The Core Challenges of Managing Virtual Teams

May 30, 2009 by  

Management at Work » Managing virtual teams.

I came across this article by Karen McHenry; consultant, writer, and professor, which I feel clearly and succinctly describes the core challenges of managing virtual teams – and what new skills are required for managers who are accostomed to leading co-located teams.

Ms. McHenry states:

When organizations elect to create virtual teams, they focus on the potential advantages, such as the diversity of the team, or the potential for “round the clock” productivity with employees working in multiple time zones. However, companies must also be aware of the challenges that accompany virtual teams. For these groups to be successful, managers cannot use the old rules of leadership. New ways of working require different skills.

While I agree with this statement I believe that most of the adjustments required are small changes to team interaction or management style; and many ultimately amount to being more deliberate about process and workflow. Some of them are simply good, fundamental management skills that get overlooked when team members see each other regularly. So I think it’s important to note that while new skills and workstyle changes are required to be successful, distributed teamwork does not require a whole new way of working.

Have a look at McHenry’s article and see if you agree that much of what she suggests would be good practices regardless of the structure of your team or where members are located.

  • Jason,

    I thought Karen McHenry’s article was very good. It touched on many of the challenges I encountered working with remote teams.

    One aspect that seemed only lightly touched upon was the challenge of time zones. When there’s little or no overlap in working hours amongst members of a team, there’s little traditional synchronous collaboration tools like phone/video conferencing/Skype can do.

    The value of face-to-face time is paramount in creating an effective team. Recognizing this I created http://www.timzon.com with the idea that I wanted to create a face-to-face meeting experience but with the convenience of email. I would really like your feedback on how a recorded video conversation coupled with other tools such as white boarding could help in the management of virtual teams.

    Regards,
    Jerome.

  • Jason,

    I thought Karen McHenry’s article was very good. It touched on many of the challenges I encountered working with remote teams.

    One aspect that seemed only lightly touched upon was the challenge of time zones. When there’s little or no overlap in working hours amongst members of a team, there’s little traditional synchronous collaboration tools like phone/video conferencing/Skype can do.

    The value of face-to-face time is paramount in creating an effective team. Recognizing this I created http://www.timzon.com with the idea that I wanted to create a face-to-face meeting experience but with the convenience of email. I would really like your feedback on how a recorded video conversation coupled with other tools such as white boarding could help in the management of virtual teams.

    Regards,
    Jerome.

    • Hey Jerome,

      Working across time zones is one of those pervasive challenges that can disrupt the flow of natural and dynamic teamwork. Especially for managers and leaders of globally or nationally distributed team, a time shift can be one of those daily struggles that is psychologically draining and starts to make even the simplest tasks – like scheduling a conference call or getting a quick question answered – cumbersome and time consuming.

      One of our tenets is that you must have a planned approach to virtual teamwork: you must be more deliberate about how you are going to communicate, collaborate, and share information. Time zones are precisely the type of pain point that can be alleviated through the thoughtful application of the right technology and some basic communication guidelines.

      For teams that have the benefit of overlap in their work schedules even a simple tool like http://www.timeanddate.com or http://www.worldtimezone.com, which will show at a glance what times are ‘typical business hours’ across multiple time zones, can go a long way toward decreasing frustration. But, as you say, not all teams have the luxury of that overlap and face-to-face, synchronous communication is not always possible or simple.

      I have only had a limited opportunity to engage with what you have developed at http://www.timzon.com but I have to say that I think you are right on target. The tool you have created is working on a number of levels that make it perfectly suited to distributed teamwork: it is asynchronous, high presence, easy to use, and the whiteboard functionality and ability to share an image or slide make it a collaboration tool as well as a communication tool.

      I believe that discussion boards are an often-overlooked tool that can be applied in many different ways: to monitor project status, brainstorm, gather team feedback… all without wrestling with schedule conflicts or putting a hard stop in anyone’s day – they can also be invaluable for creating avenues of informal communication among distributed team members (a hobby board? Board to share work process tips? Board for thanking each other or highlighting achievement?), and that is vital for healthy team identity and mutual trust and accountability. Because timzon is like a threaded video discussion board I can see how it has the potential to be a powerhouse for some of these applications.

      This is just the sort of thing that we love to sandbox with in The Anywhere Office Jerome, I look forward to exploring it further. Keep us posted…

    • Hey Jerome,

      Working across time zones is one of those pervasive challenges that can disrupt the flow of natural and dynamic teamwork. Especially for managers and leaders of globally or nationally distributed team, a time shift can be one of those daily struggles that is psychologically draining and starts to make even the simplest tasks – like scheduling a conference call or getting a quick question answered – cumbersome and time consuming.

