As a company institutionalizes virtual teams, it opens the door to new possibilities, including operational efficiencies that translate to dollars saved, and knowledge transfer that converts to competitive advantage. But benefits can be accompanied by new challenges that introduce new costs. In the case of virtual teams, these challenges include the lack of managers adept at facilitating team processes when face-to-face contact is absent, and managers who lack the ability to convey objectives and strategic plans to team members with differing cultural backgrounds.

Team Management

For a virtual team to be successful, each team member must share a consistent vision of the team’s purpose and objectives. For this to occur, virtual team managers must be facilitators, able to guide the work of team members who might reside in a different location. These managers must also provide clear direction and remove ambiguity from team processes. Without leaders with these skills, team members may adopt competing objectives and opposing personal goals, which leads to poor team relationships and project delays.

Team Goals

The success of virtual teams is dependent on measurable objectives and well-defined roles and responsibilities. Without these success factors, team-building and team communication will be lacking. In turn, project breakdown results as team members fail to agree on goals, the project schedule or individual areas of responsibility.

Team Guidelines

To be effective, a team needs well-defined communication guidelines. These guidelines include acceptable response times to co-worker requests and task priorities.  If a virtual team fails in this regard, it’s likely the team won’t collaborate as needed to accomplish its goals. Instead, team members may simply “do something,” rather than work with others in the achievement of common goals.

Conflict Management

Virtual team managers lose the benefit of nonverbal communication cues due to the nature of virtual teams. Sitting behind a desk, a manager’s persuasive edge is diminished and the benefit of interpersonal skills is minimized. Consequently, it’s more difficult for the manager to accomplish typical managerial tasks, such as identifying and resolving conflict.

Technology

Virtual team members use technology to communicate with one another. But the team’s technologies may not be a good match to its assigned tasks. In addition, both a team and its manager may lack the training necessary to fully benefit from the use of the available technologies.

Communication

Effective communication fosters collaboration among team members, contributes to conflict management, supports standards and goals, and facilitates decision-making. Lacking good communication, it’s difficult for a team to get their job done.

Decision-making

To be successful, team members must be effective problem solvers and decision makers. But the effectiveness of  problem-solving and decision-making processes can be diminished by constraints imposed by that the team’s communications technology and locations. For example, differing time zones can lead to delayed responses to requests and inquiries, which can make reaching a consensus difficult.

The number of employees assigned to virtual teams increases as a company’s footprint expands across the globe. But problems arise when a manager is in one time zone and separated from the members of his team by hundreds or thousands of miles. These challenges include less effective communication and its effect on decision-making and problem-solving.

Photo courtesy of NEC Corporation of America on Flickr