Long-distance management poses some unique challenges
By Dan Picard
Senior Editor/Manager, Quality Improvement Programs at MindEdge Learning
Virtual teams—teams that work together toward a common goal but from different physical locations—are becoming more popular in the workplace, but leading a virtual team comes with its own unique challenges and difficulties. Because they often have little (or, in some cases, no) direct face-to-face or personal exchanges with their team members, virtual team leaders can’t rely on tried-and-true strategies to guide the team’s work and interactions.
In many cases, the issues that these leaders face are not unique; they occur in collocated teams as well as in virtual teams. But the processes and countermeasures used to address them can be more complex and complicated. Let’s explore some of these team issues and suggest some conventional responses:
- Communication. While advances in communication technology may have simplified some aspects of information transfer for distributed teams, the logistics of that transfer have become more convoluted. Because virtual team members miss out on overheard office discussions (in lunchrooms, in hallways, or around the proverbial “water cooler”), virtual team leaders need to find new ways to enhance or foster team communication. Some leaders create a “virtual team space” that includes cloud-based storyboards, shared portals, and even cameras and microphones that operate 24/7, to allow distant project participants to listen in and connect with their teammates.
- Team Integrity. Because virtual team members often work in isolation, it can be hard for them to jell together as a team, and a sense of “connection to each other” may be lost. In such situations, it is often helpful to hold “virtual lunches” or “virtual coffee breaks” that are intentionally not work-related, to allow project participants to talk about their families, weekend plans, and/or personal lives, and to bond with their coworkers in non-project ways.
- Team Composition. For a virtual team to be effective, it must be comprised of the right “type” of individuals—i.e., people who have an innate sense of motivation and self-direction—because they won’t have someone watching over their shoulders all the time. In truth, some people are just not cut out to be on virtual teams because they can’t push themselves to meet responsibilities on their own; these individuals should be bypassed during the team selection process.
- Team Development. In a virtual team environment, it can be especially difficult to coach and enhance team member skills, due to the lack of direct interaction or opportunities to watch team members in action. Virtual team leaders must make a focused and concerted effort to address shortcomings and enhance skill sets for all team members, regardless of location.
- Managing and Measuring. Because they are physically separated from team members and are unable to observe their work habits and progress, virtual team leaders may want to make the project’s guidelines and metrics clear and explicit before work begins. For example, it may be helpful to clarify team roles and specify metrics early in the project, as a way to define expectations and avoid confusion at later dates. It may also be helpful to have frequent check-ins with distant team members, to hold them accountable for results and to guarantee that progress continues to be made.
- Diverse Styles. A virtual team may be comprised of people from around the world who have different work styles, work ethics, decision-making methods, languages, or any number of disparate characteristics. It is incumbent upon the team leader not only to accommodate these differences, but also to remove any ambiguity that these differences may cause, to ensure that the team is working as effectively and efficiently as possible. This may take additional time and effort, but it must be addressed to ensure success.
While virtual and collocated team leaders may face similar types of issues as they work with their teams, the ways that leaders address these issues are often very different, due to the environments involved and the influence the leaders can wield. But with some adjustments to their styles, virtual team leaders can still strengthen ties within their teams and produce positive results, no matter where team personnel are located.
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