Category Archives: What is the best way to manage a virtual team?

Quality Technology is Required for Working Virtually; Thoughtful Communication is Required for Leading Virtually

I’ve been working in a virtual team for more than a year in my job.  The reason why I thought to pose the question of how a virtual team can be best managed to the Coffee Shop HR team is mainly because I don’t feel like I have an answer.

I know I’m a thoughtful employee: performance management, employee engagement and morale are concerns that I hold close to my heart.  And while I’ve given it a year’s thought in my current role, I continue to struggle with the question of how things can be made better despite personal experience and research.

Although virtual teams can be cost effective, and certainly require that employees travel less for their work, there are challenges that virtual teams face on a regular basis:

  • Measuring the performance of employees is difficult because you are rarely in the same physical space; you can’t see how people work, you can often only see the outcome
  • Missing out on casual discussions and informal training/mentoring that takes place when you’re physically in the same space is a disadvantage for employees and management
  • Attempting to build a rapport with coworkers using technology (over the phone or via video conference) feels impersonal.

Because the Coffee Shop HR team is located in different areas – and I prefer it to be that way for the sake of bringing you a diverse outlook – we also operate in a virtual team. This is certainly my foray into managing a virtual team myself, which was another reason to pose this question to such a reflective group.

While I don’t believe I have the answer to the question ‘how can you best manage a virtual team,’ I do offer three strong suggestions:

1. Find ways to connect with all staff on an individual level

This seems like an easy and obvious task, but because you’ll be relying on technology for communication, it’s not simple at all.  You must find ways to make a genuine connection with staff.  That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily friends who go on vacation together, but know who that individual is as a person.

From a business standpoint, if you don’t know who that person is, how will you ever know how long they’re planning to stay?  Turnover, no question is a significant expense.  And truly, that’s only one reason why you must accept the importance of knowing your staff.

2. Ensure that your expectations for staff is always clear

When video conference meetings end, you won’t run into staff in the hallways as they return to their desks.  You won’t run into them period because you’ll be communicating via technology on a daily basis.  So you must ensure that your expectations as a manager are clear.  This goes hand in hand with the need for stellar and inventive communication.  Clear expectations set the stage for performance and success, so it deserves your attention.

3. Success as a virtual manager depends on your ability to communicate

If each employee requires unique attention at the worksite, recognize that if you are working virtually, you will still need to connect with staff even if they`re not simply down the hall.  You need to manage your communication style so that you are leading your team from a distance.

Something to be aware of is how your communication style changes after starting to work in a virtual team.  Consider working with staff virtually, and meeting clients in person.  Do you email more, and meet in person less?

Whether or not changes to your communication are good or bad depend on the situation.  But what is clear is that your style will change because you’ll be working in a unique environment.  So be aware of how you adapt, and how it affects your business and management style.

Communication – The Key to Effectively Manage a Virtual Team

How do you recreate water cooler talk online?  How do you build camaraderie between a team that has never met? How do you effectively show your colleague what you’re doing when they can’t see you?  With talent scattered across various time zones and continents, virtual teams are becoming increasingly more common.  The questions I posed above are just a few factors to consider when managing a virtual team.

Before you can consider the scope of a project, competencies of each team member, or type of technology to use, you need to understand how to effectively communicate with your team. Miscommunication is commonplace in the majority of offices where team members interact in person — imagine how much this problem is compounded in a virtual team setting.  The following are a few ways to successfully manage and communicate with a virtual team:

#1 Understand idiosyncrasies

Everyone has quirks that can cause friction within the team.  As a manager, take the time to get to know each team member, understand the language they use when getting their point across.  Some people are long-winded and have a hard time getting their point across, while others are short and curt.  Customize the way you communicate with each team member in a way they can easily understand you.

#2 Communication devices

Make it clear to your team which communication device is appropriate for their message. Sending out mass emails with long email responses is not always necessary or appropriate. Sometimes simple instant messaging is easier to get your point across.  Sometimes a simple phone call is most appropriate.  In cases where it is difficult to explain how you are doing something, video chat may be an appropriate communication tool.  Provide clear examples of which communication device to use in different scenarios.

#3 Time

Be sensitive to team members working in different time zones.  From the outset, make clear guidelines about expectations to response times for each other.  Tell them what time is best to reach you and how long it will take for you to respond to them.

