Managing virtual teams: 7 challenges and the tools and tips that helped me overcome them

As the CEO of a global translation company, I have harnessed advantages in our own technology and available cloud-based technologies to efficiently work and communicate with an international team.

Key takeaways

  • Remote teams can provide a better work-life balance for team members, allowing more flexibility in work schedules and reducing commuting time to a physical office.
  • Virtual teams can be a great way to tap into a diverse talent pool, regardless of location, providing access to a broader range of expertise and experience.
  • The best way to ensure successful virtual teams is to set clear expectations, goals, and communication protocols from the outset.
  • Virtual team managers and project managers play an essential role in virtual team management by using the right tools and training programs to ensure effective communication and track work output.
  • Virtual communication technologies (such as Microsoft Teams and Google Meet) offer real-time communication and collaboration, allowing face-to-face interaction, shared vision, and regular team meetings.
  • Social interaction and small talk can be challenging in a virtual world. However, remote team members can still build a team feel through phone calls, video chats, and in-person meetings (when possible).
  • Communication issues can arise in virtual teams, but with the right tools and response times, managers of virtual teams can address problems and ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • The Harvard Business Review reports that virtual teams can be as effective as in-person teams. Still, managers of virtual teams must be proactive in addressing new challenges and finding the best technology and communication strategies for their type of work.
  • Establishing clear goals, following steps, and ensuring everyone has access to critical information can help remote teams avoid poor performance and achieve success over the long term.

Author’s note and update: editing this article for 2023 and beyond is very different to when I first wrote this article in early 2019. So many things have changed for obvious reasons (i.e. the coronavirus pandemic). For example, some remote teams have become permanent virtual teams; web-based software is now more widely known as cloud-based. The idea of video conferencing in 2019 was surprisingly rare and would take some convincing (and technical support) to organise one.

To give you a final example, the following was a paragraph written pre-COVID, which I thought I’d leave as a time capsule. Today, engaging with people through ‘online platforms’ is the norm, if not the default!

In such a globalised and connected world, where the concept of traditional physical workspaces is being usurped, you will at some point be compelled to engage with people through online platforms.

Fortunately for LEXIGO, our processes and teams were born in the cloud from day one. All the tools to work virtually, remotely and with distributed teams were already in place before COVID. This was the main reason the article was initially written: to help other organisations embrace online teams in an ever-increasing globalised world.

In addition, LEXIGO is global by nature; our team is distributed mainly across the Asia Pacific region, with the exception of our translator teams located globally across 138 countries.

Here’s what I’ve learnt about managing global virtual teams.

What’s the difference between remote teams and virtual teams?

Before diving in, it’s important to note the distinction between remote and virtual teams. Often used interchangeably, they have essential differences.

Remote teams

Remote employees comprise remote workers in different remote locations who work on the same projects together. Teams communicate and collaborate using digital tools like email, messaging apps, and video conferencing. While they occasionally meet in person and conduct face-to-face meetings, most interactions occur remotely. Still, they share a physical workspace that they might occasionally attend.

Virtual teams

Virtual teams, on the other hand, refer to a group of people who work together on a project or task without ever sharing a physical workspace. Virtual team members are composed of remote workers who are geographically dispersed and may work in different time zones. Virtual teamwork relies heavily on technology, with digital tools being the primary means of communication and coordination.

To make matters more confusing, virtual and distributed teams are sometimes interchangeable. For this article, we’ll stick to using the term virtual teams.

Hybrid teams

Hybrid teams are becoming increasingly popular post the peak of COVID. By combining remote and on-site workers, a hybrid work environment enables organisations to reap the benefits of both remote work and in-person collaboration. Hybrid teams offer flexibility and convenience for remote workers, who can work from anywhere while also providing the opportunity for in-person collaboration and socialisation for those who prefer to work on-site.

Managing virtual teams

Managing virtual teams can be challenging, to say the least. In fact, a virtual team leader is becoming a new form of leadership in its own right, and a quick google search differentiates leadership from virtual team leadership.

There are cultural best practices to consider, language barriers, real-life distractions and time differences, just to name a few.

It also requires self-awareness; you’re more likely to be less empathetic online and more inclined to become desensitised to societal rules that usually guide real-life social interactions.

