Remote working: why virtual teams fail and how you can avoid it

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Recruiting and managing a virtual team requires a whole different approach to office-based staff and there’s plenty that can go wrong if leaders don’t take this into account.

Research shows that a worrying two out of every three experienced managers fail in their first attempt at running a virtual team.

This matters greatly now because the prevalence of the virtual team is set to rise. In fact, by 2020 half of the UK workforce will work remotely.

Failure nearly always occurs 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 what’s different, and that’s a huge mistake.

The four key issues

There are four key issues that managers need to consider to ensure they don’t fail when they first try to run a virtual team:

  • Lack of understanding
  • Poor communication
  • Using the wrong channels
  • Recruiting the wrong people

Below, I will run through these issues in more detail, followed by the solutions to each one.

Issue: lack of understanding

Virtual teams aren’t just separated by geography. Teammates are also separated by other factors including time zone, language, culture and religion.

It can even be simple factors such as they might be on a different floor in the same office, or work a different shift, or they may even have different missions within the same organisation. Ultimately, it’s a continuum – no two teams are the same.

Whether your team is partly or entirely virtual, you need to consider the specific situation of each team member and appreciate that not one size fits all.

Solution: accommodate diversity

Virtual teams are diverse teams. If you learn how to accommodate the differences you’ll be much better positioned to take advantage of the unique perspectives and fresh ideas that come from a team made up of lots of different team members.

It’s crucial to talk to your company’s HR team to familiarise yourself with applicable laws, policies, or standards in the countries your employees work in. Having a shared notebook, in a platform such as Evernote, allows all this information to be saved and shared with teammates for easy reference.

Most importantly, talk to your teammates and find out if their needs and those of your team align.

For example, if you have a teammate in another country, learn the business etiquette for working in that country. The Executive Planet Guide and Swissôtel Etiquette Map are great places to start.

Issue: poor communication

Misunderstandings are five times as likely to happen when we move away from face-to-face conversations and that’s because a lot of human communication is nonverbal.

When we talk face-to-face, we pick up meaning from visual cues like facial expression or body language, or paralinguistic cues like loudness or hesitation. Without nonverbal cues we lose context that can help us understand what a person means.

In a new virtual team, it’s important for everybody to meet in person as early as possible and agree how they will work together.

Emails are the most prone to error. We often put lots of information into long, detailed emails. Because both parts of the conversation aren’t happening at the same time, we may have no chance to clarify or correct ourselves. Also, we can’t even be sure an email was read, let alone understood.

Solution: be clear and get to the point

When you lead a remote team, remember that people have different means of expressing themselves and they may not always understand you. Slow down when you talk, and avoid jargon, obscure words or local/regional phrases.

In an email, get straight to the point and keep it short. You should never have to scroll in an email. If you have to scroll, it’s not clear enough. Also, after three e-mail interactions, switch the communication channel to phone, video conference or a face-to-face meeting.

When it comes to actions, every communication should be crystal-clear about the three W’s: WHO does WHAT and by WHEN. Ultimately, take extra care in your communications, especially if your teammates can’t see your face and body language, and ask questions when something isn’t clear to you.

Issue: using the wrong channels

Choosing the right communication channel is essential because each channel has its pros and cons. Unfortunately, virtual teams don’t always choose their communication channels wisely, which can harm trust.

There are two kinds of trust: interpersonal and task-based. Interpersonal trust is built through shared experiences and interests. The fastest way to develop that is through face-to-face interaction.

To be successful you need to agree as a team how you want to work together and set clear expectations that can be used to build trust.

In a new virtual team, it’s important for everybody to meet in person as early as possible and agree how they will work together.

Solution: choosing the right communication channels 

Task-based trust comes from cooperative behaviour, keeping commitments and deadlines, and delivering quality work, this is easier when teams choose the right ways to communicate.

Deciding as a team which communications should happen, via which channel, can greatly help to build co-operation, meet deadlines, and create the vital trust your organisation needs to succeed.

When I joined Evernote, the entire team collaborated on a team charter that set out rules and responsibilities for communication. Every team will have different needs based on their unique situation, but examples of what might go into a charter include:

  • A preference order for communication channels: call if possible, then chat, then email
  • For teams using shared notebooks standards that include note titles, and tags
  • No checking emails after 8pm
  • No blind CCs (bcc’s) in email conversation
  • Reply yes or no to all diary invites
  • No multitasking or side conversations in meetings
  • All action items must include the three W’s
  • Exceptions: what counts as an emergency and which rules can you suspend?

When your team has agreed the rules, get everyone to sign the charter, then print it and post it to each team member.

To be successful you need to agree as a team how you want to work together and set clear expectations that can be used to build trust.

Issue: recruiting the wrong people

Most organisations go through the same process for recruiting a virtual team member as they do when they recruit locally. They don’t check to see if the candidate will be a good virtual team member, and that’s why there’s often high staff turnover in virtual teams.

Each medium gives you a chance to assess different parts of a person’s skill set and test how suitable they are to work in a virtual team.

Virtual teams can only succeed when all members are working together. That means recruiting the right people – those who are good listeners, good communicators, and good collaborators.

It’s not just a case of finding someone with the hard skills and qualifications for the job role. Employees may be great in a face-to-face meeting but lack the skills to succeed in a virtual setting. Without the benefit of direct interaction and feedback, the ability to listen is crucial.

Solution: test how applicants work in virtual teams

When I’m interviewing for new virtual team members, I always include an interview stage where I ask some simple questions by phone, then ask the applicant to reply by email. All they have to do is repeat the questions and answer each one with two or three sentences. Simple, right?

Sadly, most people fail this test because they don’t listen carefully to the instructions. If they don’t listen, there’s no way they can succeed in a virtual team. In the interview process, make sure you’re talking to applicants in the same way you’ll talk to them on the job.

That means conducting interview stages in person, by phone, on video (e.g. via Skype), and via email. Each medium gives you a chance to assess different parts of a person’s skill set and test how suitable they are to work in a virtual team.

The virtual team is growing and if you want to make yours succeed make sure you invest time in introducing measures that ensure it has the best chance to survive and thrive.

Interested in this topic? Read Remote control: how to build culture across a team of remote workers.

About Beat Buhlmann

Beat Bulhmann

Beat is an internationally recognised voice, and published author, on topics including building virtual teams, digital transformation and online marketing. His management book, ́Need to manage a virtual team? Theory and practice in a nutshell’ was published in 2006.

Beat joined Evernote in July 2016 to lead Evernote in EMEA from its Zürich headquarters. His professional background lies in technology with tenures at Hewlett-Packard, Dell and, most recently, Google, where he managed sales and business development at Google Switzerland and, later, at Google UK in London.

Beat teaches classes at IMD, Harvard, the University of Zurich, the University of Luzern and the University of St Gallen, as well as holding an E-MBA (Zurich) and a Doctorate in Business Administration (Adelaide).

He is currently a board member for Rivella AG and Pax Life Insurance AG as well as an Advisory Board Member for Caminada. 

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