With so many companies announcing post-pandemic return-to-office mandates, you’d think the digital workplace was nothing more than a failed experiment. In fact, research indicates the opposite is true.
More than a third of remote workers say they feel more productive when working fully remote, and 57% say they’d look for a new job if their current employer didn’t allow it.
So why all the pushback? Many organizations are more concerned with the long-term challenges, such as a lack of visibility and communication difficulties, that accompany virtual offices.
The good news is that most concerns can be overcome with surprisingly simple strategies. Let’s explore the concept of virtual teams, along with the challenges they introduce and proven methods you can use to overcome them.
What is a virtual team?
A virtual team is a group of employees who communicate and collaborate by using technology such as video calls, instant messaging and project management software. Unlike remote teams, which are often geographically dispersed and consist solely of people who work from home, virtual teams can include both in-office and off-site employees.
The virtual team model is often used in hybrid work settings to help level the playing field. Because they provide consistent communication channels for all team members, virtual offices help ensure employees who live far from a physical office aren’t excluded from the spontaneity of face-to-face interactions.
The rise of virtual teams in the modern workplace
The rise of virtual teams in the modern workplace is driven by several factors.
First, there’s the technology. Recent advancements have made it easier than ever to connect people across time zones and locations. It’s why so many organizations have 200 or more SaaS apps — and why 85% of employees say digital collaboration tools are now critical.
In addition, many companies learned during the COVID-19 pandemic just how important it is to build resilient, adaptable teams that can thrive in a virtual environment. As a result, many employees have settled into a rhythm of remote or hybrid work that’s fueled by virtual workspaces. The Pew Research Center found that 35% of virtual employees who can work remotely do so all the time, and 41% work from the office some days and from home others.
Most importantly, virtual teams offer numerous benefits to companies, from lower overhead and greater diversity to increased job satisfaction and a healthy work-life balance.
Still, challenges remain.
As virtual teams continue to gain prominence in the modern workplace, managers must redefine what it means to foster a culture of collaboration and trust.
7 common challenges of managing virtual teams (and how to solve them)
While virtual teams offer many benefits, they also present unique challenges that must be addressed to ensure success.
1. The absence of camaraderie
One of the primary challenges of virtual teams is overcoming communication barriers — a troubling 53% of remote workers say it’s hard to feel connected and build camaraderie with colleagues.
Without the in-person conversations that tend to happen organically in traditional office settings, team members may misinterpret messages and struggle to convey their ideas effectively.
The solution: Prioritize virtual communication
Studies have long shown that, when given plenty of opportunities to bond with colleagues, employees experience as much as a 50% increase in job satisfaction. One study even found that happiness in the workplace can lead to a 12% spike in productivity.
The easiest way to achieve this? Online communication tools. Platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom are for more than just team meetings and project collaborations. These tools can also provide an opportunity to build bonds.
Regardless of which communication tools you use, the key is to make them the default for everyone — including any virtual team members who may be in the office. That way, employees can work with confidence they’re fully connected to colleagues.
2. Disparity in communication styles
It’s not just which communication tools you use that matters, but also how you use them. With virtual teams, it’s critical to understand the different ways people communicate so you can adapt policies accordingly.
Some people work best with chat, some prefer email and still others like to schedule audio or video calls. These distinct preferences are almost always bound to result in poor communication at one time or another.
The solution: Set communication standards and policies
No two virtual teams will be identical, which means the best approach is to assess the needs of your workforce and build communication-related policies around that. Do you have team members who need designated hours for deep work? Set a no-meetings policy for one or two days a week to help protect that time. Do others thrive with collaborative brainstorming and conversations? Set specific times when those can take place as well.
The key is to understand what makes your virtual team most productive first, before making decisions for the entire group.
3. A lack of team culture
It’s one thing to strengthen culture when there are water coolers down the hall and watering holes around the corner. But split your virtual employees over several countries and time zones, and maintaining a sense of shared values can be a real challenge.