This could translate into becoming more susceptible to being rude, discourteous, condescending and more inclined to make an offhand remark where you wouldn’t otherwise if you were in a face-to-face meeting.

Sometimes, even when you’re being sincere, it could come across as rude because you might be communicating through chat.

Tools and tips I’ve found to overcome the challenges

In the same way, companies evolve and adapt to new technological advancements, companies must also translate these recent changes by updating their approach to human resource management.

Sometimes it can result in an overhaul of how we manage employee relationships since communication in a virtual team is full of challenges.

These include:

Challenge #1: Geographical and time differences

Preparing a video conference with different time zones requires strict rules that everybody adheres to. Sometimes, you leave team members out of meetings due to significant time and geographical differences.

Try to pick a time of day that is suitable for everyone. Some great tools out there to help you choose mutually suitable times include:

Timeanddate.com’s Time Difference Calculator

This is a great tool because you can add as many cities and time zones as you like and compare them simultaneously. For example, what time is it in Paris, Copenhagen and Beijing at 2pm in Melbourne?

WorldTimeZone.com World Map

Get a visual outlook of the time and date all around the world at the current time and compare cities and countries before making calls.

Timeanddate.com’s Meeting Planner

Timeanddate.com does it again with this awesome meeting planner. Select the cities you’re trying to plan a meeting with, hit go, and it will highlight the best time for all 3 cities in green.

Challenge #2: Limited opportunities for interpreting nuance and nonverbal cues

Good communication means interpreting subtle hints about what a person is saying from non-verbal communication.

This includes facial expressions, posture and gestures. Decoding these kinds of communications is valuable for team building and cohesion as we get to know our colleagues on a more human level.

This kind of human experience cannot be replicated in virtual teams. The closest thing is a voice and video call. When it’s over chat and email, don’t sweat the small stuff when being spoken to, do sweat the small stuff when speaking – this will allow cultural consideration from both sides.

Another factor is being behind a keyboard. You may be very cordial in real life, but once you are on an online platform, the likelihood of your demeanour changing or being misinterpreted is dramatically high.

You are also more prone to invalidate other people’s concerns and dismiss them when in a virtual team. Regularly scheduled team meetings over voice and video help to put everyone’s approach in perspective.

Great tools and techniques to address this challenge include:

Old-fashioned phone call

you can download an app like WhatsApp and make calls via WiFi or simply call using your landline or mobile.

Skype

Create groups, chat individually, make voice or video calls, share your screen and much more.

Regular meetings

Scheduling regular virtual meetings, huddles, catch-ups, and more helps teams remember they’re not isolated and play an essential role in supporting their team’s needs. Team meetings held on a regular basis are also proven to increase productivity.

Zoom

Zoom meetings are great for online meetings with plenty of options to ensure important stuff is recorded and sessions run smoothly.

Challenge #3: Virtual teams are not a one size fits all mechanism

Not all industries are adapted to online communication. The organisational design needed to run a virtual team is counterproductive for some departments and industries.

Make sure a virtual team is beneficial for your organisation. While it may work well in a travelling agency or advertising, it may only hold true for some industries. Having a virtual team as support staff or back-end administration work for these industries makes more sense.

Challenge #4: Why more is never merrier in virtual teams

If you have a message board where all team members contribute, inevitably, you will have to deal with lengthy messages in the discussion forum. The constant barrage of messages in an online chat room can impede effective output since the likelihood of ignoring messages is high.

To counter this, try to split virtual teams in silos (see Challenge #6) with team leaders who report to you – not too dissimilar from running large on-site teams.

There are many tools out there to help online collaboration across time zones, teams and even for teams right next to each other!

Here are a couple of my favourites:

Asana.com

Versatile with a variety of templates for different purposes.

Trello.com

Streamlined. Great if you want a uniform approach to planning work.

Challenge #5: Virtual teams are fertile ground for e-failures

E-failures are a combination of the complications associated with email communication and human error.

Did you forget to attach a document? Did an important message go into the spam folder? Have you sent a message to the wrong receiver?

These kinds of errors are frequent among virtual teams collaborating on a project. Yep, you guessed it! There are tools to help you out.

Apart from some of the tools mentioned in the previous point, these tools help you manage files and email.

Asana.com

Asana makes the list again. One of many different types of project management systems, Asana offers a suite of project management tools that address the unique challenges of virtual team leaders and individual team members.

