Virtual teams¹ are here to stay. Due to globalisation, pressure on resources and concern for the environment, virtual working is on the rise. There are obvious benefits (e.g. access to a wider talent pool, reduction in travel costs, increased productivity and reduced time to market).
However, in our experience working and coaching in the virtual environment, these often come at a price to both individuals (e.g. difficulty building relationships, sense of isolation) and companies (lack of engagement, conflicts, lack of trust & collaboration, high rates of attrition).
Clearly these challenges are a subject for concern as indicated in our recent research (via LinkedIn polls May 2013). In this enquiry we asked participants to identify their top challenge when working in a virtual team. As you can see in the graphic, the clear winners, the ‘inability to read non-verbal cues’ and ‘difficulty building relationships’, are about the quality of human relationships. This is to be expected perhaps but what did surprise us was the large number of votes (157) and the enthusiasm with which people were willing to comment. The topic is clearly striking a chord.
But does it have to be this way? What’s really going on here? How can we turn these challenges into opportunities? Let’s look at each of the identified challenges in turn and ask ourselves some questions.
Inability to read non-verbal cues (32%)
This is the clear front-runner in our list of challenges. Opinions vary as to how much of a barrier the issue is. These include:
‘Pretty unworkable’ … “Remote wouldn’t always work for me. I’m a people person and one can tell a lot about a person just with body language.”… “The human touch cannot be beaten.”…“I missed too much of what was really going on, and felt unable to truly support and coach my team without seeing them at least periodically.”
‘Manageable but not ideal’ …. “Relationships sit at the heart of effective team building. In virtual teams clues can be missed.” ….“How do you know when people need to step out to get a drink, or answer the door, or dial in late for whatever reasons and as a result, missing key parts of the discussion or conversation? Those are the real challenges I face everyday.”… “…my natural leadership style was challenged as I could not interact / communicate face-to-face with my team.”
‘We can make this work’… “Leading a virtual team requires more seniority in people management as well as sensitivity for weak signals when you cannot read team members’ body language.”…“Companies now have access to collaboration tools to avoid duplication of effort, clearly define tasks/revisions, share and work on documents simultaneously and in some cases have Telepresence systems that do pick up body language and non verbal clues.”
- What does body language tell us in the face to face environment?
- How can this same information be gathered in the virtual space?
- What is your approach to silence during conference calls? To what degree are you taking account of cultural differences? How sure can you be that silence indicates agreement?
- What if a lack of non-verbal cues proves less of a distraction and actually improves our ability to listen deeply?
Difficulty building relationships (25%)
This is close on the heels of and strongly connected to ‘inability to read non-verbal cues’. Again, a pretty broad spectrum of opinions:
‘Relationships can’t work unless they have a strong face to face foundation’… “Virtual teams only work if they started as a physical team at least and meet from time to time.”
‘You need face to face in the mix’ …“I work with teams who I have met and then by skype-type meetings can pretty much keep things going. However, I have just been on-site with a client and realised how much I did not know about what they were/were not doing. Sometimes you just really have to be there.“
‘More attention needed on trust’ … “The main challenge I think is assuming that relationships are not so critical, and the team gets really task focussed. But interdependent tasks are not so successful without trust & understanding, and this is not attended to in virtual teams so much.“…“I have positive experience about virtual teams … But the team members have to know each other and respect each others’ competencies and knowledge.”
- What would you do differently to build trust if face to face were never possible?
- What is the team’s shared understanding of the importance of building relationships and how this might happen?
- Is there any possibility that your leadership is over-focussed on tasks and would benefit from more attention on relationships?
- How can you use intentional social time in virtual teams to get to know and trust one another? What would that look like?
Feeling obligated to be available 24/7 (17%)
Here we see the double-edged sword of technology. The global economy as we know it would not function without the benefit of the digital environment but it has the potential to blur the boundaries between work and home and undermine the time we need for renewal:
‘You can’t escape it’…“ …the complications of the virtual environment are inherent … The need to be constantly available because I can hold a video conference in Tokyo when I should be in bed.”
‘It’s a constant challenge’… “I need to listen to others so that my journey is ‘validated’ and it is quite hard to find the right time to get everyone together.”…“For me working across Asia, Australia and sometimes having to connect with Europe and US…it’s trying to find mutual times that work for all parties and often means someone is dialing in late after dinner or really early.”
‘It’s manageable’…“I face occasional inconveniences of taking calls at odd hours or at hours when we are putting our kids in bed, or having dinner while listening in on a conversation. That to me is still manageable.”
- What conversations do you need to have with your team about time boundaries?
- How are you role-modelling any agreed boundaries?
- How might you shift your normal working day so that you avoid ‘burning the candle at both ends’?
Difficulty seeing the whole picture (15%)
Comments reflect that for most people this is an issue. We also found a variety of experiences in overcoming it:
‘It’s easy to miss vital information’…“What I find a big challenge is ensuring full participation at group discussions (where there are more than 10 people in the calls) … I often have people in the meetings telling me that they did not know a certain topic was discussed.”… “I missed too much of what was really going on”… “As for my direct reports, they would tell you about their difficulty to see the whole picture: we learned to organize frequent internal seminars with the whole team (virtual + local) to address it.”
‘It is possible to address’ …“It requires the project manager to organize frequent, timely, focused follow-up calls/netmeetings in oder to ensure that everyone is on top of the situation and that issues are captured at early stage.”
- How will you ensure everyone understands and is truly aligned to the same objectives?
- How much involvement do your team members have in defining the team’s purpose and their expected contribution to its success?
- What is the range of thinking styles within the team? How might knowing them help you engage your team in building the vision?
- What particular aspects of listening need emphasis in virtual team meetings?
A sense of isolation (10%)
There were no specific comments on this challenge but it is clearly linked to the sense of frustration expressed in ‘difficulty building relationships’.
- How can you create new ways of having the informal conversations that are part of having fun at work?
- How might tools like instant messaging, Skype and Facetime work for you in catching up with someone for a ‘virtual’ coffee break?
- As a leader, how can you ensure that everyone is included in the loop?
Undoubtedly these challenges can be vexing but what is interesting is that while for many people leading a virtual team, as opposed to a co-located one, is seen as intrinsically difficult and almost impossible to address, there were also a number of comments which indicate a more optimistic outlook:
“In my twenty years of working in and with virtual teams, I’ve found all of the elements you offered in the survey as challenges, at one time or another. However, none of them were unmanageable as long as there was a common set of goals, strong support from management and trust.”
“People tend see remote working as difficult and on-site working as easier, but for me it’s the other way around.”
“Certainly, this inter-connected world is allowing us to work in very new ways and thus creating new complexities.”
- Do we as leaders recognize that virtual can be as good as face-to-face? How can we consciously tune in to all the potential opportunities?
- What might we need to do more of or differently in order to ensure our teams thrive in the virtual environment?
Our research is ongoing and we welcome comments.
What is your experience?
What questions would you ask to promote self-awareness and a greater ability to lead virtual teams?
Clare McNamara and Monica Garcia-Romero are experienced Global Executive Coaches and each own their own coaching practices. They are passionate about virtual teams and will be leading a workshop on the subject at the Global WIN Conference in Prague in October 2013.
©Global Team Coaches 2013