#4 Encourage non-work related communication

Because your team members can’t interact face-to-face, encourage them to share their personal interests in order to recreate the water cooler effect.  A team that is able to be comfortable around one another may become more innovate and collaborate more effectively.

There are, of course, many other factors to consider but effective communication is a building block of every team.  A team that communicates effectively is likely to achieve its goals and provide quality deliverables.

The “Mutual Knowledge Problem” and Managing Virtual Teams

Managing a virtual team can be a difficult and stressful experience. Many of the things we expect from a team are hard to come by when played out in a virtual forum; collaboration immediately comes to mind as an example. It can be difficult to collaborate without face-to-face meetings, as email conversations have significantly less flow than a normal conversation, and online chats can leave out important communication cues such as facial expressions and body language. Another issue which can frequently arise is the gap between the actual work produced and the work which was expected. In a normal team environment, there are more opportunities to set expectations and communicate on an on-going basis. With a virtual team, often work is parceled out and given a deadline, but communication between the time when the work is given and received is limited.

In a study by Catherine Cramton of Organization Science, these issues are considered to be part of what she refers to as the “Mutual Knowledge Problem”. In the study, Cramton identifies factors (such as failure to retain contextual information and difficulty interpreting the meaning of silence) which define the communication issues in geographically distributed teams. The study suggests that issues in communication result in uneven mutual knowledge, which leads to poor collaboration and results from the team. As well, the dispersion of the team members naturally lends itself to different understandings of situations, contexts, and expectations.

Combating these issues is a two-fold process, as suggested by the Harvard Business Review blog. The key for managers is to stress two objectives: the creation of a solid, clearly defined structure, and the encouragement of social interaction of an informal nature throughout the time spent working. Setting clear guidelines, giving examples, and providing feedback at defined intervals can help to create the needed structure. Encouraging informal social behaviour is also important. Setting up informal, non-specific chat rooms, and encouraging employees to connect in other informal ways, can help to provide the social interaction that can increase a team’s cohesiveness and lead to better output.

Four C’s to Managing Virtual Teams

When I think of virtual teams, the first thing that comes to mind is when team members work in remote locations across the continent or globe with different time zones and different cultural background, working on different parts of a project based on their skills to achieve corporate goals through Internet and electronic channels. However, I have missed out a very important area of virtual teams. Virtual teams is in fact any time when the team members work together primarily through communicating electronically. This means, virtual teams includes when team members work within the same building but on different floors. With this in mind, it is interesting to recognize that a lot of us are working in virtual teams daily. In fact, even the writers for the Coffee Shop HR are working in a virtual team setting.

Based on what worked for me in managing virtual teams combined with my findings from How to Manage Virtual Teams by Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst and Managing a Virtual Team by Mark Mortensen and Michael O’Leary, I found four common elements, which I called the “Four C’s” of managing virtual teams. They are communication, collaboration, culture of a global mindset and closeness and connection.

The first C is communication. There are a few things that must be communicated immediately, including an established common objective/goal, an understanding of the project on hand and a set of ground rules, suggested by Siebdrat et al. Communication is vital because this helps to ensure everyone is on the same page and reduce future communication errors and misunderstanding, which can affect the project progress and success. Often, projects have many different components that are connected so if one component of the project stops due to a communication error, it affects the components/steps that follow. This is like a domino effect.

When I say communication, it is not just what needs to be communicated but also how and when. As suggested by Mortensen and O’Leary, it is important to ensure everyone can use the technology to connect and communicate. Don’t jump to the newest platform or communication tool because sometimes, not everyone has the knowledge or time to learn this new communication tool. With virtual teams, people are often working in different time zones so setting up a regular communication schedule is vital. It is important to encourage communication at other unscheduled intervals as well.

The second C is collaboration. The team needs to understand each other’s role in the project and coordinate the work early on. And as mentioned, people are working in different time zones where one member from the team may be having dinner as another member from a different time zone is getting into work and another heading to lunch. With this in mind, it is important that everyone focuses on the importance of teamwork and tries to have greater understanding and flexibility with each other to accommodate the different time zones.