Dropbox.com

Dropbox is an ideal tool for managing files across virtual teams, offering cloud-based storage and collaboration features that enable seamless work across multiple locations. Real-time collaboration and a user-friendly interface make it easier for team members to work efficiently and stay organised.

Grammarly

Checking and editing this article using Grammarly is not the only advantage we get from its use. Managing our brand and terminology across distributed teams is all centralised in Grammarly and is another significant benefit.

Email

Obviously one of the most used and preferred forms of communication by all virtual teams, upping your email game can have significant advantages. You can do this by scheduling emails, setting auto-responders and organising your email to suit the requirements of your virtual teams.

Boomerang

Rather than rushing to send your emails across the world before you or your colleagues end the day – with Boomerang, you can take your time writing emails to your global colleagues and schedule to send them at a more professional time. However, most email service providers now include this as a standard feature.

Challenge #6: Time wasted unravelling communication failures

When miscommunication happens in virtual teams, you can’t get clarification as quickly as you could from a colleague who is a few feet away.

This means virtual teams waste lots of time before clearing up misunderstandings. To ensure communication is always open and constant, consider more frequent contact and scheduled meetings and try not to allow ‘elephants in the room’.

Tools you can use to facilitate regular communication include:

Slack

Set up separate workspaces for each team and post to the workspace anytime. Slack allows for a continuous flow of conversation and ideas across time zones.

Skype

Skype gets another mention for its versatility. Create groups, chat individually, make voice or video calls, share your screen, and more with Skype.

Challenge #7: Understanding the five dimensions of culture to help you manage diverse virtual teams

Cross-cultural expert and Dutch social psychologist Dr Geert Hofstede undertook studies on the impact of different cultures in the workplace and identified five dimensions of culture. His research is based on years of collected and analysed data from over 100,000 people across 40 countries.

Culture is often a bigger source of conflict, and differences in culture can become a real nuisance that can lead to disastrous results. —Dr. Geert Hofstede

His solution—understand the culture and values of the workforce you’re working with by identifying the varying degrees of importance in each of the following dimensions:

PDI: Power Distance Index

This dimension focuses on how much equality or inequality exists between people from different countries. If the PDI is high, it shows that there are significant inequalities of both power as well as wealth. This also shows that society uses a caste system and keeps its citizens more or less in their normal place in life. On the other hand, a low PDI shows that society does not emphasise differences in wealth and power and that there is more equality in society.

IDV: Individualism

This dimension is focused on the degree to which society strengthens an individual or society as a whole regarding their achievements and relationships with each other. If the degree for this dimension is high, it shows that society places maximum importance on individuality and personal rights.

MAS: Masculinity

This dimension is focused on how much a society strengthens the traditionally held notion that men are the primary achievers and power in society. A high score shows that the country values traditionally male traits such as assertiveness and material success. A low score means a national culture values more “feminine” traits such as nurturing and caring.

UAI: Uncertainty Avoidance Index

This dimension shows how tolerant society is regarding uncertainty and ambiguity. A high score indicates that the country does not have a high tolerance.

LTO: Long-term Orientation

This is a dimension that is focused on whether or not a society embraces long-term devotion to values that are traditional and futuristic. Long-term orientation shows that society values its traditions, and this buttresses a stronger work ethic. Businesses that operate in such an environment will find it challenging to merge with society, as they will be considered outsiders.

Conclusion

While identifying the challenges that underpin virtual teams, it is essential to remember that they are here to stay. For some industries, the future of virtual teams is already here. Ranging from non-governmental organisations, intelligence services, journalism, shipping, aviation, diplomacy, the military, scientific communities and universities, just to name a few.

But the good news is that the virtual environment is not all doom and gloom since there are also demonstrable best-case scenarios when employees collaborate within a virtual environment.

For one, as much as we have affirmed that online environments are ripe settings for breaking social inhibitions, virtual teams ironically reduce traditional work conflicts that may be occasioned by interpersonal relations when in face-to-face interaction.

The biggest challenges for global virtual teams are cultural and time differences. And if the following sentence written in early 2019 is proof of anything, it’s of how quickly things have changed in this space.

As more people worldwide become accustomed to other cultures and globalisation increases, there will no doubt come a time when virtual teams will be more forgiving and open to cultural sensitivities.