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      Virtual teams - opportunities and challenges

      by Tom Shields

      Blended learning

      Virtual teams give employers a unique opportunity to build a team of the worlds best talent, drawing from a hiring pool that spans the globe. All while lowering overheads and boosting productivity. It can seem like a no-brainer when it comes to building a successful team, however in practice there can be as many challenges as there are benefits.

      Challenges of managing virtual teams

      Research published in the Harvard Business Review states that remote workers or virtual teams are more likely to feel alienated or disconnected when compared to employees working locally. The main challenges were lack of communication between management as well as team mates leading to feelings of mistreatment and isolation which occasionally led to conflict. 

       

      So how can we overcome this? Well, implementing a framework and investing in the time and knowledge to learn how to best include everyone can only help. 

      Virtual team communication challenges

      Communication issues are often one of the biggest challenges of managing remote virtual teams, it is difficult for team managers to effectively convey key messages or expectations over email, instant messaging or in a conference call. Becoming more concise, more deliberate in you choice of words will help cut to the point quicker and ensure there is no room for misinterpretation. 

       

      Virtual teams require inclusion, to feel connected to the goals of the wider team and company, they need to know their position in the team, who they’re responsible to and how to get help when they need it. 

       

      Working in numerous time zones can pose a significant issue when it comes to inclusion as working remotely can often mean you are siloed away from the core of the company, working outside your colleagues and managers business hours. So, small things like ensuring you are available at some point throughout each members shift can have massive benefits. 

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      Evaluate your management style

      Building a strong, agile, remote team that is collaborative and productive and hails from all corners of the globe requires a leader that understands the challenges of working in virtual teams. Can they communicate to native and non native English speakers for example? It’s a small thing but if you’re able to make your point as clear as possible you don't have to repeat it and everyone knows what it is and how they help achieve it. 

      Lights, camera, action! Having regular team meetings that accommodate each members time differences and making the effort to get that one on one face to face time with each team member helps build trust. Having the cameras on for these meetings is a must, your company culture may be no to, but your team should at least be able to point each other out of a line up.

       

      Managing team schedules so that there is a hand-over period at the beginning and end of each members working day ensures communication is regular and any updates or changes are shared.  

       

      Holding team meetings that alternate to suit each person's schedule is a great team builder, as is annual or bi-annual team meetings where all members are in the office. In these meetings, virtual team members get a chance to meet their local counterparts, share ideas, build friendships and bond outside of their job roles.

      Managing Diverse Teams

      With this melting pot of people, culture and experiences it is important to know each member and their individual working patterns, strengths and weaknesses. For example: in a team meeting when assigning tasks, a member from a particular country may use silence as a form of agreement, others may use it as disagreement, ensuring each member knows how to convey messages and gaining understanding by calling upon each person individually can ensure there are no misunderstandings. 

       

      We have created this free inclusion and diversity course to help organisations better understand how to manage a diverse workforce.

      Diversity and Inclusion course

      Choosing the best tools 

      Utilise the best technology available to overcome the challenges of building trust in a virtual team. Encouraging collaboration by using file sharing platforms or project management tools can let employees get a feel for how each other work. This form of best practice sharing can boost knowledge of all involved and drive productivity. Also, having both local workers and those working from home be responsible for the delivery of a task helps them communicate and creates accountability.

       

      Choosing an instant messaging platform can seem pretty cut and dry, but looking at how companies like slack have reimagined the platform it’s worth thinking about how you wish to have your messages sent. Making sure you are all contributing toward a shared goal, communicate regularly and keep status updates frequently. Each team member needs to know how they are performing and how their progress is being measured. 

       

      One of the biggest fears companies have when bringing on a remote worker or virtual team is how they ensure they can track hours worked. Tools such as Harvest or Hive allow this without invading privacy. Ultimately communicating your expectations and having regular check in points will give you a better idea of how a worker is contributing than a report of hours, but for billing a client for example it may be necessary. 

       

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      Balancing a blended team 

      Combining the right management style, a diverse team and the best tools for the job gives a constructive foundation to effectively address the challenges facing virtual teams. It’s important to team build regularly through face to face and digitally, communicate concisely your expectations and share common goals. 

       

      Remote work has been shown to both increase productivity and lower attrition, employees working remotely found it easier to concentrate and were less likely to take sick days or prolonged breaks. It’s worth looking into if you’re not already working this way. You can find more information on why virtual teams are important here.

       

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