With technology revolutionizing everything we do in our day-to-day lives, it’s no surprise that our jobs are becoming more and more virtual. The need to be physically present to accomplish a task has greatly decreased. Just think about how you used to shop, pay your bills or catch up with loved ones 20 years ago. Now think about how you accomplish all these things today. I’m sure you will find that a lot of those tasks have gone from physically going somewhere and speaking to someone to simply doing them online. The same can be said of global teams. There used to be a time when every manager wanted, nay, needed to have their staff present in order to function properly. Each team member would be met on a regular basis to be briefed or to answer questions. Help was just a few doors down. Attendance was monitored and managers felt in control. But like our phones, our banks and our emails, companies have changed and have expanded in the technological world. Mergers and acquisitions, outsourcing, new branches or services have all created the need to adapt to a wider, less physically present team. The benefits of this globalization are numerous, but, like anything new, there are challenges to overcome (just think about that first time you tried to understand your DVD player!). The hurdles you may end up facing when managing a virtual team will be different from company to company, from one industry to another but generally, the following will be met:

  • Building a relationship and trust
  • Creating a cohesive team and promoting collaboration
  • Being in “the know”
  • Overcoming cultural differences

With all these changes and leaps towards a greater virtual world, how do you overcome these hurdles? I doubt there is one answer for every organization, but there are few things you can do to better manage these challenges and, consequently, your virtual team.

Building a relationship and trust

This challenge will be faced by any team member but may be more difficult to overcome for managers. As human beings we are constantly responding to non-verbal cues. According to an article published on Yahoo Finance, “only a small percentage of communication involves actual words: 7%, to be exact. In fact, 55% of communication is visual (body language, eye contact) and 38% is vocal (pitch, speed, volume, tone of voice)”. So how can someone clearly understand you if they can’t see 55% of your message? There are a few things you can do to ensure a good communication, which in turn will foster trust and relationship-building.

  • Whenever possible use video conferencing and live chats. This will allow other team members to see you as you speak to them. If video chat is not available to you, make sure you find a way to at least connect verbally so that your tone and pitch can be heard. Avoid written communications as much as possible; emails are often misread or misunderstood and tend to cause unnecessary conflict.
  • Set aside some time each week to speak to every team member individually and as a group. Team members need to feel they are a part of something and without physically seeing their teammates, it can be easy for people to feel isolated or to become less cooperative. By meeting on a regularly basis, you can nurture their sense of belonging to a team.
  • Have an open “door” policy. Though your door is physically not present it’s important for everyone on your team to know that you are available and can be reached if they need help, just like you would if you met them for the first time in the office.

Creating a cohesive team and promoting collaboration

A large part of creating your work family (let’s face it.. we see them enough hours a week to qualify them as family) revolves around morning greetings by the coffee machine, chit chatting by the water cooler, sharing a break in the cafeteria or discussing last night’s game in the conference room. At least, it used to. But how do you build your team and find your fit within an organization if you’re all alone by your coffee maker?

  • Clearly set objectives and roles for each team member and revisit them often with each person. If everyone on the team knows what they, and the others, are meant to be doing the  team can become more cohesive and cooperate more easily. Less room for ambiguity means you will be spending less time managing conflict or confusion.
  • Set aside some time each week to speak to every team member individually and as a group. Just like building a relationship and trust, constant communication will also foster cohesiveness and collaboration. By sharing their week’s work with each other, the team will feel more united even if they are physically separated. They will be able to see how each of their tasks fit into one larger project or goal.

Being in the “know”

As employees, we all have supervisors. And at the end of the day, those supervisors want to know they’re getting their money’s worth. Conversely, we want to show our boss that we’re doing great work in order to achieve that bonus or qualify for that raise. As an article by Andrea Murad on Fox Business put it, “knowing how to make your boss look good […] will advance your career”. But how can you make your boss look good if no one is around to see what you’re doing? And how can your supervisor see all the efforts you put forth if he can’t see you pushing those papers past 5pm? This hurdle, in my opinion, is the hardest to overcome. Distance makes knowing much harder. That being said, the above tips (set clear rules and objects, keep an open communication and door), combined, will greatly help knowing what your team is doing and communicate what needs to get done. But you can increase your chances of success by adding additional tricks to your tool bag.

  • Build a team you trust. Difficult to achieve when trust is itself a hurdle, but if you can surround yourself with team members you trust to do efficient and quality work, you’ll have less of a hard time not knowing what they do every minute of every day.
  • Hire the “right fit”. Working from home or away from teammates can be hard and is not ideal for everyone. Make sure when you fill positions that you hire people that will thrive in a remote environment.
  • Make everyone accountable for their tasks. You will inevitably have to let go of some of that control an onsite manager has over the day-to-day activities. Make sure your team knows exactly what they need to do, when they need to get it done and what they are accountable for. Often, having to face the VP yourself and answering to mistakes can greatly increase your motivation to get it done and do it right.

Overcoming cultural differences

Global teams mean having colleagues or employees in different offices, cities, states/provinces or even countries. When everyone on your team is local, you tend to speak the same language. But how do you connect and bring together people from different cultural backgrounds? Who we are plays a big role in how we act, speak and understand. So how do you bridge the gaps in your team?

  • Learn about your team’s culture. Be the first to find out how business usually runs in India, the UK or China (to name a few examples). Understand the subtle cultural variances and differences. By doing so, you’ll be able to cater your nomenclature and verbiage to each individual.
  • Hire the right “fit”. Again, as mentioned above, a few things should be examined during the hiring process. A person’s ability to work remotely and with minimal supervision is one of them, but their cultural ability to integrate within your team should also be considered. If you have an all female team notorious for being a little rowdy and who push each other to better perform, don’t change their dynamic if it makes the team cohesive. However, question whether or not you would hire a man for whom culturally it would not be proper for him to speak up or set his boundaries.
  • Cater your speech to each individual. Once you’ve learned about someone else’s culture, make sure that when you deliver a message, you deliver it in a way that is culturally acceptable and understandable for them.
  • Respect and embrace the differences. Respect is a big part of creating a healthy work environment. Respect the cultural differences and make time and space to hear an individual’s viewpoint or preferences. In fact, try to use them to your advantage. For example, if a certain culture is more apt to working late, create work shifts to offer longer support hours to your customers.

Overall, the hurdles from managing a virtual team can be subtle, complex but not insurmountable. It simply requires changing the way we normally do things, just like we adapted to our iPhones, our CD players and our banking app. Embracing change means potentially growing and strengthening your business.