Working Virtually Around the Globe: Managing and Working in a Virtual Team

According to Globalization 101, “globalization is a process of interaction and integration among the people, companies, and governments of different nations, a process driven by international trade and investment and aided by information technology.” Even though globalization is not a new process in history, due to advancements in technology and the economic needs of open international markets, it has been redefined as a modern phenomenon that affects the business world in particular, and a movement that increases productivity and opportunities. While the current wave of globalization has been driven by open economy policies, advances in technology have been deemed as another major factor influencing globalization.

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International business partners communicate each other’s ideas through travel and trade, transporting goods and providing services around the globe in days or even in seconds. As participants in the global economy, employees nowadays may need to travel frequently and/or work remotely. From a company’s perspective, globalization thus requires it to adopt new management strategies tackling such issues. In this article, we offer helpful tips for managing a global team.

What does working virtually mean?

According to “Managing Virtual Teams: A Review of Current Empirical Research” by Guido Hertel, a psychology professor at the University of Wuerzburg, virtual teams are composed of members who “are geographically dispersed and coordinate their work predominantly with electronic information and communication technologies (e-mail, video-conferencing, etc.).” Even though the team members rarely see each other in person and work in different locations, like a local team, they are given the same organizational order and direction to make decisions and implement actions. It’s a challenge to conduct almost all interactions and decision-making processes by relying on technology.

Benefits & challenges

There are many benefits and challenges to managing and working in virtual teams. The potential advantages of working virtually include higher flexibility and greater autonomy given to each team member. From the company’s perspective, this offers “strategic advantages” that “teams can be staffed based on members’ expertise instead of their local availability” and work for a longer time from different time zones. As a result, virtual teams increase “speed and flexibility in response to market demands,” establish “a closer connection to customers,” and save a great amount of office spaces. Yet, in order to achieve the same goals as local teams, virtual teams require a management strategy that guarantees effective communication and team workflow with a shared understanding of what might go wrong.

For each team member, challenges—arising from decreased interpersonal contact—might include misunderstandings and conflict escalation. Also, there are increased chances of role ambiguity and procrastination. The physical disconnection between team members can lower a member’s motivation since people tend to build trust easier, obtain higher self-efficacy, and become more driven to implement common goals when they feel physically connected to each other.

Meanwhile, managers working with virtual teams may find it difficult to supervise team members’ tasks and to ensure productive outcomes in time, “along with additional costs for appropriate technology, issues of data security, and additional training programs.” As traditional conversations are based on face-to-face exchange of information, virtual communication lacks the emotional exchange and real-time responses between team members, thus reducing team cohesion. Conflicts could easily arise due to misunderstandings, and an appropriate reaction from the manager to solve such conflicts might be delayed; or, the manager might not even be aware of a conflict, so it remains unresolved.

Given these benefits and constraints, what can companies do to establish better virtual teams?

Improving the efficiency of virtual teams

Leadership/management solutions

While employees enjoy more autonomy by working virtually, there is a need for supervisors to adopt new management strategies for building a motivated and efficient team for the future success of the company. “When managing a distributed team, the biggest challenge for me is to find the right balance between structure and laissez-faire for each team member,” says Felicia Schneiderhan, the Co-founder of a global startup, 30SecondsToFly. Virtual teams, lacking a sense of connectedness, require more of the leaders to set standardized work processes; make the company culture visible; and make resources accessible and clear to everyone on the team.

From her own experience managing virtual teams, Schneiderhan says, “When working remotely, it takes more time to get a feeling for the individual and what their specific needs are. Therefore, I try to articulate expectations very clearly and encourage my remote team to do the same.”

It is important not only to assign tasks and track progress, but also allow and encourage the exchange of emotions, establishment of trust, and participation of all to avert the reduced responses/reactions through electronic media and online platforms. As a result, the team is building towards a coherence with a “shared understanding” and respect among all members––and eventually the growth of personal relationships and the sense of interconnectedness.

