveness, all of which add to the difficulties of sending a clear message. The challenges in virtual communication are compensated for by using rich media to communicate: the closer the medium is to face-to-face conversations, the better.
Teams using video-conferencing fare better than teams using only audio or written communication, coming close to face-to-face teams in terms of effectiveness. Technological advances have brought us tools for electronic communication that are profoundly different from what was available twenty or even ten years ago, making rich media communication more accessible and easing some of the challenges. Yet when the need for effective communication suddenly increases, it seems technology may still not fully deliver to the user’s expectations.
What can HR practitioners and managers do to mitigate these challenges faced by virtual teams?
Here are Ten tips to build a powerful virtual team and boost productivity at work.
Encourage use of rich media for communication
Instead of solely using audio-conferencing or phone calls, managers can encourage or even require team members to use video-conferencing, as it allows immediate feedback, personalisation, and enables members to share their viewpoints and resolve differences quickly. At the same time, managers must be mindful that logistical or technological issues might impact the use of video-conferencing.
If, for example, there was a sudden surge in people working from home, this may overload internet services and reduce the quality of the connection. Also, people’s living conditions may limit their openness to using video during work calls. Ensuring people have at least the minimal conditions for videoconferencing to work well is the first step towards more effective communication in virtual teams.
Some memories from video conferencing sessions can last a life time. Just like the one above!
Synchronize work schedules as far as practical
Virtual teams should have a common working time-frame that is as long as possible – that is, with as large an overlap of working hours as possible. The less time team members spend working simultaneously, the more difficult it is to have meetings. This ends up requiring team members’ effort to co-ordinate and may delay communication of important information. On the other hand, good flexible working practices mean some people might be adopting non-standard hours.
Synchronisation of virtual teams will need to take this into account. Working across time zones in globally dispersed organisations will make synchronisation more difficult, so managers and HR practitioners should focus on building deliberate awareness of the optimal time intervals for meetings. In the COVID- context, this may not be the most common challenge, as many are local teams that would usually work face-to-face, but in other cases, managers and HR practitioners can step in and make temporary adjustments, for example by allowing people flexi-time that increases the time alignment between different time zones.
Mitigate the effects of physical distance
When team members are far away from each other, it is more difficult for them to understand each other’s contexts and how these affect their work. Managers and HR practitioners should ensure that teams proactively share information about the operational contexts, policies, and actions specific to each member’s location. An encouraging consideration is that teams that became virtual in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are less likely to face the problem of great geographical distance, and so will have one less challenge to overcome.’
Still, if teams extend their virtual mode of operation in the future and greater flexibility is allowed, this may become a point requiring further attention and action. The soaring increase in video-conferencing during the COVID-19 pandemic may be problematic for some. Anecdotal accounts suggest some workers have reached saturation level, finding an overload of video-conferences draining and a source of pressure.
Some research has shown that working remotely is associated with an increase in stress levels due to increased conflict between work and domestic requirements. While this was not conclusive scientific research, it would seem sensible to consider the potential stress of video-conferencing overload as a factor within the current climate.Invest in team-building.
If possible, virtual teams should kick off their work with a face-to-face session. Teams who have never met face-to-face and have no common past have a harder time developing social cohesion. To see the positive effects, the session has to be more than just a ‘meet and greet’.
Team-building means many things in practice, but the common focus is on improving social relations and clarifying roles. Investing time and effort in activities such as sharing expectations from the team, getting to know each other, anticipating how to handle conflict, or scheduling periodic calls has positive effects on both social cohesion and trust.
Protect the team from negative behavior
A key factor for trust is believing the others have good intentions. In virtual teams, it is enough for one team member to engage in negative behaviour, such as dishonest communication, for team trust to decrease. There is truth in the adage that ‘trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback’: when one team member intentionally tries to deceive others, their good intentions can no longer be assumed.
Managers and HR practitioners should detect early and correct intentionally dishonest communication, differentiating it from unintentional misinformation and highlighting/explaining if this was indeed the case. Be mindful about sharing negative feedback .Another key element at the basis of trust is believing the team members have the abilities needed to perform well.