The third C is to have a culture of global mindset. With any teams, there is going to be individuals with different mindset, but with virtual teams, there is even more likelihood of cultural differences or ways of thinking and working. It is important to increase the team’s acceptance of each other’s differences and encourages a global mindset. HR can try to create training programs to help team members to be more culturally sensitive to embrace each other’s differences and have a global mindset. In addition, HR can definitely help to gauge and place individuals that are more likely to succeed in a virtual team setting.

The last C is closeness and connection. As suggested by Siebdrat, Hoegl and Ernst, with the lack of physical contact between team members, it can reduce the social ties and closeness between them. With a lack in this, it can decrease the trust in the other team members. So it is very important to ensure there are periodic face-to-face meetings to bring people together and create a sense of closeness and community. I know from experience, I have always had successes when I conducted periodic meetings and hosted events to bring team members together and encourage them to connect. Those team members that participated have always turned out to be more engaged, connected and on track with their tasks.

As companies continue to disperse their teams and with the trend of remote work, we are likely to continue this trend with working in virtual teams. As I am pretty sure there are a lot of elements to managing virtual teams but the “Four C’s” of communication, collaboration, culture of a global mindset and closeness and connection are four elements that worked for me and I hope they can help you manage your virtual teams too.

Mortensen, Mark, and Michael O’Leary. “Managing a Virtual Team.” Harvard Business Review, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Siebdrat, Frank, Martin Hoegl, and Holger Ernst. “How to Manage Virtual Teams.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 1 July 2009. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Workarounds for ‘Workin’ Around’ the Virtual Workspace

Being part of a virtual team can be a very enriching experience- it can make it possible for you to work with fantastic people on the other side of the world with whom you wouldn’t have the ability to work with in a face to face traditional setting due to geographical barriers.  The trick to making the most of this experience is creating meaningful working relationships, effective communication structures and collaborative virtual workspaces to help bridge the gap. Working collaboratively in a virtual team is one thing, but managing is more challenging because you are accountable to the people and the work outcomes differently which can be challenging- hopefully the below 3 workarounds can help you find success.

Managing a team you see everyday can be challenging enough, but when you don’t have the face to face communication it can make it even harder. They say that very little of our communication is done on paper through words, slightly more verbally but the meat of our communication rests within subtleties of non verbal communication though body language or physical gestures that can be lost while working in a virtual setting.

Workaround #1: make use of communication tools that allow you to see each other when you’re speaking. Use Skype or a similar tool to be able to have eye contact, observe facial expressions and other non-verbal communication. We all know how far a smile can go. As a manager, when giving directions or feedback, ensuring that your virtual team member understands just as clearly as your ‘same space’ workers is important, and speaking face to face will improve that.

Maintaining balance within a team is always a focus of management, and ensuring people are treated equally and favourites aren’t being played. When a member or part of your team works virtually, it’s easy for them to not be top of mind, or for you to even forget about them! It happens; think about team lunches, birthday celebrations, morning coffee and inside jokes. Those simple side bar conversations and informal chatter that happens when working in close quarters- especially pod-like workstations. That is all missed when working in a virtual team.

Workaround#2: Set up a vacant workstation equipped with a chair and a large monitor with speakers connected to your virtual team members. Allow them to have a presence in your workspace, and you theirs, the same way you would have if they were in the cubicle next to you. You can tell jokes, ask off the cuff questions and share a workspace. If you guys are ordering in a pizza lunch, coordinate pizza to be delivered to their work location as well- create a seemingly physical link between workspaces.

In traditional offices, employees usually stagger their start times, some starting as early as 730am and some as late as 930am so catching your employees at the beginning of their day to give them direction or connecting at the end of shift to provide feedback and answer questions can be tricky to schedule when you’re working with varied shifts. Imagine working with someone in another time zone! This is very common when working in virtual teams. If you like having your meetings right off the bat in the morning, this may be the middle of the night for your team members.

Workaround #3: Being cognisant of others time zones and sleep patterns is key. Outlook has a handy option where you can display another time zone on your daily calendar. This can be helpful when scheduling conference calls or Skype meetings. A 2pm after lunch meeting for you could be the middle of the night for your team member!  Remember to be flexible. To activate this feature go to: tools menu>options>calendar options>customize>time zones

Using these workarounds can help overcome some easily solved issues that can arise when working in and managing virtual teams. In the case of virtual teams, the effort to make them work is always worth the reward of a diverse and knowledgeable team!

