To trace the history of remote work, you have to go back all the way to the beginning of civilization. Luckily, The Human Resources Report has an easy timeline
for it. But as far as remote or virtual teams are concerned, they started showing up only after the widespread sale of PCs and the advent of the internet. As lucrative as the concept is, virtual teams have found widespread acceptance only in the 2010s. Organizations are finally opening up to the benefits of virtual teams and the effect of remote work on employee satisfaction.
However, along with the benefits, the challenges have also entered companies. Each company or team is unique and so are their challenges but there are some common virtual team challenges that are uniform. Following are eight most common virtual team challenges, and a quick solution from the experts.
Communication Styles and Efficiency
Communication is the pillar for any success. Whether the team is virtual or in office, communication is vital to uphold its functioning. In office, there are different forms of communication at play. Colleagues often share updates verbally, give opinions, and even infer information from body language. But none of this is possible with virtual teams so formal methods of communication become more important.
The most common challenge that virtual teams face is that everyone has a distinct style of communication. Some people may be thorough and detailed, while others communicate in a crisp manner. Some prefer calls, while others prefer emails. In any case, when multiple people use various channels, it can become arduous to track communication and encourage accountability.
Another common virtual team challenge is that some people just aren’t effective at communicating their requirements. So they might not offer as much information as is required to function in a virtual team. This can lead to misinterpretations, or missed updates.
What Can You Do?
When your team members have various communication styles and methods, the easiest way to solve that is to establish a communication protocol. Make sure all official communication is conducted over one or maximum two channels and these channels should record all communication for future reference. These channels could be anything like Slack, emails, or project management tools. But establishing an official channel helps get rid of ambiguity.
In case of inept communication skills from your team members, it is easy to place blame or approach it in a manner that will lead to conflict. But it is important to remember that it is neither productive nor helpful to do so. The easiest way to deal with this virtual team challenge is to outline a protocol for communication. When do updates need to be sent out, to whom, on what intervals, and in what format? Answering these questions will add transparency to your process and give everyone a direction to follow.
Lack of Accountability
Accountability is a tricky issue in any environment but with virtual teams, it can become a serious problem if not addressed quickly. As there is no physical supervision for virtual teams, it becomes difficult to calculate productivity and efficiency. Employers are often plagued by these questions:
Are the employees really working during work hours?
Are they being productive?
Is everyone on the team putting in the same amount of effort?
And while these questions are common, it is important to find the real cause behind them.
Employees, too, can become distrustful of their team members and wonder if they are getting the short end of the stick. All of this stems from a lack of trust within the team.
What Can You Do?
While there are several solutions to this virtual team challenge such as using time tracking software to detect your employees’ activity during work hours, this kind of solutions will only water the seeds of distrust.
The best way to go about this is to change the way you gauge employee productivity and switch the KPIs to be more result oriented. This way, it wouldn’t matter if your employees are working eight hours or 12, because the results will be the key in this scenario.
Additionally, transparent and effective communication is an absolute requirement to ensure that the entire team is on the same page and no one feels alienated or exploited.
Office spaces are designed to enhance focus and reduce distractions. Everything, from seating space to colors, is designed with a particular objective in mind. Therefore, it becomes easy to just take a seat at your desk and start working when in office. However, that is not the case with remote work. As most people in virtual teams work from home, the environment is full of distractions. Everything, from the noise in the neighbors’ house to the children in yours, can hamper your focus and prove to be a challenge for virtual teams.
Diminished focus is a common challenge among virtual teams and even though remote work is known to enhance productivity, if the focus is diminished, your employees could feel burnt out quickly.
What Can You Do?
Encourage your team members to practice the following routinely and rigorously:
Have a separate work corner in your house
Keep the working space free of clutter
Discuss childcare with family members to ensure that you get a few distraction-free hours
From your end, you can offer them financial support to add remote work infrastructure to their house. And incentivize good performance. Communicate with your team frequently to check if they are facing any issues.
Maintaining Office Culture
From an employee’s perspective, working virtually can be great. No commute, flexible hours, and working from the convenience of your home are great perks. But many remote workers experience feelings of isolation after a few months of remote work. The primary reason for this virtual team challenge is that there is no ‘socialization’ in remote teams. Teammates don’t really meet each other and they miss out on the human connectivity that an office offers.