The solution: Laying the foundation in a virtual environment
Building a strong team culture in a virtual environment requires intentional effort. Organizations should encourage team members to engage in virtual team building activities, such as virtual coffee breaks or lunch and learn events. In addition, regular virtual meetings with an emphasis on team cohesion and open communication can foster a sense of belonging and trust.
4. A lack of trust
While virtual teamwork is not new, some managers are still struggling to adapt. According to a recent Microsoft survey, 85% of managers said they don’t trust remote employees to be productive. Apparently, the problem is so severe that one organization developed a productivity paranoia score to rank distrust between employers and employees across states.
This lack of trust can further fuel all kinds of miscommunication, misunderstandings and micromanaging. Left unchecked, it can breed distrust within team members. For instance, delayed responses from a colleague can seed doubt, potentially leading to feelings of imbalance in workload distribution.
The solution: Regular workload review and capacity planning
To prevent distrust, it’s essential to maintain full visibility — not so employers can spy on employees, but to ensure workloads are evenly and fairly distributed at all times.
This could be as simple as using task management tools to display individual contributions, or productivity management software that can be utilized by managers and employers to promote transparency. Regardless of the specific method you chose, make sure you’re promoting insight — not oversight.
5. Decreased cohesion
Fostering a cohesive team culture can be particularly challenging in a virtual environment. While it’s easy to see what colleagues are working on in a traditional office setting, virtual team members often tackle tasks in relative solitude. Without regular in-person interactions, it can be difficult for team members to establish the level of rapport necessary for effective collaboration.
This can create a downward spiral for team members who haven’t yet mastered the virtual camaraderie and communication described above — especially if they work from home. They may feel a need to prove they’re working just as hard, if not harder, than their on-site colleagues. This can quickly lead to overworking, burnout and disengagement.
The solution: Use workforce analytics software to guide decisions
If your team is starting to feel disjointed, employee data is the best way to uncover what’s happening behind the scenes. Workforce planning metrics can unlock all kinds of insights you might not be able to identify on your own, such as when someone’s at risk of burning out or who’s exhibiting signs of disengagement.
The sooner you proactively measure and monitor these metrics, the better positioned you’ll be to unify your virtual team and help set them up for success.
6. Increased risk of burnout
In one recent survey, 22% of virtual employees said unplugging from work is their greatest challenge. Without a physical commute to help dictate work hours, virtual team members are often tempted to continue tackling tasks and emails long after the official workday has ended.
It’s no secret that these habits can quickly lead to burnout — the data has long shown that the more people work, the less productive they become. For example, one study found that productivity decreases by up to 19% with each additional hour. However, since you can’t physically see when someone’s been chained to a desk for 60 hours, virtual team managers might not recognize when an employee is at risk of burnout.
The solution: Monitor for signs of burnout
The best way to prevent burnout is to recognize when it’s coming — and take action before overwork and overwhelm lead to the much bigger problem of voluntary turnover. That might mean redistributing workloads from one team member to another, or building a case for a new hire. Either way, detecting the earliest signs of burnout is especially important for virtual teams.
7. Increased security risks
As the use of tools to support virtual teams increase, so do security risks. In one recent survey, IT and security professionals ranked SaaS apps as the #1 most targeted area for cyberattacks. But virtual teams depend heavily on this technology to thrive, which means you can’t simply cancel licenses.
The solution: Improve your application visibility
By regularly auditing app usage within your team, you can stay ahead of potential vulnerabilities. SaaS app visibility is also an important step in preventing risky shadow applications, which virtual employees sometimes use without IT consent or knowledge.
Solve your virtual team challenges with ActivTrak
In a win-win virtual work environment, employers reap the advantages of increased performance and productivity, while employees benefit from flexibility. But to create this climate, regular checks and balances are critical.
ActivTrak paints a complete picture of virtual teams to uncover when and where employees are most productive, how they spend their time and which tools are most helpful.
Set up a demo today to see how ActivTrak can help you overcome common challenges of managing virtual teams.