Have you ever worked in a virtual team? What workarounds did your team create to help get the work done?

What is the best way to manage a virtual team?

Technology has made it possible for us to connect and work with others around the world.  I love the descriptions from the World is Flat (Thomas Friedman, 2007) of analyses being completed in Australia overnight for physicians in the United States.  We are all familiar with the outsourcing that has taken place with call centres in Canada (Nova Scotia) Ireland and India.  In a way, these are virtual teams.

But here, I will focus on virtual teams that are working together on a project for one company.  These are teams where the members reside in different countries, often in different time zones.

A few weeks ago, I had a Dutch woman come and visit my students.   She said that the Dutch are often thought to be blunt because they speak their minds.  In the meetings she attends, people are expected to say what they think.  So I can just imagine how her and my Egyptian colleague, who tends to communicate in a very circular fashion, would manage on a virtual team.

I have read that virtual teams need to be clear on their objectives and their roles.  I am not sure if you have ever had a conversation about roles over the phone, but this can be quite difficult – some of us like to play on paper or on a white board to help illustrate what we mean – the visuals clarify our thoughts and this just isn’t possible over the phone.

The technology used is important, often key to the success of virtual teams.  Some teams use Skype which has a video streaming component, but I’ve found that even when I am working with one other person, the video sometimes overloads the system and has to be turned off, so I am not convinced that it will work with a team unless you have a dynamo computing system.

I’ve also used video conferencing when working in a team and although the interaction is a little stiff, the visuals are great.   I don’t think we realize how often we speak over one another until we are in a video conference or a teleconference and then it becomes quite clear.  ‘No, sorry, you go ahead’ seems to be a common phrase – with at least two people saying it at the same time.

Using a common system to exchange and update data can be really helpful.  Both Dropbox and SugarSync work very well – except when two people are editing same document at the same time – then it gets confusing.

So with all these concerns what does work?  How are virtual teams successful?  What role does the manager play in this success?

According to research cited by Guedes-Gondim et al. (2011) the performance of work teams depends on the member’s beliefs about the effectiveness of this mode of work.  So when a manager is putting together a virtual team, perhaps one of the first questions she needs to ask the potential members is how successful they have been on other teams.   If they can cite successes and enjoy working on teams, in general, this should make them a better candidate for a virtual team.

Team members who have used the media and worked with each other in the past are more likely to see success early on in the process.  Guedes-Gondim et al. (2011) cite research showing the types of communication virtual teams engage in, normative – what the team values and expects of each member, regulative – how the work is to be done i.e. structures, protocols and organization, and cognitive – performing the task.

Given this, perhaps the role of the manager is to help the team develop protocols, and define roles and responsibilities while keeping focused on the end result.  The manager can also ensure that there is an opportunity for team members to recognize each other’s strengths and learn more about the ways that each person will contribute to the project’s success.

Guedes- Gondim et al. (2011) also cite research that shows that people who are in the same occupation, with similar education and professional standards can work well together across cultures.  Physicians, scientists, accountants, and HR professionals, for example, are more likely to understand one another within their professional context.   A team that is diverse in both culture and profession are going to be find it more difficult to communicate and will need more guidance from their manager.

I know that trust is important in every team’s interactions.  It seems that one role the manager can play is to provide opportunities early on for team members to learn more about each other.  They could review case studies of successful teams to they can see what has worked for others.  This would give the members an opportunity to build a bit of history, to see where they agree and disagree and how they can support one another and resolve issues that may occur as they progress in their work.

One of the statistics I read a number of times is that only 30% of virtual teams are successful.  This is not an encouraging statistic but there are similar statistics around about change management projects.  It seems that if managers help the team members focus on their strengths, learn to work with conflict, rather than avoid it, and develop trusting relationships, virtual teams can be successful.    Inspirational management, indeed!

Guedes- Gondim, S. M., Puente-Palacios, K., & Borges-Andrade, J. (2011). Performance and learning in virtual work teams: Comparing Brazilians and Argentineans. Revista De Psicología Del Trabajo y De Las Organizaciones, 27(1), 31-31. Retrieved from