This is where the office culture can prove to be a big support. Office culture is an ambiguous term but it envelops the entirety of the office experience. But how do you shape an office culture without an office?
What Can You Do?
Office culture isn’t just the birthdays and the fun Fridays. It goes beyond that, it involves interpersonal interactions, sharing with your colleagues, discussing your weekends, and being social. This can be achieved by engaging employees virtually. You can do that by maintaining inter-department groups, encouraging conversations, and adding rituals like sharing weekend stories on Monday. You can also reward socializing. It may seem silly at first, but small rituals can add up and create a community.
Physical office spaces share the same network, IP address, and vetted devices. But in the case of a virtual team, none of this is possible. Virtual teams often use their personal devices for work too. In this case, security becomes a major issue.
Many organizations don’t allow personal devices inside work premises for data security, but you cannot monitor where and how your data is shared in case of virtual teams. This can lead to phishing or data breaches within your organization. Security threats are the biggest of virtual team challenges that most companies face.
What Can You Do?
The good news is that data security has evolved with the times and it is possible to ensure data security even remotely. For that you can undertake the following measures:
Set up a security protocol
Train your team members on the basics of data security and best practices
Use tools with strong security measures
Ensure that your employees don’t use public networks for work
Frequently update your security measures and passwords
Lack of Order
People are hardwired to look for structure or order in everything, be it in caves, modern homes, or in offices. They respond well to order and thrive under established structures. Governments and religions are the biggest testament to this. But what happens when there is no order?
In an office environment, there is at least an understood order of things. But virtual teams require a clear defined structure in order to perform. A lack of hierarchies and structure can often lead to miscommunication and errors.
Many virtual teams struggle to perform simply because there is no set protocol on how to conduct a task.
What Can You Do?
Documentation of hierarchies and protocols makes it easy to communicate with your team. Create detailed and relevant protocols for each process and share them with your team members. Constantly review your protocols for any gaps and keep updating them.
Any virtual team challenges can be taken care of but only if they have the virtual teams have a right direction.
Lack of Right Tools
Many organizations prefer to use free tools for their processes. While there is nothing wrong with maintaining your budget, it is important to know which tools are necessary for success and growth.
For example, you may use a free project management tool for your processes, and it might fulfill your administrative requirements. But free tools are often low on security measures, and it can put all your data at risk. Similarly, specialized tools such as the ones used for design, proofreading, or market analysis can make a big difference in your productivity and output. This is a specific virtual team challenge as physical teams can still voice their concerns as a team and make changes but virtual teams are often left to their own devices, without the right tools to perform.
What Can You Do?
Look at these tools as an investment rather than an expense. Create quarterly allowances for new tools and ensure that the existing ones are still useful and maintained well. Do an ROI analysis before investing, if a tool can bring in more money than you spend on it, it is well worth the expense.
Meetings are one of the pesky virtual team challenges. Many companies hire from across the globe, and team members work from different time zones. Even if your team is within a single time zone, availability of all members is a common challenge while scheduling meetings.
What Can You Do?
Clarify that as virtual teams get extra perks, they must also compromise on some factors. Timelines need to be adjusted and meetings should be prioritized for everyone to be on the same page. Meetings are crucial for the functioning of a process, they help everyone get crucial updates and bring everyone on the team in agreement.
For meetings where participation isn’t crucial, some people may be excused and you can share the recording of the meeting with them.
There are several virtual team challenges, individually, as well as on a team level. But it is important to stay in constant touch, share frequent updates, and check in with each other so that there is nothing lost in translation. This guide to work from home policy
may offer additional assistance with the same. After all, an effective team is not the perfect one, but the one that’s willing to adapt.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the biggest challenge when working in a virtual organization?
The biggest virtual team challenge is communication. However, it is easily preventable. If communication protocols and channels are clear, virtual organizations thrive.
How do you overcome the challenges of virtual teams?
A good remote work policy can help you overcome most of the virtual team challenges. It is best to be prepared for all kinds of challenges rather than deal with them as they arise.