      One of our tenets is that you must have a planned approach to virtual teamwork: you must be more deliberate about how you are going to communicate, collaborate, and share information. Time zones are precisely the type of pain point that can be alleviated through the thoughtful application of the right technology and some basic communication guidelines.

      For teams that have the benefit of overlap in their work schedules even a simple tool like http://www.timeanddate.com or http://www.worldtimezone.com, which will show at a glance what times are ‘typical business hours’ across multiple time zones, can go a long way toward decreasing frustration. But, as you say, not all teams have the luxury of that overlap and face-to-face, synchronous communication is not always possible or simple.

      I have only had a limited opportunity to engage with what you have developed at http://www.timzon.com but I have to say that I think you are right on target. The tool you have created is working on a number of levels that make it perfectly suited to distributed teamwork: it is asynchronous, high presence, easy to use, and the whiteboard functionality and ability to share an image or slide make it a collaboration tool as well as a communication tool.

      I believe that discussion boards are an often-overlooked tool that can be applied in many different ways: to monitor project status, brainstorm, gather team feedback… all without wrestling with schedule conflicts or putting a hard stop in anyone’s day – they can also be invaluable for creating avenues of informal communication among distributed team members (a hobby board? Board to share work process tips? Board for thanking each other or highlighting achievement?), and that is vital for healthy team identity and mutual trust and accountability. Because timzon is like a threaded video discussion board I can see how it has the potential to be a powerhouse for some of these applications.

      This is just the sort of thing that we love to sandbox with in The Anywhere Office Jerome, I look forward to exploring it further. Keep us posted…

    • Hey Jerome,

      Working across time zones is one of those pervasive challenges that can disrupt the flow of natural and dynamic teamwork. Especially for managers and leaders of globally or nationally distributed team, a time shift can be one of those daily struggles that is psychologically draining and starts to make even the simplest tasks – like scheduling a conference call or getting a quick question answered – cumbersome and time consuming.

      One of our tenets is that you must have a planned approach to virtual teamwork: you must be more deliberate about how you are going to communicate, collaborate, and share information. Time zones are precisely the type of pain point that can be alleviated through the thoughtful application of the right technology and some basic communication guidelines.

      For teams that have the benefit of overlap in their work schedules even a simple tool like http://www.timeanddate.com or http://www.worldtimezone.com, which will show at a glance what times are ‘typical business hours’ across multiple time zones, can go a long way toward decreasing frustration. But, as you say, not all teams have the luxury of that overlap and face-to-face, synchronous communication is not always possible or simple.

      I have only had a limited opportunity to engage with what you have developed at http://www.timzon.com but I have to say that I think you are right on target. The tool you have created is working on a number of levels that make it perfectly suited to distributed teamwork: it is asynchronous, high presence, easy to use, and the whiteboard functionality and ability to share an image or slide make it a collaboration tool as well as a communication tool.

      I believe that discussion boards are an often-overlooked tool that can be applied in many different ways: to monitor project status, brainstorm, gather team feedback… all without wrestling with schedule conflicts or putting a hard stop in anyone’s day – they can also be invaluable for creating avenues of informal communication among distributed team members (a hobby board? Board to share work process tips? Board for thanking each other or highlighting achievement?), and that is vital for healthy team identity and mutual trust and accountability. Because timzon is like a threaded video discussion board I can see how it has the potential to be a powerhouse for some of these applications.

      This is just the sort of thing that we love to sandbox with in The Anywhere Office Jerome, I look forward to exploring it further. Keep us posted…

  • Jason,

    I thought Karen McHenry’s article was very good. It touched on many of the challenges I encountered working with remote teams.

    One aspect that seemed only lightly touched upon was the challenge of time zones. When there’s little or no overlap in working hours amongst members of a team, there’s little traditional synchronous collaboration tools like phone/video conferencing/Skype can do.

    The value of face-to-face time is paramount in creating an effective team. Recognizing this I created http://www.timzon.com with the idea that I wanted to create a face-to-face meeting experience but with the convenience of email. I would really like your feedback on how a recorded video conversation coupled with other tools such as white boarding could help in the management of virtual teams.

    Regards,
    Jerome.

