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Virtual Teams – But Real People

Posted by Kate Carter | 05-Mar-2019 11:00:00

Virtual teams offer challenges for the team’s leaders, members - and for L&D professionals as they meet the team’s L&D requirements, often in a cross-cultural context.

The team is virtual, but the people in that team are real. They have real hopes and fears, ambitions and interests; knowledge, skill and communications needs.

Tips for successful virtual team leading are:

  • Be extra clear - and write it down. Decisions might be transmitted - but does everyone fully understand it? Ensure instructions are Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-bound (SMART).

Every meeting needs a note-keeper to set the agenda and provide a post-meeting summary. This helps avoid confusion and allows participants - especially non-native speakers - to check they’ve understood the discussion correctly.

  • Virtual meetings spanning time zones should be rotated to fairly distribute, among the geographical areas, the strain of connecting at untimely hours.
  • Attend quickly to staff concerns and conflicts. Problems or questions from remote staff can be harder to express or elicit than in face-to-face meetings. Leaders should address problems as soon as possible - to avoid entrenching conflicts. Organize calls to discuss less vital - even non-work - matters to ease tensions.
  • Use lowest common denominator technology. Ideally, face-to-face meetings should take place at least once a year, or at the start of a major project. But, while video conferences are relatively simple, don’t rule out using the telephone.
  • Celebrate online. Share successes - whether it’s toasting a deal or enjoying a team pizza, even if that means doing so awkwardly on-screen. It all helps build team spirit.


Team Members

Rather than work in the same office, virtual team members work in different time zones and/or places - often at home. They may never meet their co-workers face-to-face. Challenges for team members include:

  • Poor and infrequent communication - can hinder innovation, effectiveness and decision making. Moreover, not being in regular contact can prevent team members creating working friendships and can leave them feeling isolated. They may not see how their work and projects fit as a whole - and become demotivated and despondent.

Team leaders can create inter-dependent tasks and encourage partnerships within the team - but it’s also every team member’s responsibility to increase everyday interactions.

  • Lack of trust - because virtual team members rarely work at the same time, can’t see what others are doing and don’t get immediate responses. These problems can be averted by setting clear goals and expectations, as well as creating awareness of the contribution and achievements of every team member.
  • Diverse multicultural teams - often comprise people with conflicting customs, work habits, and values. Members prefer their own way of working - and leaders must find common grounds to manage them. To minimize conflicts, all team members should agree common, acceptable work ethics and team customs to foster cultural understanding.
  • Loss of team spirit. Virtual teams can be more cohesive, effective and engaged through shared leadership. The team’s leaders should create a clear direction for the other members, ensuring everyone accepts a common goal and vision.
  • Physical distance - can foster cold, distant relationships among members - posing risks for the team’s competence and cohesion. Members feel unable to ask questions, and there are difficulties with delegation. So, team leaders should pay individual attention to each member, to create a sense of commitment and project ownership.
  • Time zone differences. Use collaboration tools to minimize the time overlap between members and reduce the number of virtual meetings.
  • An over-lengthy daily routine - reduces worker concentration and motivation. Team members can feel exhausted if they’re required to stay at their computers for many hours at a time – to correspond with colleagues operating in different time zones. Encourage team members to work ‘normal length’ days, even if they’re not ‘nine-to-five’.
  • Personal life and work-life imbalance. Virtual team members often work in the same physical space where they go about their personal lives. So, work can affect team members' personal life - and the other way around. Harmonizing personal life and work life is crucial to the success of any virtual work.
  • Lack of clarity, direction, and priorities. The most difficult part of entrenching a specific goal is maintaining it and keeping everyone focused. Overcoming this challenge for virtual teams requires planning, dedication, foresight, hard work – and getting all team members to engage with each other.


L&D Professionals

Richard Lowe, Director of Training and Digital Learning Solutions, at the international HR and L&D specialist of Hewlett Rand says L&D professionals can help virtual teams be successful by:

  • Researching virtual teamworking tools, software and best practice approaches
  • Providing away-day facilitation to build trust, develop plans and effective teamworking
  • Developing high performance virtual team leadership and management skills and capabilities
  • Supporting adoption and development of effective virtual team communication and management software skills and protocols
  • Sourcing or developing virtual teamworking online learning content – including content making virtual teams fully aware of cultural and team differences across geographical regions
  • Providing an open-door policy for consultancy and training support when virtual teams are having difficulties

You can evaluate these L&D activities, says Lowe, via:

  • Participant feedback from L&D interventions
  • LMS evaluation data, where relevant
  • Virtual team surveys and employee survey feedback
  • Holding review meetings to assess progress and determine development needs
  • Maintaining ongoing communication and dialogue with virtual team managers

Engage in Learning offer interactive, editable online courses which cover best practice in managing teams.

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