Tips to help you successfully manage a virtual team

Guest Blog by Beat Buhlmann, Evernote’s General Manager for EMEA


Virtual teams have become a crucial part of many organisations in order to allow them to cope with the new globalised nature of the business environment. In fact, by 2020 half of the UK workforce will work remotely according to estimates. But as this trend grows, research shows that an alarming two out of every three experienced managers fail at their first attempt to run a virtual team. The failure rate is even higher for new managers.


For the past 16 years I’ve studied virtual teams and the reasons why they succeed or fail. I’ve written books about it and even co-authored a whitepaper with Google discussing management skills specific to running virtual teams. I think failure almost always happens because teams try to apply the same rules and practices for virtual teams as they do for face-to-face team management. They don’t consider how virtual, distributed teams differ from local teams: that’s a huge mistake!



But it’s completely understandable because most managers have never had virtual team management training. However, for managers to succeed when they first try to run a virtual team they must consider the four key issues: lack of understanding; poor communication; using the wrong channels; and, recruiting the wrong people.


Lack of understanding


Virtual teams are made up of people who work together but are based in separate locations. But virtual teams aren’t only separated by physical geography. Different teammates are also separated by other factors like which time zone they are in, which language they speak, plus the culture, religion and social norms of the place they’re located.


The key lesson here is that no two teams are the same. To get the best out of each member of your virtual team you must stop and think about the unique situation of each team member and understand that each person’s situation is completely different.


Talk to your colleagues in the Human Resources teams in the countries your virtual team members are based in to learn the applicable laws, policies, or standards in the countries your employees work in. Having a shared notebook, in a platform like Evernote, lets you save this information and easily share it with teammates for quick reference.


Poor communication


A lot of human communication is nonverbal. When you talk to someone face-to-face you can pick up clues about exactly what they mean from visual cues such as someone’s facial expression or their body language. When you communicate via a channel without nonverbal cues you can lose the context, which is vital to understand what a person really means. That’s why misunderstandings are five times as likely to happen when we move away from face-to-face conversations.


Of all the communication channels that are now available thanks to modern digital technology, emails are the most prone to error. We often put a lot of information into long, dense emails but because both parts of the conversation aren’t happening at the same time, we don’t have the opportunity to instantly clarify or correct ourselves.


The trick here is to take care in all your communications, especially if your teammates can’t see your face and body language. And NEVER be afraid to ask a question if something isn’t clear to you.


Using the wrong channels


Would you email the fire service if your house was on fire? Of course not. If you can, you’d want to ring them straight away. You need to pick the right communication channel for the right situation. But virtual teams don’t always pick the best channel for the communication, and this can harm trust.


Therefore, agreeing as a team which communications should happen, via which channel, can work wonders to build co-operation, meet deadlines, and create the trust that’s vital for your organisation to succeed.


In terms of delivering the work, every communication should be as clear as cling film about the three W’s: WHO, does WHAT, by WHEN. Once you have this clarity, meeting requests and commitments will be much more straightforward.   


Recruiting the wrong people


Team members rely on each other. But a good member of a local team, whose members are situated together, may not have the skills to be effective in a virtual team.


You can’t just find a person with the hard skills and qualifications for the job role. An employee may work very well in a face-to-face meeting but lack the skills to succeed in a virtual setting.


Most organisations apply the same process for recruiting a virtual team member as they do when they recruit locally. However, they should test the candidate to find out if they’ll be a good virtual team member, but they normally don’t, and that’s why high levels of staff turnover in virtual teams is often the norm.


The bottom line is you must test the skills of virtual team members before you recruit them because virtual teams will only succeed when all the members are working well together. This means you must recruit people who are good listeners, good communicators, and good collaborators.


Virtual teams are growing and if you want to make yours succeed ensure you take the right management approach to help the team flourish.

Author: Editorial Team

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