    • Hey Jerome,

      Working across time zones is one of those pervasive challenges that can disrupt the flow of natural and dynamic teamwork. Especially for managers and leaders of globally or nationally distributed team, a time shift can be one of those daily struggles that is psychologically draining and starts to make even the simplest tasks – like scheduling a conference call or getting a quick question answered – cumbersome and time consuming.

      One of our tenets is that you must have a planned approach to virtual teamwork: you must be more deliberate about how you are going to communicate, collaborate, and share information. Time zones are precisely the type of pain point that can be alleviated through the thoughtful application of the right technology and some basic communication guidelines.

      For teams that have the benefit of overlap in their work schedules even a simple tool like http://www.timeanddate.com or http://www.worldtimezone.com, which will show at a glance what times are ‘typical business hours’ across multiple time zones, can go a long way toward decreasing frustration. But, as you say, not all teams have the luxury of that overlap and face-to-face, synchronous communication is not always possible or simple.

      I have only had a limited opportunity to engage with what you have developed at http://www.timzon.com but I have to say that I think you are right on target. The tool you have created is working on a number of levels that make it perfectly suited to distributed teamwork: it is asynchronous, high presence, easy to use, and the whiteboard functionality and ability to share an image or slide make it a collaboration tool as well as a communication tool.

      I believe that discussion boards are an often-overlooked tool that can be applied in many different ways: to monitor project status, brainstorm, gather team feedback… all without wrestling with schedule conflicts or putting a hard stop in anyone’s day – they can also be invaluable for creating avenues of informal communication among distributed team members (a hobby board? Board to share work process tips? Board for thanking each other or highlighting achievement?), and that is vital for healthy team identity and mutual trust and accountability. Because timzon is like a threaded video discussion board I can see how it has the potential to be a powerhouse for some of these applications.

      This is just the sort of thing that we love to sandbox with in The Anywhere Office Jerome, I look forward to exploring it further. Keep us posted…

  • I had a tough time establishing a proper legal framework for managing my virtual teams, until I came across this toolkit which provided extremely useful info on creating a relevant Telecommuting program. Here’s the URL: http://tinyurl.com/m6ut23

  • I had a tough time establishing a proper legal framework for managing my virtual teams, until I came across this toolkit which provided extremely useful info on creating a relevant Telecommuting program. Here’s the URL: http://tinyurl.com/m6ut23

  • I had a tough time establishing a proper legal framework for managing my virtual teams, until I came across this toolkit which provided extremely useful info on creating a relevant Telecommuting program. Here’s the URL: http://tinyurl.com/m6ut23

  • I had a tough time establishing a proper legal framework for managing my virtual teams, until I came across this toolkit which provided extremely useful info on creating a relevant Telecommuting program. Here’s the URL: http://tinyurl.com/m6ut23

  • I think virtual or remote team members do present a unique challenge.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with or managing quite a few remote employees, contractors, and partners over the years, and a few things jump out:

    1. Meeting in person at least once makes a huge (positive) difference in the quality of communication.
    2. Some people don’t do well at all working virtually/remotely, and recognizing that early and dealing with it will save everyone a lot of pain.
    3. You never know which tools (collaboration software, IM, project management) will “stick” for the team, but usually the pain leads the process (whatever hurts badly enough gets brought up a lot before it gets solved)

    More on managing virtual teams here:
    http://blog.myclientspot.com/2009/06/how-to-manage-a-virtual-team-member/

  • I think virtual or remote team members do present a unique challenge.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with or managing quite a few remote employees, contractors, and partners over the years, and a few things jump out:

    1. Meeting in person at least once makes a huge (positive) difference in the quality of communication.
    2. Some people don’t do well at all working virtually/remotely, and recognizing that early and dealing with it will save everyone a lot of pain.
    3. You never know which tools (collaboration software, IM, project management) will “stick” for the team, but usually the pain leads the process (whatever hurts badly enough gets brought up a lot before it gets solved)

    More on managing virtual teams here:
    http://blog.myclientspot.com/2009/06/how-to-manage-a-virtual-team-member/

    • Dave – Very insightful comments! Meeting team members at least once in person (and more regularly if possible) definitely helps in bringing the team together. In fact one of the mistakes many teams make is filling up the limited face-time they do have with meetings or tasks that can easily be done remotely – rather than using the time for more team building type activities and helping people get to know one another.

      Also you are spot on with your comments about which tools “stick” for the team. This is one of the reason I suggest managers or team leaders make time for feedback discussion focused around the work process itself. For example, asking questions such as “what tools are working and why” or “is there a tool you feel would make you more productive if you had more training in it”? Often feedback is limited to project oriented issues and not on “how we work”. These discussion are essential to improving virtual teamwork.

