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The 6 Most Common Challenges of Virtual Teams And How to Overcome Them

The 6 Most Common Challenges of Virtual Teams And How to Overcome Them

Almost two years of global remote work seem to have flashed by in an instant. Millions of people have experienced the benefits of remote working while also struggling through the many challenges of virtual teams

If you are new to managing virtual teams or looking to improve your virtual team cohesion this article will help you identify potential challenges in your virtual team. 

You can also find the tactics to solve them based on the experience of successful distributed companies.

virtual teams

Challenges of Virtual Teams

One of the biggest challenges of virtual teams is making the complete switch to a remote-first mindset. Regardless of where your team is located or when they are working, everything has to be conducted as if everyone was remote. 

Despite not adopting this mindset, many companies have still seen gains in productivity and work-life balance while working remotely. But they will continue to face various obstacles like burnout until they make a complete transition.

To overcome these challenges, you need to fundamentally restructure how work is conducted and thought about in your organization. Studying how globally distributed companies like Klarna or remote-first companies like Gitlab manage their virtual teams is the best place to start. 

Here are the problems they faced and how they overcame them.

Cross-cultural team communication

cross cultural communication

One of the many challenges that a diverse virtual team will face is cultural differences. It is no secret that people are different from around the world. Their personalities and working styles are influenced by their cultures as much as their upbringing. Inevitably there will be some miscommunications that, if left unaddressed, will lead to conflict. A cultural difference shouldn’t bring your global virtual team down.

​​If someone speaks in a language that isn’t their own, they might not be as willing to express their emotions or voice criticism. You need to encourage all remote team members to find their voice regardless of their language level, so no vital information goes unsaid. 

Solution: Teach Cultural Education

With such cultural diversity on a virtual or globally distributed team, you will inevitably run into some misunderstandings. 

People around the world have different working expectations and communication styles. So, one way is to address these differences before a conflict can happen is to address any preconceptions or stereotypes that you or other team members may have. 

One way to do this is to think of a country and write down everything that comes to mind. Next, highlight all the items that are based on personal experience and could be considered stereotypes.

When making presentations, native speakers will also want to slow down so that everyone can understand and be aware of body language in 1:1s or team meetings.

One of the best investments you can make if you have an international team is cultural sensitivity or diversity training. 

Diversity Training at Accenture is made of 3 different categories:

  1. Diversity Awareness
  2. Diversity Management
  3. Professional development

diversity training

Solution: Foster Collaboration

Encouraging collaboration is a straightforward solution where you want to encourage team members to work together virtually whenever possible. Fostering collaboration helps people to understand their teammates and their working styles on a personal level. It also creates connections that are necessary for breaking down cultural barriers and team building

Some tips include investing in collaboration tools like Mural that allow people to brainstorm together regardless of location. You should also encourage creativity and reward successful teamwork by doing shoutouts in slack channels when projects are completed.

Other tips include pairing people together based on their strengths and promoting a community working environment. 

One example of this is how Klarna structures its teams. They do virtual work in small groups of eight people. Francine explains:

“Each team focuses on a unique problem space, looking to foster a startup mentality. 

Klarna still identifies people by core competencies, data, analytics, finance, marketing, tech product, etc. But every team, irrespective of competence, is only eight people. And some of those teams will be cross-functional. Our product team, for example, has lawyers, analysts, and developers.

Basically, a group of people who can run a small business sufficiently on their own within the organization. It's a really clever concept because it means that you're able to self-service, right? You're not relying on all these other pieces, you're actually self-sufficient to run, and that means you can run faster, quicker, and achieve desired outcomes.”

2. Time zone differences

time zone differences

That leads to the next virtual team challenge, where you have to coordinate all of your processes based on where the sun rises in one location. One worker might not blink at a 7 a.m meeting, while another will barely be able to keep their eyes open. 

Important projects also have to advance through each stage based on when each team is available. 

Lastly, everyone needs to be on the same page about global virtual projects and can’t be contacting their manager at 3 am with a question. 

