For anyone involved in projects and programmes, virtual team-work is becoming the norm. 85 percent of employees reported working in virtual teams according to ‘Trends in Global Virtual Teams’. But alongside the potential benefits of being able to bring together far-flung colleagues and stakeholders, there are some significant challenges for team leaders. Virtual working means that you may never meet the people you need to work with. The lack of face to face contact makes it more difficult to understand what people are really trying to say. Behaviours and expectations change in the digital environment, and it’s more difficult to manage motivation and conflict.
Critical skills even if you don’t work remotely
Your team may actually be working in a virtual environment even if they are in the same building, according to Harvard Business Review. And virtual working extends beyond the corporate world. As a volunteer member of the Association for Project Management, I spend much of my spare time collaborating in virtual teams with other members and APM staff to research and share knowledge through the Stakeholder Engagement Focus Group. I am sure that I am not alone in experiencing the misunderstandings that occur in text-based interactions; the way technology can actual be a barrier to involvement rather than an enabler; and the challenge of building and sustaining motivation.
Social media is not enough
In 2018, APM People SIG asked project managers about the skills needed for project success. Nearly a quarter of respondents said that ‘leading a virtual team’ is one of the most important skills for the project manager. But only a quarter felt that it’s possible to run a virtual project team effectively using social media. Nearly one third of respondents told us that it is always more difficult to run a project team without any face-to-face contact, with 44 percent saying that there needs to be regular times for team members to get together.
Practical tools for virtual teams
There is no doubt that virtual team work is here to stay. So how can team leaders address some of the challenges? Here are 5 tools that may make it easier for your virtual team to work together.
1. Rules of engagement:
When we’re working in the same office space, it is easier to coordinate preferred methods for working together and communicating. That informal negotiation is much harder for remote team members. Having a dedicated conversation up front to agree tools, processes and ground rules can save a lot of time and potential confusion.
It may feel like erecting barriers to relationships but establishing ‘rules of engagement’ is a fundamental step of any stakeholder engagement activity. Finding out what channels and times of day work best, plus the information needs and operating principles of the key players in your project, is essential for effective communication.
2. Multiple communications channels:
In a virtual team we miss out on dynamics and nuances of conversation according to research by Dr Penny Pullan and Evi Prokopi. Using a mix of communications media can help to increase the richness of content that is needed for productive interaction. Different channels are suited to different types of information and circumstances. Email apparently remains popular even with younger generations despite the immediacy of texting. Emails are well suited for sharing factual information but they are notorious for being misinterpreted because they lack the social signals that you would get in a face to face interaction.
3. Virtual whiteboards:
Online discussion boards are another communications channel to add to the mix. They can support non-text communications, such as drawing and multi-media, but it turns out that they have another hidden benefit for the team leader – managing conflict. According to Margaret Heffernan, conflict is the secret ingredient for improving team performance. Unfortunately, conflict in virtual teams is more likely to escalate. So the challenge for team leaders is how to manage conflict so that it is constructive rather than destructive.
According to one study, online discussion boards in a shared virtual workspace can be invaluable. They become a reference point for checking what has been decided by the team, and a repository for any team member to raise an issue or contribute an opinion in a non-confrontational way.
4. Co-working hubs
So nothing beats face to face for building relationships and team performance, but one of the benefits of being in a virtual team is the convenience of working locally. Co-working hubs can provide a convenient, flexible and professional space for project team members to get together on an as-needed (or as-possible) basis.
Many organisations increasingly rely on a network of contractors, customer support agents and service providers who are based at home, different offices or out on the road. The rise in self-employment and remote working is driving an increase in flexible working space globally. The result is that low cost co-working hubs are opening up in more convenient locations.
5. A team identity:
A lack of a shared identity has a far stronger impact on team dynamics than any of the individual differences that can characterise a virtual team, such as location, time-zone, culture, and language, according to Professor Mark Mortensen.
For co-located teams, shared team identity often comes from being in the same office location. Those visual cues and emotional connections disappear in a virtual team. Creating a team ‘brand’ – a team name and a visual identity such as a logo or image to include on shared documents or virtual workspaces – can help to build the sense of belonging and shared endeavour that are essential for motivation, participation and collaboration.
Flexible thinking and adaptive working
What are your views on how we can improve virtual team work and deal with the challenges of the changing environment? The need for leaders to adapt is the key theme for this year’s APM’s conference on May 1st. I will be there representing the APM People SIG. If you are there too, please do come and say hello and share your experiences.