October 22, 2021

Challenges and Solutions for Managing Project Teams Virtually

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Let’s begin by defining a Virtual team. A virtual team comprises members who work together to deliver a project, product, or service from different locations. One or more of the following reasons typically leads to the formation of a virtual team: 

  • Fast growth of businesses that have a presence in diverse geographies
  • Necessity of unique talent which is not available locally or available in a different location at an affordable price
  • Reducing commute time or save overhead costs of running an office in large cities
  • Covid-19 pandemic, which has imposed severe restrictions in social interactions

Jump to:

What are some of the common challenges faced by a virtual team?

Developing a bond among virtual team members requires more effort as they miss small workplace talks, café catch ups, and commuting together. Bonding among the team is necessary to foster mutual trust, effective collaboration, and solving problems. With virtual teams, the opportunity to learn based on conversations or through observations or indirect conversations — known as Osmotic learning — reduces significantly. 

Another difficulty is that the possibility of learning through paralanguage  diminishes considerably, resulting in miscommunications due to perceiving information without finer aspects like facial expressions, pitch and tone of voice, and body language. 

Because of the dispersed nature of many virtual teams, members may work in different locations and coordinating time zones may hinder effective collaboration. To add to this, diverse cultural backgrounds may come in the way of effective communication.

And while leaders generally trust their teams, some leaders of virtual teams may find it challenging to ensure team productivity.

Solutions for effectively managing virtual teams

A precursor to finding solutions is to understand that a virtual team, like any other team, must meet all the criteria of any good team, which is

  1. alignment to a shared vision,
  2. adherence to team’s ground rules, and
  3. holding space for collaboration.

Project managers can effectively manage virtual teams by implementing some or all of the solutions enumerated below:

Early team bonding

Facilitating team-building opportunities, preferable face to face, goes a long way in building relationships, especially if the team members are not familiar with each other. Team off-sites are another alternative to strengthen team bonding. If team bonding activities are virtual too, casual icebreaker games help team members get to know each other better. 

It is best to establish team norms at the time when one sets up a team. Encourage the team to mutually agree on ground rules that explicitly state the acceptable and unacceptable team behaviors. 

Also read: 6 Tips to Reduce Zoom Fatigue

Team size, structure, and calendars 

A research conducted by The Center for Creative Leadership concludes the optimal size of virtual teams as up to 9 members. Optimizing a virtual team’s size helps assign clear responsibilities and ownerships of tasks. It is also prudent to limit the number of projects a virtual team member is working on to contribute effectively, and structure the team by identifying the core and supporting team members early. Core members are the ones who are highly involved in the project to accomplish critical tasks while supporting team members are involved comparatively less. Once the team size, structure, and expected roles are decided, project teams can use generic resource calendars to determine common windows for scheduling meetings (and when not to schedule).

Establishing transparent work systems

This entails documenting the processes required to accomplish the work, assigning clear responsibilities, and a mechanism to review progress periodically. It is best practice to ensure the team agrees on responsibilities to keep the team members self-motivated. Periodic reviews using video conference calls, Kanban boards, or simple deliverable dashboards go a long way in creating an impact

Creating and following through a Communication Plan

As communication in virtual teams has gaps due to a lack of osmotic learning and leaves no opportunity to understand paralanguage, creating a clear communication plan and following it through becomes extremely important. The communication plan must include protocols as to who communicates to who, the format of communication (example – bulleted list, picture of a dashboard update, a summary report), modes of communication (example – email, phone call, videoconference), and common language for teams involving diverse cultural and departmental groups.

On fast-paced/agile projects with virtual teams or with geographically dispersed teams, planning overlapping work hours among team members who need to collaborate frequently is helpful. Team members can use shared communication hubs like Google Hangouts to post important updates. 

Day-long video conferencing links, often called Fishbowl windows, can be set up at the start of the day and live all day. The links allow spontaneous engagement amongst team members as the need arises and minimizes delays in communication.

Lastly, it is necessary to ensure that the team quickly adapts to the communication technologies and tools. Adequate training and troubleshooting support to team members to utilize the tools to their best is critical.

Also read: A Short Guide to Video Conferencing Etiquette

Assessing engagement and team productivity

In virtual teams, assessing who contributes becomes challenging to gauge. However, it is crucial to know how the team is developing, the skill gaps, hand holding for ongoing upskilling, and achieve the desired project outcomes. Project managers can assess team members’ productivity by allocating clear responsibilities and tracking status periodically. Reward and recognition go a long way in motivating virtual teams like any other team. Celebrating even the smallest of achievements and making them visible helps keep the team’s commitment and morale high.

Building a strong team from anywhere

The following will go a long way in building, motivating, and helping virtual teams deliver the best projects:

  • Facilitating a positive virtual work environment that breaks virtual walls, establishing team ground rules, transparent processes, responsibilities, a mechanism to review progress; 
  • Putting in place a robust communication plan backed with the proper communication technologies

Virtual teams are here to stay even post the pandemic; the sooner leaders can manage virtual teams effectively, the better will it benefit businesses.

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