The 21st century has been a benchmark for advancements in communication. Never before have people been able to communicate instantaneously around the world from almost any location. Technological advancements in communication have made it possible to conduct meetings and other aspects of business virtually. Virtual teams have become a common practice for many large and small businesses, introducing new challenges and benefits to work with.
A virtual team consists of a group of people working together across time and space using electronic communication technology. As a business leader, it’s important to know how to lead a virtual team made up of people you won’t meet face to face. As a leader, you must rise to the unique challenges that virtual teams present or the team will not be productive or effective. Fortunately, there are some tips to overcome obstacles and manage the best virtual team there is.
Be Sensitive to Time Zone Differences
Teams spread around the world, or even the United States, offer limited windows of opportunity for productive communication. Just a 3-hour time difference can make coordinating conference calls, video or otherwise, a frustrating obstacle.
Rotating and changing times for meetings helps everyone cope with different time schedules. Sensitivity to people’s regional time as well as their personal schedules will relieve unneeded pressures caused from consistently waking up early or staying up late. As a leader, coordinating a fair meeting schedule and receiving the team’s agreement fixes any time zone issues.
Encourage Trust and Communication
The fact that there are few visual cues is a large problem for virtual teams. Without visual or audio inferences, it may be difficult to identify feelings, attitude, and emotions that are being conveyed. People use body language and word stress to emphasize certain points that do not translate well into text. Proper communication is integral in building trust.
Conducting a face-to-face interaction with your virtual team prior to starting a project helps build trust and social bonds. If that isn’t possible, try starting with a video conference. The fact is, meeting in-person introduces peoples’ personality and culture. Miscommunication can be avoided if the team meets and discovers how everyone communicates. This is important particularly intra-culturally, as some cultures are more direct and firm and others tend to be casual and relaxed.
Create Communication Guidelines
It can be difficult to measure employee engagement when the team is separated and cannot be accounted for physically. A lack of engagement leads to lower productivity, which, in turn, creates tension. A disconnect can easily occur in virtual teams if low engagement is left unchecked.
Creating communication guidelines, such as expected response times and bestowing specific roles, can minimize the chances of disconnection. Email updates and weekly conference calls are not enough to maintain proper communication. In addition, there should be team agreements about responsibilities, preferred communication methods, and consistent active involvement. As a leader, you should work with the team as a unit and each member personally to strengthen bonds and trust.
Build and Maintain Trust
Communication breaks down in virtual teams without trust and accountability. Less communication equals less trust which breeds worse communication that leads to even less trust and so on. It is a vicious cycle that cannot be allowed to get out of control.
Building and maintaining trust is the biggest challenge in virtual teams. Stronger trust produces better and more frequent communication. Informal conversations and personal relationships help foster trust and, therefore, better communication. If possible, have your team meet a few times a year, quarterly or semiannually, to maintain bonds as well as smooth out any previous misunderstandings.
Control Team Size
Virtual teams that grow to large are difficult, or even impossible, to manage. A team consisting of 13 people or more are less efficient and have issues maintaining decent communication. Team members tend to reduce their efforts when they feel less responsible for output. Furthermore, inclusive communication devolves from a strength to a weakness, as more people increase the time it takes just to touch base with one another.
Five to ten members is an optimum range for virtual teams. To help organize the team and increase their productivity, you may designate roles, and responsibilities to each member. When they feel relevant and important, it nourishes communication and trust for the entire team.