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10 Issues With Virtual Project Teams (And What You Can Do About Them)

virtual teamsI expect you work in a virtual team – and if you haven’t had that pleasure, I trust virtual teams will form part of your future. Here are 10 problems faced by virtual teams and some hints about what you can do to overcome these issues.

1. Misunderstanding Is Common

When you put different cultures together, you should expect some misunderstanding. In a virtual team when you all have the same work objectives, you might expect the level of misunderstanding to be reduced. After all, you have common goals and most likely a common vocab about what your team is doing.

Misunderstandings can happen because of:

  • Culture
  • Language
  • The generation gap
  • Deliberate intention
  • Carelessness

And lots of other reasons.

What to do about it: Ask for clarification. Clarify back to people. Never assume that what you said has been understood. And follow-up in writing, if you think that will help.

2. Communication Takes Ages

It takes longer to email someone than it does to chat on the phone or walk over to their desk. I’m always surprised at how much I can get done in a day at the office where most of my work is taken up with ‘chats’.

What to do about it: Minimise team calls and try to speak to people individually. Try not to rely on instant messaging when the phone would work just as well, if not better, because it also gives you a chance to build a relationship with that person.

3. Arranging Meetings Is A Nightmare

Who’s going to get up in the middle of the night for this conference call? Or shall we just not invite them?

I haven’t worked with people on the other side of the world in a virtual project team setting so the worst time zone problems I have to deal with are normally calls to the United States where a late afternoon for me works out OK. But where you have a ‘follow the sun’ type model and team members all over the place, juggling time zones to find a slot for your meeting becomes a real headache.

What to do about it: Use a scheduling tool like Calendly or make sure that everyone has access to the diary system so you can see their availability for meetings when you book them.

4. Meetings Take Longer…

Virtual meetings can feel like they take longer as everyone settles into the call/conference and catches up.

What to do about it: Keep meetings to 30 minutes or less. You can still get everything done in that time. Test out your technology in advance so that everyone is comfortable about how to use it and you aren’t struggling with people joining a call late or using the wrong dial in codes.

Conference call

5. …And People Focus Less In Them

When you’re meeting as a virtual team there is more opportunity for multitasking. After all, no one can see that you’re actually checking email, right? This is bad practice, but it’s common for people’s focus to wane on virtual meetings.

What to do about it: Stick to your agenda. Keep meetings engaging and ask a lot of questions. People are more likely to drift away from focusing on the meeting when they are simply listening and not participating. If you don’t need someone on the call, tell them that they don’t need to be there.

6. The Team Checks Out

When you all work together in the same office you can keep an eye on the work the team is doing. It’s easy to bump into someone at the coffee machine and ask them for the status of their latest project task. That’s not so easy to engineer if the person doing the task is 3000 miles away.

If the team members aren’t fully engaged or bought into the project, they might not be giving their work the focus that you need.

What to do about it: Set the vision and goals for the project and make sure that they understand what their role is. When people can see how their contribution matters, they are more inclined to help achieve those goals. Make sure that their manager is on side so that they have senior level support for completing their work.

7. People Complain About Information Overload

OK, even people who don’t work in virtual teams complain about information overload. Somehow though, on virtual teams it seems worse because of the software we use that constantly offers alerts and pings when something ‘interesting’ happens.

What to do about it: Explain to people how to turn the alerts off, or to unsubscribe from the less interesting ones. Make sure people have clear priorities about what they should be doing and the sources from which they can get their information. This is really about managing personal focus and time management, so support them through that. Oh, and don’t add to the problem by sending hundreds of messages yourself.

8. Work/Life Balance Gets Forgotten

Virtual teams definitely struggle with work/life balance, as some team members are just getting started on their day as others are closing their laptops for some quality time with Netflix.

It’s easy to forget that when you have an urgent query, and on the other end it’s easy to “just deal with this one thing” that suddenly ends up taking you an hour.

What to do about it: Set boundaries for your team and make it clear that you don’t expect them to work after hours (if that is indeed the case). Monitor how much this is happening and find out what you can do to compensate people for their additional time. Never expect someone to do evenings and weekends working on your project without prior agreement.

9. It’s Hard To Spot Conflict

Conflict is an habitual presence on any project team, and sometime that is a good thing. However, it can be harder to spot when the people involved aren’t visibly showing signs of arguing in public. Some of the subtle clues that there is a problem just aren’t there when you can’t see people interacting in person.

What to do about it: Be alert. Listen for clues. Ask people constantly if there are any issues that need to be resolved and spend 1:1 time with your team members so that they have the opportunity to raise issues to you.

10. It Doesn’t Feel Like A Team

Finally, working with virtual colleagues can feel less like you are part of a team. If you can’t catch a drink with them, or walk out to the tube station, or pop out for a coffee, or even just talk about what you saw on TV last night… all those things contribute to feeling part of a team and are hard to replicate in a virtual environment.

What to do about it: Engagement, engagement, engagement. There are lots of resources online for leading and engaging teams. Everything from quizzes, sharing photos and building in time during meetings to share personal stories. Look for team building tips that would work on the phone. And be conscious of it. Constantly look for ways to make people feel that their work matters and they matter. Your project team will thank you for it – even if they don’t say those words out loud!

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

3 comments

  1. This was a great read and can reasonate with those struggles as this happens in the Business Analyst side of things when alot of the team is based offshore. I have a website and would love if you could create a podcast for our site in this topic. It would make our year!

  2. Great article Elizabeth! I agree with your insights completely – I think it’s also fair to add that one of the crucial parts when working with a virtual team is the availability of people. If you don’t have a proper process regarding leave management or availability management you often don’t exchange this information with your teammates. In result you can’t plan the work accordingly and you focus on the work and deliverables. Also being located in the same office is beneficial. Often the first “ice-breaker” is that you need to approach someone to resolve an issue or get some information – not via Slack, Skype or any other IM.

  3. True facts Elizabeth.

    I truly believe communication is the key core by working with a remote team.

    Beside all of these the availability of resources is critical too.

    A concrete example is when you find out too late that is bank holiday in a country from where a part of your team members are and they will not be available to complete the tasks. This is a reason why tasks will be delivered late and will give your project over the head.

    It’s important as the time off of your remote team members (even if it’s bank holiday, vacation, sabbatical, sick and so on…) to be integrated with resourcing planner (allocations of your team members on projects) & time-tracking by using a project management tool.

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