Solution: Asynchronous Work

While sprints are common among agile software development teams, a massive part of their processes is asynchronous work. Each virtual team member balances having sprints and completing a portion of a project on their own time. In the end, they finish the project in increments. 

Global marketing teams or international sales teams can also apply asynchronous work tactics. People can complete their tasks at an even pace to avoid burning out and still meet deadlines. 

In Async 3.0 at Gitlab, they define the best practices and intentional operations. One of them is having core behaviors/communication asynchronously. It includes things such as brainstorming using a google doc as a whiteboard. Thought starters are written down, and feedback is always recorded. 

Solution: Documentation

Documentation will be your single biggest asset when managing distributed teams. Of course, it is worth mentioning Gitlab again because they basically pioneered this technique in their remote operations. 

Distributed companies should all have a single source of truth and have a “Handbook-first” mentality. This means that if a problem arises or someone has a question, they know exactly where to look and don’t have to message anyone personally. 

documentation

Ways to do this are through recording meetings and constantly taking notes during conversations about projects. These notes and company handbooks can be organized and stored in Google docs or through a product like Notion.

Documentation stops blockers from constantly occurring and keeps the entire organization informed. The key is to make it a living document that distributed employees can constantly update. 

3. Isolation

Isolation

Isolation or feelings of loneliness is a widespread challenge met by people new to remote working or onboarding at a new company. They cannot connect with their colleagues, or the company doesn’t offer enough opportunities to meet new people. 

This “working in silos” problem can happen to any virtual team that often doesn’t communicate enough or has departments that rarely work together. The result is a high virtual employee turnover as people will leave to search for roles with more interactions and feelings of togetherness.

Solution: Create an inclusive remote culture

The key to creating an inclusive remote culture is transparency. 

You can make your remote organization even more transparent than a physical one by creating a company handbook with all the vital information in the cloud. 

All your official procedures, company values, benchmarks and metrics, orientation and onboarding, and incentives should be staples of this document. 

This way, your inclusivity is set in virtual stone and can be practiced rather than just preached.

You can then hold virtual team building events that exemplify each specific company value. One example of this is to hold a virtual team building activity game night with a service like Jackbox to represent the value of “All as One.” Another way is to have new team members get to know everyone by setting up quick video calls in their first week. 

Other critical elements are ensuring that a co located team calls into a virtual meeting from their personal computers rather than a large room. This way, a remote worker won’t feel left out, and everyone can get a word in. 

virtual team activities

Solution: Build trust and rapport within globally distributed teams

Having a virtual team with good rapport and trusting each other is more likely to succeed than a team that doesn’t speak to one another. 

That is because teams that understand each other are more comfortable taking risks and don’t need as much time to explain important concepts. 

Parabol has some great tactics for this like: 

  • The first way to do this is to have your team leader ask more personal questions in your 1:1s or kick off team meetings. These are questions you would ask a friend. Like what is your favorite food, or where is your favorite place to travel? 
  • Another great way is to surprise team members with celebratory congratulations when they are doing a good job. Other companies will send personalized notes or even gift baskets to their remote team members. 
  • One thing you want to do is establish rituals in your communication to make your channels more friendly. Things like saying good morning and goodbye when people sign on and sign off are small steps that have huge impacts. 
  • Finally, a great idea is to have each team demo something they have been working on for the last two weeks. This lets others know how other departments are performing and become more aligned on the organization’s mission. 

    4. Burnout

    Burnout syndrome results from chronic workplace stress that isn’t managed correctly, eventually leading to a breaking point of extreme mental exhaustion. 

    A Harvard study found that poor working cultures were the most common culprits for burnt-out employees across organizations. In practice, this looks like excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, and a tendency to give the most talented too much work.

    employee burnout

    Solution: Flexible Work Arrangements

    Although almost 40% of knowledge workers want remote work, more than 90% want flexible working arrangements. These are the ability to set your hours and to have a healthy balance between life and work.

    It is a bit more challenging to have distributed collaboration across time zones, but that doesn’t mean distributed team members have to be on call 24/7. 