Establishing a workflow/decision-making process

Unlike local teams, it is hard for employees who work virtually to get on the same page. For every step of a project, there might be a longer processing time waiting for approval and feedback. It is reported that virtual teams usually need more time to establish reliable work processes compared to conventional teams. Thus, establishing a smooth and efficient workflow is a major and primary goal of every virtual team. This workflow, which should pursue active participation, timely responses, and effective outcomes, will speed up action implementation and decision-making processes.

According to Rob Rawson, in his article “21 Essential Strategies for Managing Virtual Teams,” unlike a business run in an office where people are able to meet in person and coordinate, “in a virtual team, each person can be in their own world” where they may have their own routine and process that does not go well with the rest of the team. He suggests, “It’s best to have a documented, standardized way of working that you’re constantly refining” to ensure productivity. Therefore, managers need to be very clear with their expectations, set due dates during task distribution, and set regular meetings, while the team members practice and stick to the routine. Every member should also understand the role of managers and who they should report problems to. One way to increase efficiency and make workflow processes more visible in virtual work is through technology, and it has become necessary for virtual teams to use some online tools for communication and project management.

Use of technology and tools for collaboration

Virtual team management and work collaboration can benefit from emerging technologies. Thus, it is important to choose the tools wisely after understanding how they may benefit the team from a variety of perspectives. Here, we share some popular apps and programs for virtual team collaboration and communication. While well-known programs such as Google Drive and Skype can meet most needs during work such as collaborating on a project, revising a piece of writing, and holding video conferences, other emerging apps can help with project and time management, work process visualization, and effective communications.

First of all, in order to tackle communication problems, every virtual team needs chat rooms available, be it for serious discussion or casual talks. Compensating for the lack of face-to-face communication, online chat rooms that generate casual conversations and interesting news are great for virtual team bonding.

Slack: for better team communication and sharing

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Priding themselves as being the tool for “Team communication for the 21st century,” Slack is a software on both desktops and mobile to ensure global teams can stay connected and communicate well in three ways: channels, private channels, and direct messages. Channels are used to organize conversations based on a topic, a project, a theme, or anything you would like to title this open chat room that everyone on the team has access to. As for sensitive discussions, private channels allow you to invite those colleagues who you want to be involved in the conversation. In case you would like to contact someone directly, direct messages are secure and convenient.

In addition, you can easily share links, documents, or any file directly through Slack and set it as private or open. Slack is free, but some businesses may want to upgrade for unlimited searchable archives, more storage, and so forth.

Trello: managing projects by creating lists of task cards

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In order to increase the productivity of virtual teams, tools like Trello provide boards for you to create lists and tasks, giving you a simple task-managing experience. By creating cards on one of the lists you named, you can write a detailed description, add members, labels, and checklists, set due dates, upload files, and generate feedback and discussion. Working in real time and wherever you are, Trello gives you instant notification of what is changed on the board and the cards you are a member of.

Trello is helpful for teams struggling with workflow processes or deadline setting. There is a free version of Trello, or teams can upgrade to Business Class or Enterprise for better integration with other apps and websites and more personalized assistance.

GanttPro: scheduling tasks and visualizing the work process

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Another tool for task management is GanttPRO, an online chart software to plan projects and visualize the process. While it enables you to assign tasks and manage projects wisely by creating an organized workspace for your team to collaborate, GanttPRO helps track project progress by marking the percentage of completion for each task and showing a visual of the planning with a graphic chart. This chart offers a “critical path” for both your team and the clients to see a chain of tasks that shows the whole project duration estimates. As a result, you will be able to see the shortest time to complete the project and pay attention to the major milestones in the process. While there is a free, Lite version of GanttPRO, the most popular version is the Team plan, currently at $29 per month.

 

Overall, virtual teams can be a great advantage to many companies, as long as appropriate management methods are applied and each individual understands the differences between working remotely and locally. With the wave of globalization, recruiting employees around the globe is becoming more commonplace; the task for us now is to face the challenges within the team and build an effective one.

  1. Great article Mengying, it is very helpful to manage the employees productivity. I would also like to suggest one more tool for Time Tracking and Project management that makes virtual team collaboration easier – http://www.hivedesk.com/

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