Best Practices for Leading Virtual Teams

A virtual team is a group of employees – that may be big or small – who work together in the same company but are not in the same office physically.

Generally, these employees live in different places and use computers and mobile devices to communicate with each other on work-related projects. Overall, approximately 3.9 million people work from home, and studies predict that 50 percent of the U.S. workforce could work remotely in the near future.

As such, virtual teams require somewhat different types of leaders and management strategies. These modified approaches can encourage employees to be more productive and avoid confusion between different teams.

Best Ways to Communicate With Virtual Teams

Because virtual employees do not work in the same room or office building, it is important for them to stay in close contact. In some cases, virtual teams may be spread out all over the world and live in various time zones. To address those challenges, there are several platforms that allow virtual employees to easily reach one another in a timely manner and share documents.

  • Online collaborative chat rooms – Computer and mobile phone apps such as Slack and Skype provide instant messaging and video conferencing capabilities. This helps telecommuting employees communicate just as they might if they worked in an office together.
  • Task management tools – Websites and apps such as Trello and Asana help remote workers stay on top of their workloads. These communicative platforms make it easy to assign tasks to employees and keep track of their progress on an assignment.
  • Text messaging – Standard group chat text messages, as well as apps like WhatsApp, allow virtual teams to stay in constant contact. This is one of the fastest ways to reach colleagues.
  • Email – It may seem old-fashioned, but email is a useful way to keep in touch and share ideas and documents among colleagues. This is a good option when employers and employees need to communicate with team members outside of work hours.
  • Cloud services – Aside from communication, it’s important for virtual employees to share and access work documents on a cloud service just as they would on a server in a physical work office. Shared drives like Google Drive, iCloud and Dropbox allow remote workers to share and edit documents.

Learning Each Team Member’s Role

Virtual teams are typically composed of individuals from several different backgrounds and skills. As a general rule, roles must be clearly defined so that other team members understand the responsibilities of each person on the virtual team.

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Overall, understanding your coworkers’ responsibilities leads to a more productive and collaborative work environment. A few examples of these roles include:

  • Supervisor – Supervisors implement the rules of a virtual team and help ensure that meetings, deadlines and other deliverables are being met and completed in a professional and timely manner. This person must be familiar with working across time zones and cultural boundaries to accommodate employees from all different backgrounds and locations.
  • Contributor – A contributor is a virtual employee who takes on and completes an assignment assigned by his or her manager or coordinator. This is a functional and task-oriented role and usually includes several people.
  • Manager – This person reviews the work completed by a contributor to ensure that it meets expectations before it is finalized.
  • Technical support staff – One or more team members make up the technical staff. These team members can help troubleshoot technical issues, which is important in a remote-work setup.

Pros and Cons of Virtual Teams

Working in a virtual environment has its advantages and disadvantages. If you are considering taking on a remote job, here are a few different things to consider when it comes to the pros and cons of working in an office or working from home.

Advantages of Virtual Teams

  • They can work from any location.
  • They have flexible work hours.
  • No professional dress is required.
  • They have a flat organization structure.
  • They have a flexible work/life balance that leads to happier employees.
  • They leave a lower carbon footprint.
  • Since roles aren’t limited by location, companies have access to bigger talent pools to recruit employees.
  • They’re a more affordable option for the employer (not paying for office space, electric, office supplies, etc.).
  • They have happier employees that tend to be more driven, yielding better performance results on projects.

Disadvantages of Virtual Teams

  • Team members may feel socially isolated.
  • There is less collaboration vs. in-person meetings in developing ideas.
  • They are harder to resolve conflicts for.
  • It’s easy to misread or misinterpret tone in emails and messages, which can result in hurt feelings.
  • If employees are in different time zones, it may be hard to get everyone on the same page for a meeting.
  • It’s harder to connect with employees without face-to-face interaction.
  • There are higher expectations for employees to be available and on-call.

How to Resolve Conflict in Virtual Teams

Conflict in any office setting, virtual or not, is inevitable. Unresolved conflicts can be detrimental to productivity, creativity and the overall morale of the virtual team. Resolving disagreements can be trickier with remote employees, but not impossible.

  • Take immediate action. If a problem arises, address it right away. Do not wait until the next meeting. Send a quick chat message or an email to start the process. The longer a problem festers, the worse it becomes.
  • Talk one-on-one. Talk to each employee individually before setting up a group discussion. Virtual team members feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings in a private setting.
  • Chat it out. Set up a private group chat or Slack message between the employees who are in disagreement. The supervisor should facilitate the conversation to help resolve the disagreement.
  • Set up a conference call. Sometimes it’s easier to communicate over the phone than in front of a computer screen. Set up a phone call with the virtual team members who are having issues. The call should be monitored by a human resources employee.
  • Listen to both sides. Each virtual employee is entitled to his or her opinion and should be allowed to recount his or her side of the conflict. Listen to all sides of the issue before deciding how to best move forward in an objective and fair manner.
  • Be open and honest. Transparency in a remote work setup is crucial so that employees feel heard, trusted and respected. Keep this in mind when coming up with a resolution to the conflict.
  • Come up with a solution. After listening to the concerns of the virtual employees, take a day or two to come up with a fair resolution to the problem. Consult higher-ups and members of the human resources team, if need be.

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