11 June 2021

10 mistakes that can break virtual teams

  • Flexible working
Author: Asmita Parashar

As we all know, the global pandemic has completely changed the way we work. Virtual teams have taken precedence and have become the norm for most organizations around the globe. According to Forbes, approximately 70% of the workforce will be working remotely by 2025.

Although there are myriad benefits of virtual working, leading geographically dispersed teams can have its share drawbacks for managers as they learn to adapt from managing their teams from physical offices to virtual ones.

Let’s look at the 10 common mistakes which can break virtual teams.

1. Not taking into account cultural differences

Leading a global team is never easy or straightforward for any manager. A globally dispersed team can be wrought with various challenges. When internationally located teams come with their own set of cultural values, beliefs and perceptions, there are bound to be language and communication hurdles, as well as cultural and time zone differences.

Loss of productivity through time wastage and miscommunication invariably occurs when globally dispersed teams come together. Unless managers adopt a global mindset and instil a level of cultural understanding within their teams, they will continue to face huge challenges.

Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments

Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones

A recent example which springs to mind is the case of a USA-based team of a major IT company who found that their Indian counterparts were generally hesitant to interact, ask questions and participate on the same level during virtual project planning meetings.

  • “I wish they were less reluctant to ask questions and spoke up more during meetings” was the usual refrain from the USA-based team member.

On the other hand, as a culture which is relationship driven and more attuned to an indirect communication style, the Indian teams found the Americans too direct, brash and unfriendly.

  • “They don’t spend time getting to know us and are only task driven,” said the Indian counterpart.

The lack of open communication was resulting in frustration and lack of transparency all around.

Further reading

Oops! Real-life examples of cultural faux-pas and uncomfortable situations

To overcome these obstacles, the organisation decided to instil a level of cultural understanding through training initiatives for both teams.

Soon, the USA-based teams learnt that relationship building was highly valued in India and was key to building greater collaboration and trust with their Indian counterparts. They found that small talk, understanding key Indian values and learning strategies to overcome major communication hurdles, established greater rapport and more effective business collaboration in the long run.

The USA-based teams learnt that relationship building was highly valued in India

On the other hand, the Indian counterparts learned that Americans were not unfriendly but appreciated a more direct communication approach and therefore learnt to adapt their style accordingly.

With open communication and greater rapport, they became less hesitant to ask questions during virtual meetings and share ideas. They also became more confident to be upfront when it came to delivering ‘bad news’ about potential project delays or bottlenecks without the fear of losing face.

With a vast array of technology tools available, the teams also initiated greater use of video conferencing, especially for complex tasks, which garnered greater interaction and collaboration, leaving less room for miscommunication.

To further unite remote teams, it is crucial for managers to regularly initiate team building exercises and continue nurturing relationships. This will help organizations hire and retain the best global talent and increase productivity in the long term.

2. Lack of Communication

In the absence of face-to-face interactions, communication can be a huge challenge for effective virtual working. Many see it as the topmost challenge of virtual teams.

Communication tools such as email, Slack or Instant Messenger are text-based and frequently used over phone calls and video chats. This can lead to relationships being merely transactional with individuals having little time to build rapport and trust and less inclination to share further information.

[Text-based communication tools] can lead to relationships being merely transactional with individuals having little time to build rapport and trust

To avoid miscommunication and mistakes amongst virtual team members, managers must make sure that teams learn to communicate clearly, and more frequently with each other.

Regular team meetings and catch-ups encourage collaboration and ensure that teams and individuals are on the same page.

Video conferencing tools further provide visual communication required to create an environment of openness and confidence for individuals to share and ask questions, leaving little room for misinterpretation.

3. Lack of Trust

Trust is a crucial element of a cohesive virtual team. When team members trust each other, people feel safe, encouraging transparency and knowledge sharing.

With the absence of face-to-face interactions, building trust with people you have never met, is far from simple.

Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments

Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones

To build trust in virtual teams, it is crucial for managers to clearly articulate the team’s goals and priorities and plan well for projects to run smoothly and encourage as much communication as possible amongst team members.