      Thanks for sharing the link to your blog post. You have some excellent tips for those managing outsourced employees, contractors, or freelance workers.

    • Dave – Very insightful comments! Meeting team members at least once in person (and more regularly if possible) definitely helps in bringing the team together. In fact one of the mistakes many teams make is filling up the limited face-time they do have with meetings or tasks that can easily be done remotely – rather than using the time for more team building type activities and helping people get to know one another.

      Also you are spot on with your comments about which tools “stick” for the team. This is one of the reason I suggest managers or team leaders make time for feedback discussion focused around the work process itself. For example, asking questions such as “what tools are working and why” or “is there a tool you feel would make you more productive if you had more training in it”? Often feedback is limited to project oriented issues and not on “how we work”. These discussion are essential to improving virtual teamwork.

      Thanks for sharing the link to your blog post. You have some excellent tips for those managing outsourced employees, contractors, or freelance workers.

    • Dave – Very insightful comments! Meeting team members at least once in person (and more regularly if possible) definitely helps in bringing the team together. In fact one of the mistakes many teams make is filling up the limited face-time they do have with meetings or tasks that can easily be done remotely – rather than using the time for more team building type activities and helping people get to know one another.

      Also you are spot on with your comments about which tools “stick” for the team. This is one of the reason I suggest managers or team leaders make time for feedback discussion focused around the work process itself. For example, asking questions such as “what tools are working and why” or “is there a tool you feel would make you more productive if you had more training in it”? Often feedback is limited to project oriented issues and not on “how we work”. These discussion are essential to improving virtual teamwork.

      Thanks for sharing the link to your blog post. You have some excellent tips for those managing outsourced employees, contractors, or freelance workers.

  • I think virtual or remote team members do present a unique challenge.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with or managing quite a few remote employees, contractors, and partners over the years, and a few things jump out:

    1. Meeting in person at least once makes a huge (positive) difference in the quality of communication.
    2. Some people don’t do well at all working virtually/remotely, and recognizing that early and dealing with it will save everyone a lot of pain.
    3. You never know which tools (collaboration software, IM, project management) will “stick” for the team, but usually the pain leads the process (whatever hurts badly enough gets brought up a lot before it gets solved)

    More on managing virtual teams here:
    http://blog.myclientspot.com/2009/06/how-to-manage-a-virtual-team-member/

  • I think virtual or remote team members do present a unique challenge.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with or managing quite a few remote employees, contractors, and partners over the years, and a few things jump out:

    1. Meeting in person at least once makes a huge (positive) difference in the quality of communication.
    2. Some people don’t do well at all working virtually/remotely, and recognizing that early and dealing with it will save everyone a lot of pain.
    3. You never know which tools (collaboration software, IM, project management) will “stick” for the team, but usually the pain leads the process (whatever hurts badly enough gets brought up a lot before it gets solved)

    More on managing virtual teams here:
    http://blog.myclientspot.com/2009/06/how-to-manage-a-virtual-team-member/

    • Dave – Very insightful comments! Meeting team members at least once in person (and more regularly if possible) definitely helps in bringing the team together. In fact one of the mistakes many teams make is filling up the limited face-time they do have with meetings or tasks that can easily be done remotely – rather than using the time for more team building type activities and helping people get to know one another.

      Also you are spot on with your comments about which tools “stick” for the team. This is one of the reason I suggest managers or team leaders make time for feedback discussion focused around the work process itself. For example, asking questions such as “what tools are working and why” or “is there a tool you feel would make you more productive if you had more training in it”? Often feedback is limited to project oriented issues and not on “how we work”. These discussion are essential to improving virtual teamwork.

      Thanks for sharing the link to your blog post. You have some excellent tips for those managing outsourced employees, contractors, or freelance workers.

  • Nice sharing you got here. I agree that with new ways of working comes new skills – and new ways of handling things. Language barrier is one of the biggest challenges of outsourcing work to people thousand of miles away. This is the reason why banking heavily on trust and communication at the project's initial stage is very important. One must trust the team to do their jobs right and the client must communicate clearly his/her expectations and goals for the project before the team works on it.

  • Yes cultural challenges often need to be navigated when outsourcing work in other countries or building an international virtual team. Language and time zones are too problems that often need to be overcome. You are correct trust needs to be nurtured from the start of a project as it is much easier to build trust that way then to regain trust that is lost along the way.