Businesses no longer live in one space. Even small firms regularly have employees in offices (or home offices) spread around the world. From startups to large corporations, the growing levels of work flexibility, improving technology and new concepts such as the talent cloud mean that people management is no longer confined to the office space.
A virtual team presents many advantages, but also a set of managerial challenges. There are four areas managers should concentrate on.
1. Cross-cultural understanding
Shared identity is crucial to team performance. In a virtual environment, with little face-to-face interaction, the lack of context as to why some colleagues behave as they do means misunderstandings are a real threat to the team’s sense of identity. To break down cultural barriers, a recent case study by Deloitte suggests a “buddy up” strategy, which involves either physically pairing up team members in each location or doing this virtually (by socialising online).
Managers should also actively promote cultural empathy, so that everyone in the team is aware of their own cultural preferences and explicitly communicates this to their colleagues. In addition, rotate regularly the times for meetings to ensure one member is not always waking up early and another is not going home too late.
2. Leadership presence
To generate trust and a feeling of unity within a team, employees must feel that their manager is easily accessible – something harder in virtual teams than traditional ones. Managers should organise regular meetings with individuals and the whole team, both online – through videoconferencing, social media or Skype – and face-to-face, at least once or twice a year.
However, because it is not feasible for managers to be as available in a virtual environment, delegation is crucial. A recent study found that empowering team members to take on some leadership roles helps to foster effective collaboration and improve team performance of geographically dispersed virtual teams.
3. Team bonding
Social interaction is key to team cohesion which, according to social psychologists, comprises not only commitment to the same goals (task cohesion), but also covers friendships and affiliations (social cohesion). As virtual co-workers do not have the usual places around which they would naturally chat and bond, it is important to proactively encourage conversations.
Create opportunities for non-work interaction by allowing time to discuss social questions during meetings. In addition, virtual communication platforms – blogs, social networks – can be used for both personal and work-related communication, which helps virtual teams feel part of a community.
Another technique suggested in the Deloitte study is to avoid the microphone mute button during meetings. The added background noises, while seemingly a distraction, may actually make the conversation seem more personal and therefore help the team to bond.
Efficiently working virtual teams imply stable and fixed membership. Although easily expandable, leaders are encouraged to strictly regulate membership and undergo socialising processes with all new team members.
When recruiting, bear in mind that, while you want some diversity, you also want to make it easy to build trust with some points of connection with other team members. The key is to have a common denominator upon which to base the group’s shared sense of identity.