Regular online team interactions and team building activities instil trust amongst teams and sets the stage for open communication and sharing of thoughts and ideas.

4. Failure to set clear expectations

Managers must ensure that they frequently communicate with team members and set clear expectations and delegate tasks accordingly. Failure to do so will result in:

  • A directionless team
  • Duplication of tasks
  • Mismanagement and chaos

For managers to keep track, it is crucial for them to have:

  • Regular meetings with teams and individuals to ensure clear alignment with goals
  • Regular one-to-one check-ins provide feedback
  • Create a space to share insights and address any particular challenges

5. Lack of empathy

Lack of empathy in managers leads workers to feel undervalued, demotivated and depressed. During the last year, leaders have had to show sensitivity towards the needs of employees more than ever. The pandemic has brought anxiety, loneliness, work and family matters to the fore and managers need to hone empathy skills to ensure their employees feel safe, valued and heard.

Lack of empathy in managers leads workers to feel undervalued, demotivated and depressed

Informal team chats over coffee, having a virtual ‘open door policy’ that encourages members to talk and share with managers and holding virtual social events, cultivates a care, safety and belonging amongst employees.

Empathetic leaders will have regular check-in with individuals, encouraging them to open up, share concerns and most importantly, be heard.

Some questions empathetic leaders can ask team members:

  • “How is your day going?”
  • “How are you doing with this task?”
  • “Is there anything I can help you with?”

6. Lack of consideration of time zones

When virtual teams are working across various time zones, managers need to show consideration for all teams when planning meetings and coordinating work times. Deadlines and scheduling have to take into account the working hours of remote workers and should be planned to suit everyone as much as possible.

Failure to take into account time zones can cause resentment and dissatisfaction amongst certain teams who usually have to adhere to the time and convenience of another team.

Managers must therefore establish protocols to ensure fairness in working hours for all global team members.

7. Inability to manage virtual conflicts

Identifying and managing conflicts is never easy in a virtual environment. Without the ability to resolve conflicts, managers are likely to see demotivated teams and good talent leaving the organisation.

To manage virtual conflicts, a manager has to ‘listen’ out for communication which conveys the tone in which individuals speak or write to other members in team. Short curt phrases or lack of participation in meetings can be a sign that a person is not happy with a situation or another team member.

It is important to nip any conflict in the bud at the earliest.

  1. Set-up a meeting with the conflicting parties
  2. Hear them out to understand where they are coming from
  3. Set up a plan on how the conflict can best be resolved

Once everyone is on board, it is crucial for managers to regularly check for progress by holding regular meetings with the concerned parties. Managers must make sure they stay on top of the issue and continue to be in regular touch with the concerned parties until the issue is resolved.

Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments

Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones

8. Lack of training in communication tools

Managers must acknowledge that not everyone is versed in technology in the same way. The failure to adequately train teams in using virtual communication tools will result in some team members feeling left out and lost.

Training courses that teach how to implement virtual tools is crucial for all employees. Using the right technology tools is key to efficient virtual team working.

With so many available on the market, it is important that everyone in the organisation feels confident and happy to utilise them.

9. Micromanaging Teams

With no set office hours, a majority of employees are now juggling work from home with daily household duties, childcare and family. To ensure that projects are delivered on schedule, managers are sometimes tempted to ask for constant follow-ups and micromanage minute tasks, creating unnecessary team pressure and stress.

Providing structure to teams prior to starting any projects can ensure that they are clear on tasks, follow-ups and deadlines. Trust is key in giving team members the freedom to work at their convenience, as long as tasks are done within these organized structures.

10. Overlooking professional development and coaching for teams

As virtual teams become the norm, managers must set their sights on developing the careers of their teams remotely. Workers need to feel valued and know that managers are invested in their growth. Hence it is important to fuel this growth by providing virtual training to individuals and encouraging them to learn a plethora of available online skills.

Unless companies invest in their career growth, employees will become disengaged and more likely to leave the organisation for better growth and opportunities elsewhere.

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