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Summary:

Poor management, communications breakdowns, badly integrated team members, ill-equipped staff, personality clashes — there are many reasons why a virtual team can fail. What can you do to ensure that your team succeeds? Here are five common failings of virtual teams, and ways to avoid them.

Poor management, communications breakdowns, unsuitable or badly integrated team members, ill-equipped staff, personality clashes — there are many reasons why a virtual team can fail. What can you do to ensure that your team succeeds? Here are five common failings of virtual teams, and ways to avoid them.

1. Square pegs in round holes. Let’s face it: Not everyone is cut out to be a virtual worker. Not everyone has the personality to work completely alone, apart from the team, nor has the ability to be focused and motivated to do work without the looming presence of a manager over one’s shoulder. Beyond personality types, not everyone has the ability to set up an environment away from the office that is conducive to work. It takes a special type of person and set of skills to navigate sketchy work environments (from distracting households to noisy coffee shops) and still be a consistent contributor to a virtual team.

What to do? Look for self-starters and team members who either have had virtual work experience and done well in that format or are flexible, focused and organized.

2. Lack of a clear process. A successful virtual team relies on a defined vision for desired outcomes and a careful breakdown of how it can accomplish those goals. In some ways, virtual work processes may need to be more rigid than those for co-located teams, with specific systems in place to cover time tracking, milestones, check-ins and knowledge sharing. But at the same time, the process must be flexible enough to accommodate the varied work styles of virtual workers. Ask yourself: Is it more important that work be done on a very specific schedule at a certain time of day or just that it is done on time? Because virtual teams can be dispersed across time zones, there can be distinct advantages to making use  of the asynchronous workflow rather than forcing someone overseas to be up in the wee hours of the morning just to be “at work” at the same time as the rest of the team.

What to do? Map out your workflow and communications processes and be specific about what is set in stone versus what is flexible. Make sure you have the systems in place to capture important data and that let you track workflow, deadlines and output.

3. Weak training techniques. If you’re running a team, you know the importance of “on-boarding” new team members. If you’re embarking on a virtual work process, getting everyone on the same page about how you want the team to work together and how to use the systems you’ve deployed is key. Without a clear explanation and properly conducted training, team output is guaranteed to be inconsistent at best. Because virtual team members don’t have the kind of contact one gets  in an office environment, making sure they have access to effective training materials and have the opportunity to ask questions as needed is important to the success of the team. One weak link can spoil the whole bunch.

What to do? After carefully thinking through your process, develop strong training materials and utilize one of the many tools that work well for knowledge sharing amongst virtual teams such as Mindflash, Knoodle and GoToMeeting. Make these materials available even after the training for reference. Keep lines of communication open for subsequent queries.

4. Failure to capture knowledge. In an office space, you can more readily ferret out the data you need, but in a virtual team environment, the bread crumb trail to data may be more convoluted or harder to track. And even in an office space, knowledge can be dispersed and kept in silos. Multiply that potential ten-fold in a virtual work space. The tools you use to capture information from the team can be helpful, but knowledge sharing starts with having the right attitude.

What to do? Emphasize the importance of knowledge sharing to team members and make sure you provide specific tools and steps to properly capture information from individuals. Everyone on your team must understand the critical nature of documenting and archiving in a shared space, and some helpful virtual work spaces include Glasscubes or Basecamp.

5. No glue to keep it all together. A good virtual team starts with a good leader. Whomever is managing the team needs to have a good grip on the dynamics of virtual work. Whether creating or communicating the vision, the team leader must be able to do so effectively, using tools such as Cohuman and Mavenlink to further a more cohesive team and work process. The team leader must be vigilant, organized and nimble, ready to address issues and fill in gaps to ensure consistent output with an emphasis on documentation and shared knowledge. Without a good leader acting as the glue to holding disparate parts together, communications meltdowns will be the norm, not the exception.

What to do? Find — or be — a smart virtual leader. Know when to be firm and when to be flexible, and be comfortable with being flexible. Keep both the big picture and the detail in mind and use the best technology and tools at your disposal to enhance your ability to do both.

Overall, a successful virtual team includes well-equipped, prepared team members who possess the right personalities and skill sets to understand the process, are on-boarded thoughtfully, and have tools to track work and share knowledge. And someone at the helm who can properly engineer and oil the machine.

Image courtesy stock.xchng user clix

  1. Love this article and especially the solutions to each of the 5 issues virtual teams face. Being specific about expectations and keeping the communication lines open is a life-saver with a remote team.

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    1. It really is all about clarity – clear communications, clear expectations, clear processes. Glad you liked the post!

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  2. Excellent Article! Perhaps the first line is the key – “Not everyone has the personality to work completely alone.” Many people simply don’t like to work alone (count me in that group!) One other thing that people don’t do enough is to use good video conferencing (like this article mentions). Having frequent video+webex meetings is a great way to boost employee productivity, and of course, good time tracking tools go a long way too.

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    1. Speaking of good video conferencing, you should check out iMeet. I really like their product.

      In terms of work personalities – I love working alone but miss the spontaneous “happening upon conversations” that happen in a work setting.

      Here’s another post I did about working together that you might find interesting – using Second Life to collaborate: http://gigaom.com/collaboration/working-together-how-my-virtual-team-collaborates/

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  3. This is excellent! I am not sure I would recommend Basecamp (personal frustrations with every use of it), but one thing that is essential is you must live in the shared space and service. If things are not in the service they didn’t happen. Having a service with activity stream to have work chats to share links, ask questions, and share the good and bad as well as capture interactions is insanely helpful.

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  4. Having been a virtual worker myself for 3 years, I can totally relate to the article. There are certainly some things my team did well, and others which it could have done better. Given that virtual team members work alone, special effort needs to be invested in keeping everything organized, planned and keeping everyone involved.

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  5. excellent article, and very true. Partiuclarly the part on holding teams together is key, along with effective with communication. Virtual meetings are great but when it is not an option there should be a plan b where you can still collaborate online.

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  6. Great article, thanks. Leadership is one of the most important factors in ensuring virtual team success. This site on virtual teams deals with a number of things a leader of virtual teams can do. Most is based on extensive practical experience and backed up by academic studies. Particularly interesting is how many face to face meetings you should have for every virtual meeting: http://virtualteamsblog.com/2011/the-golden-ratio-of-virtual-meetings-to-face-to-face/

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