Almost two years ago we were plunged into the biggest crisis most of us had ever seen. Organizations that had dismissed remote working as a possibility, IT systems that weren’t ready for virtual working suddenly were forced into it. All industries, all functions, and all teams were forced into virtual working.
While some organizations naturally embraced it, the majority have made do with a workable/temporary solution. But as newer variants of Covid-19 emerge and other new disruptors will emerge, the natural solution for businesses to follow is becoming more agile and nimble by moving towards virtual working.
While at a Business level, organizations have embraced or been forced to embrace newer, better technologies to aid in this endeavor. The one stumbling block has been in ensuring that teams across the board successfully integrate the remote/virtual working to help drive the business agenda.
For most IT organizations this seems a natural extension of their business functioning, and somewhere last year declared a possible permanent move to work from home, most have now famously U-turned to start looking at hybrid models of working or bringing everyone back to the campus.
Given the huge benefits of remote working – such as lower costs (no more huge office rentals), saving on travel time, better work-life balance, etc. why are teams and organizations struggling with being effective in the virtual world?
How often have you witnessed a team meeting, town hall, training, where the majority have shut their videos? Or does nobody speak up? Or only a handful of people share ideas, feedback? Or worse still you only hear the Boss’s voice?
What stops Virtual Teams from being Effective?
Communication Gap – When we started working remotely major communication challenges were stemming from poor network or connectivity issues, lack of systems, etc. But some of these have been addressed now, at least by most organizations. Yet, there is a constant disruption during meetings with people losing network, having to repeat, or in some cases missing out on a meeting due to network challenges.
But this is the least of worries for Leaders. The lack of trust and psychological safety that causes most people to not communicate in these meetings is what is worrying them the most. The virtual world has made work a more impersonal place due to the lack of human physical connection. Communication on virtual teams is often less frequent, and less rich than face-to-face interaction, which provides more contextual cues and information about emotional states — such as engagement or lack thereof. The only way to avoid the pitfalls is to minimize the barriers caused due to background sounds, side conversations, or ineffective pace. Successful virtual teams have demonstrated setting communication norms helps to ensure maximized output during discussions. Maybe having their videos on can be one such norm so that people can see each other, gauge reactions at the moment. Leaders and managers must often ask for feedback at the end of the meeting/ through one-on-one discussions especially with those who are generally silent.
Another key challenge is the multiple communication tools that are now in play – MS Teams, Mails, zoom meetings, internal chat rooms, WhatsApp groups and WhatsApp messages & calls (all are at play), voice calls, etc. the list is endless. Leaders and teams need to set limits on the usage of which platforms and how much of it. This cant be free!
Productivity and Accountability – While it’s often thought of as one of the more damaging virtual team challenges, the majority of workers find working from home more productive than working from the office. A study from the TalkTalk Group found 58% of respondents believe they’re more productive working from home than before the pandemic. But that still leaves a large chunk of employees who struggle to focus and stay on task.
The differentiating factor is that as a team leader, it’s easier for you to stroll over to a teammate’s desk and boost their morale by talking to them or discussing progress on key tasks. You don’t have this opportunity when you are managing a virtual. However, management gurus from John Kotter to Chip and Dan Heath acknowledge the importance of establishing a common purpose or vision, while also framing the work in terms of team members’ individual needs and ambitions. Setting clear the expectations, the impact of the tasks, project timelines and establishing protocols of reviews and documenting minutes or project charters, rewarding task completions, and project milestones are some of the key tips that help achieve deliverables.
Micromanagement – Managing multiple projects with different team members is tricky when you can’t get everyone in the same room. A common drawback is the manager perception that employees when not monitored are away from their screens, busy in personal chores, or are indulging on OTT platforms. This belief spirals into managers ramping up their follow-ups, frequently checking for updates, and misusing the various communication tools to monitor employees. The counter effect of this leads to employees being de-moralized, less productive, less engaged, and feeling suffocated.
While fostering a productive work environment, managers can adopt practices establishing a frequency of progress monitoring and formalize the mode for a progress review, foster an environment where team members can reach out to discuss barriers in task achievement, re-evaluate task allocation to ensure equal workloads, and allow for freedom in activity execution while achieving a bigger result.
Complex Tasks – The pandemic has raised several new challenges and sometimes more complexities in old tasks. And no one may have a solution to it and the old ways don’t seem to work. This may need a more hands-on approach – Creating cross-functional teams, adopting project management tools, splitting projects into smaller milestones, providing access to SME’s, ideation and solution discussion with those on the ground level help to navigate through the challenges of tasks that are multi-faceted.
Low morale and mental health – Lack of social interaction and staying at home for long periods can impact mental health negatively. Not only will this impact your virtual employee’s health and mood, but it’ll also negatively affect collaboration and communication — the two pillars to effective remote teams! The virtual world has helped many of us realize the importance of casual tea/coffee breaks, conversation huddles at a colleague’s table, or the sharing of food over lunch. These casual meets provided an incentive for one coming to the office, helped let off steam, and provided for distractions from the routine.
While the virtual world may provide lesser opportunities for real connection, creating opportunities for socialization help to counter this concern. Designating a time slot each week to catch up with what’s going on with everyone, starting regular meetings with a casual session and inviting co-workers to interact with each other, showing appreciation for tasks done well, setting up trivia or team health goals while attaching small rewards to this help facilitate a morale boost. ,
Good organizations have moved their engagement to the virtual space, with every physical activity now finding continuance in an online format, establishing reward and recognition platforms, hosting annual events be it rewards, conferences, and even introducing health and wellness app memberships and subscriptions to ensure employee well-being.
Not only does this help you build a “team culture, but” it also shows them that you care about your employees.
Managing relationships – Another virtual team challenge is having the chance to build meaningful relationships with co-workers and other team members, especially new team members. Remote teams will find it a little more difficult to engage in quick conversations as trust is harder to build. A Smartsheet survey found 80% of participants felt less connected when working from home.
To avoid such challenges, managers must create a supportive communication climate, which encourages open dialogue where members feel comfortable sharing different perspectives, using language that builds identification, such as “we, us, our,” ensures a sense of cohesion, foster environments of active listening brainstorming and timely feedback. Leaders also can overcome the physical barriers of remote work, which can
erode team cohesion, by creating opportunities for spontaneous, informal communication through events such as virtual happy hours, coffee breaks, or celebrations for birthdays and other milestones.
Virtual teams having challenges is normal, and as a team leader, you have to be at your A-game to make sure your team runs smoothly. With a hybrid work environment here to stay, constantly adapting and re-looking at opportunities available to build and foster virtual teams will help promote the effective team and individual performance.
- Challenges to Managing Virtual Teams and How to Overcome Them –
- 4 Challenges of Virtual Teams and How to Address Them – https://online.norwich.edu/academic programs/resources/challenges-of-virtual-teams
- 6 of the most common virtual team challenges and how to solve them –
- Tips to tackle the 10 greatest challenges virtual teams are facing –
- Getting Virtual Teams Right – https://hbr.org/2014/12/getting-virtual-teams-right
About the author:
M.A. in Industrial and Organisational Psychology
(University Ranker)Mumbai University.
Zenobia Vasi is a Talent Management and Development Professional with over 9 years of experience with organizations such as Mahindra Insurance Brokers Limited and Tata AIA Life Insurance. Over the course of her career, she has led and managed, Talent Development and Hi- Potential Management, CompetencyDevelopment and Assessments, Sustainability, Employee Engagement and Culture Building. Certified PCMM professional Thomas PPA practitioner.