    They can set specific blocks of time where they need to collaborate and then choose the hours to get the rest of their work done. 

    For example, the company behind WordPress, Automattic, has a popular work-from-anywhere policy and gave their employees a $250 home office stipend at the start of the pandemic.

    You also want to have an open conversation about mental health and overworking so that people don’t fall down that slippery slope. Offering mental health days or giving a surprise week off for burnout are all popular tactics. 

    Companies like Bumble and SmartRecruiters give their workers full weeks off just for burnout. A whole week to disconnect and recharge. 

    Solution: Time management

    Here is a habit many are constantly trying to improve. The most efficient virtual team members can manage their work time down to the minute while also maximizing their relax and leisure time. 

    Companies with globally distributed teams should instill a culture where time management tactics are shared with their employees and everyone’s hours are respected. 

    Time management

    Quick Time management Tips:

    • Set specific times in the day to spend in personal conversations with family, friends, and colleagues.
    • Have a dedicated place to work.
    • Prioritize routines in your schedule.
    • Identify and Eliminate Time-wasters

    5. Trusting Your Virtual Team

     

    trusting your virtual team

    It is somewhat obvious at this point to trust your employees. However, it still is a foreign concept for many managers adjusting to distributed work (Also a reason many want to go back to the office). 

    They couldn’t walk over to their employee’s desks and see their progress when they wanted to and assumed the worst. The fact is if you don’t trust your team to get their work done, you are going to be checking up on them every hour and making the process even slower.

     

    Solution: Empowerment

    You create a more productive and equitable organization by empowering your employees to make crucial decisions and trusting them to meet deadlines. 

    You can find an example of this in an interview with Klarna’s Country head Francine Ereira where she says Klarna's cultural perspective encourages people to speak up and take accountability. 

    “Empowerment is something in our organization I find incredible. We empower everyone to deliver in a fast-paced environment.

    To provide some insight of how empowering it is, I'll share a conversation my manager and I had. He told me, ‘Fran, Australia is yours to make successful,’ and I said, ‘What does successful look like?’ He said, ‘No, you tell me what successful looks like to you and then go and deliver on it because I know that's what you're capable of doing.’”

    6. Ensuring Everyone Has The Tools to Work Remotely Efficiently

    home office equipment

    At the beginning of the pandemic, many people had to buy their home office equipment. This resulted in many virtual employees working from their kitchen tables before setting up a dedicated workspace.

    Now, as more companies offer more remote work opportunities and globally distributed companies continue to grow, making sure your virtual team has the right equipment to work comfortably and securely has become a priority. 

    The problem is that building a remote infrastructure can turn into a logistical nightmare. Some critical challenges for HR are various shipping costs to virtual teams worldwide, different pricing for laptops depending on the country, and no place to store the devices when an employee leaves.

    Some companies might need an entire department to handle the deliveries while others will elect to give their workers stipends with no nearly enough to cover everything.

    On the bright side, there are other companies like Flatfile that will offer a $10,000 allowance to design the ideal home office, but that also requires a significant time investment by the worker to figure out everything on their own.

    Solution: Equipment Management Software for Virtual Teams 

    Instead of outsourcing the distribution of equipment to remote employees or directing company departments to manage the logistics, you can use a service like GroWrk.

    They have a powerful dashboard covering every step of equipping employees, such as purchases, deliveries, pickups, storage, maintenance, even software, and security. Their global distribution network allows companies to send or store equipment in more than 150 countries with real-time tracking and notifications for each device. 

    It is an end-to-end inventory management system for the remote work era.

    via GIPHY

    Wrapping up

    As more and more companies switch to remote working or hybrid arrangements, they will continue to face the challenges of virtual teams. That doesn’t mean they should hope to return to the office because employees overwhelmingly prefer remote work.

    They should take the above mentioned steps and adopt a remote-first mindset to continue succeeding in an increasingly distributed world.

     

    Grow remote with GroWrk. We provide and manage laptops, devices, other equipment and services to remote teams in over 150 countries.

     

    Schedule a call now 

     

    Growrk remote partners
    Mark Gregory

    September 9

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