Virtual Team Challenges
There are challenges, however, inherent in the virtual team concept. It is difficult to build trust and to manage conflict when team members lack the ability to interact face-to-face. Communication is often more challenging, particularly among global virtual teams, which can also make it more difficult to overcome cultural barriers (Ebrahim et al, 2009).
A recent report by RW3, LLC, a cultural training service, found that 46 percent of employees who work on virtual teams said they had never met their virtual team cohorts and 30 percent said they only met them once a year. The report, The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams, was based on a survey of nearly 30,000 employees from multinational companies. The survey also found that:
- The top challenge for virtual team members was the inability to read nonverbal cues (94%).
- Most virtual team members (90%) said they don't have enough time during virtual meetings to build relationships.
- There is an absence of collegiality among virtual team members (85%).
- It is difficult to establish rapport and trust in virtual teams (81%).
- Managing conflict is more challenging on virtual teams than on conventional teams (73%).
- Decision making is more difficult on virtual teams than on conventional teams (69%).
- It is more challenging to express opinions on virtual teams than on conventional teams (64%) (Hastings, 2010).
In addition to these interpersonal challenges, survey respondents noted that different time zones are a stumbling block for virtual teams (81%). Other hurdles included language (64%), holidays, local laws and customs (59%) and technology (43%).
Practical Tips to Improve Virtual Team Relationships
Diversity training service group RW3, LLC offers the following practices organizations can use to improve the relationships among virtual team members:
- Hold monthly virtual lunches to build rapport.
- Use online chats, video-conferencing and audio-conferencing in addition to one-on-one conversations and e-mail.
- Post profiles of team members on an online directory. The profiles can include each member's areas of expertise and how they fit into the overall organization.
- Be sensitive to the amount of participation virtual team members will engage in if meetings are held early in the morning or late at night in their time zones.
- Ban multi-tasking during calls and meetings (Hastings, 2010).
Karen Cvitkovich, managing director of global talent development at Asperian Global, offered the following tips during a 2008 SHRM Diversity Conference to help with the challenges of cultural diversity faced by many global virtual teams. Her first word of advice for virtual meetings: set ground rules for team interactions. Some practical ideas to help set those ground rules include:
- Speak slowly.
- Don't interrupt.
- Listen to understand.
- Speak as though remote participants are in the room.
- Don't use a computer or text message during meetings.
- Set agendas for meetings and distribute them beforehand.
- Leave time for relationship building.
Much of these challenges are exacerbated when working with global virtual teams. According to Karen Cvitkovich, managing director of global talent development at Asperian Global, cultural issues often inhibit team communications. She notes that people in North America tend to be "low context" communicators, and rely on words and signals to interpret what a person means. Most of the world's populations, however, are "high context" communicators, meaning that they rely on nonverbal cues and focus more on the relationship, the setting, and previous interactions to interpret what someone means (Hastings, 2008).
As noted in the survey results, selecting and using the appropriate technology for the task—and ensuring that all members on a virtual team have access to the same technology—can also be a stumbling block. E-mail and the telephone may be widely available and appropriate for relaying fact-based information, but they lack the ability to convey the nonverbal cues so vital to building trust and teamwork. As a result, selecting the wrong technology may result in misunderstanding among team members and ultimately harm interpersonal communication, trust and productivity (Lockwood, 2010).
These challenges to virtual teams are not insurmountable. HR and talent management professionals' active involvement in the proper selection and training of virtual team talent, the selection of the appropriate technologies (and the training for use in those technologies) and the encouragement of executive support for virtual teams can turn these challenges into opportunities.