When the team is not performing as expected, team members see the belief in their own competence challenged, and trust might decline. So, although sharing negative feedback is important, managers and HR practitioners should be mindful about whether this is truly necessary, and if yes, they should make it specific and not linked to the team’s inherent ability to perform the task.
Proactively diversify the information shared within the team
To counteract the tendency of virtual teams to focus only on task-related information, managers and HR professionals can set aside time and explicitly ask virtual teams to also share their feedback or expectations about how the team should collaborate during their work. Having standalone sessions dedicated to non-work-related information will help people build connection. By preparing these sessions in advance and guiding them, HR practitioners and managers can ensure people are comfortable joining them and the topics are appropriate.
Build up the team’s trans active memory system
HR practitioners and managers can help to clarify team members’ expertise by sharing their past relevant experiences and identifying how they can contribute to the team’s tasks and collaboration. This helps team members know who possesses what information, and to ask the right people when they need it.
Set rules about who needs to know what in a virtual team, based on members’ expertise. If one team member serves as the technical expert, when other people find out information related to technical aspects, they will share it with the ‘expert’.
Specialization also helps team members free up resources, because they don’t need to hold on and use all the information they come across, since they know who does it instead. Virtual teams can benefit from tools to support their TMS, such as databases of knowledge or a wiki. HR practitioners and managers can transfer good practices that other teams in the organisation are using and help teams accelerate the process of finding a suitable tool to support their shared knowledge.
Hold debriefing sessions
The effects of information-sharing and a TMS are supported by moments when the team reflects upon their goals, collaboration, decision-making processes, and internal communication. Making such moments deliberate and grouping them in dedicated sessions accelerates their positive impact on the team’s effectiveness.
HR practitioners and managers should not just encourage, but also facilitate such sessions, since having a facilitator makes them more effective than self-guided sessions. The focus of the debriefing sessions should be on learning and improvement, rather than evaluation or judgement. In such a setting, managers and HR professionals should also share feedback with the team to allow it to discover lessons learned.
A developmental, non-punitive focus not only yields more honest and accurate feedback, but also enhances experiential learning.
Set up teamwork training sessions
HR practitioners and managers should provide virtual teams with teamwork training, because it will help them improve their activity and results. When setting up teamwork training sessions, the method of choice should be interactive and focus on the team members actually experimenting what effective teamwork looks like. In the context of virtual teams, this might be done at occasional face-to-face meetings or through video-conferencing.
Clarify roles, including that of co-ordinator
Co-ordination is best achieved when roles within the team are very clear to everyone involved. In virtual teams, it is harder to achieve the same level of clarity, so managers and HR professionals have to help teams clarify who does what, even if it means assigning roles in a more directive manner than they would do for a face-to-face team.
Even in the absence of a team leader, managers and HR professionals can formally assign or identify a team member who takes on co-ordination responsibilities. This means that person is responsible for tracking the team’s tasks and progress towards achieving them, as well as the results achieved.
Provide tools for co-ordination
HR practitioners and managers must empower virtual teams to co-ordinate by giving them the right tools to do so. When teams go virtual, they may need new or more tools to ensure effective co-ordination is achieved. Project management software could do the trick, and ensuring everyone has access to such tools across the organisation is a task best solved collaboratively by managers and HR together.
Co-ordinate the team’s communication
Managers and HR professionals should help teams who go virtual to set rules for communication right from the beginning. In a team session, team members can decide to have weekly update meetings, to ask everyone to answer team messages within a set timeframe, or to be as transparent as possible in their messages and feedback, without fear of hurting the expectations of other teammates.
Find the leader best suited for the challenge
Managers and HR professionals should find the right leader to fit the challenge faced by a virtual team. For example, if a team’s targets focus on output quantity over service quality, it might benefit more from a directive, task-focused team leader. On the other hand, if the team works on achieving high-quality and creative results, it might be better off with a leader who focuses on vision, challenges the team members and asks for their ideas, takes risks, and attends to each team member’s needs and concerns.
Identify humble team leaders
Humble leaders might not be the obvious choice for leading virtual teams, but they might actually help teams work better. If managers and HR practitioners deliberately identify people high on humility, besides the other characteristics which make a team leader effective, they may provide their virtual teams with an extra chance of success.