Virtual Team Management: Skills and Practices

The development of information technology has prompted significant changes in the way people live in work. In particular, the Internet provided opportunities for people to communicate and collaborate across borders, thus forming the basis of virtual teams. The use of virtual teams offers many benefits to businesses since it allows using talents from other countries. Still, managing virtual teams is recognised to be a challenge for leaders. The present paper will seek to explore possible problems in virtual team management and explain what skills and practices are essential for virtual team managers.

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Challenges in Managing Virtual Teams

The context in which virtual teams operate creates the foundation for numerous problems that e-leaders might face in their work. First of all, virtual teams lack face-to-face communication, which establishes a certain distance between team members. In regular workplaces, team members interact with one another regularly, which leads them to develop interpersonal relationships and trust (Levi, 2017). However, in virtual teams, interactions are usually limited to pressing work matters, which affects how team members see themselves and others within the team (Levi, 2017). This can have a significant effect on group dynamics in virtual teams.

Secondly, by definition, virtual teams create opportunities for people from different countries and event continents to work together as a team. While this benefits the level of team innovation and creativity, the international nature of most virtual teams can contribute to challenges. On the one hand, there are practical problems associated with people working from different time zones and having different native languages. On the other hand, the cultural and linguistic diversity of people within the team impacts interactions within the group, as well as workers’ attitudes and perceptions (Krawczyk-Bryłka, 2016). The problems arising from these factors also have to be taken into account by virtual team managers as they have the potential to impact performance and work outcomes.

Based on the analysis of the context in which virtual teams operate, it is possible to identify the core problems that leaders face while managing virtual teams. One of the most critical issues in virtual teams is ineffective communication, which impairs project performance and creates issues related to task completion. According to Lockwood (2015), communication breakdown is a common occurrence in virtual teams and requires special attention from managers. The causes of communication breakdown in virtual teamwork are highly complex, with both cultural and practical issues coming into play (Lockwood, 2015). For instance, miscommunication may result from technical problems or from the language barriers existing between team leaders and other members. Clarity and structure in communication are particularly important for virtual teams due to the absence of face-to-face contact (Lockwood, 2015). Hence, the challenge of establishing proper communication is of pivotal importance to leaders of virtual teams.

Another challenge that results from communication issues but is also influenced by other factors is conflicts between team members. As explained by Levi (2017), the lack of opportunities to develop interpersonal connections along with the increased risk of misunderstanding in communication creates opportunities for conflicts. Conflicts are also more prevalent in teams that are culturally diverse, which often applies to virtual workplaces (Krawczyk-Bryłka, 2016). This challenge has an essential effect on team performance since team members who are in conflict cannot work together effectively. Conflicts also contribute to existing disruptions in communication, causing problems to snowball and leading to more negative consequences. Moreover, as explained by Davis and Scaffidi-Clarke (2016), conflicts in virtual teams are more difficult for leaders to manage due to virtual communication structure, cross-cultural communication needs and even technical problems. Virtual team members have to develop a solid understanding of the conditions in which conflicts occur in virtual workplaces and apply evidence-based management tools to prevent and resolve disputes.

The third important challenge that often arises in virtual workplaces is that of employee engagement and commitment. In regular workplaces, people are physically present in the office, and thus they feel part of the company in which they work. They interact with colleagues and managers, develop interpersonal relationships and see the work of other team members (Levi, 2017). In virtual teams, physical distance and limited communication impair employees’ affective and motivational processes that promote team cohesion, commitment and engagement (Dulebohn and Hoch, 2017). This is particularly true in teams that are not required to work full-time, as people working in them are likely to take on multiple projects from different companies. Without employee commitment and engagement, team members will lack the motivation to collaborate and achieve shared goals. Hence, this presents a significant problem for managers of virtual teams and threatens teamwork outcomes.

Finally, the virtual context of teamwork is a challenge in itself since it creates physical obstacles for managers to track progress and monitor individuals’ performance. In regular workplaces, managers can see what employees are doing and respond to any problems and struggles immediately. In virtual workplaces, the capacity for employee supervision is limited by the extended physical distance. This has a significant influence on the manager’s power over task completion and requires developing trust between team members as well as between managers and teams (Levi, 2017). This challenge has to be taken into account to implement adequate performance monitoring measures that would help to ensure that projects run smoothly. The lack of formal processes is a related problem that is evident in many virtual workplaces. This issue usually stems from the limited oversight in virtual workplaces, as well as from the technical capabilities of virtual workplaces (Derven, 2016). Without individual control, workers may ignore specific rules and policies or fail to keep up with changes in procedures and regulations. This, in turn, could create problems for internal structure and task completion.

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Skills for Effective Virtual Team Management

Given the fundamental problems and challenges highlighted above, the training program for virtual team managers should provide them with a variety of skills. The first skill that training should seek to promote is communication since managers’ communication skills have a significant effect on team communication (Levi, 2017). If managers can recognise effective communication patterns and apply them in virtual workplaces, they will assist in preventing miscommunication and communication breakdowns within their teams. As part of developing skills in communication, it would also be helpful to improve managers’ knowledge of different virtual communication channels and their impact on the quality and speed of communication. This would help managers to make decisions regarding the implementation of effective communication channels.

The next skill that should be developed as part of the training is motivation. As shown above, virtual workplaces may suffer from poor engagement and commitment, which are both connected to employee motivation (Dulebohn and Hoch, 2017). While improved communication will influence engagement and trust through interpersonal relationships, virtual teams may still suffer from distractions and other factors causing poor performance outcomes (Derven, 2016; Levi, 2017). Hence, learning to motivate remote workers through appropriate techniques is essential to the success of virtual teams.

Moreover, leadership skills are particularly essential to managers of virtual teams due to the context in which they operate. Levi (2016) explains that leaders of virtual teams may struggle to achieve the same level of influence and authority as they have in physical workplaces. This is because the lack of face-to-face communication and oversight influence team members’ perceptions about team structure and cause role confusion (Liao, 2016; Lockwood, 2015). In these circumstances, leaders have to achieve the desired level of authority without in-person communication while also remaining an integral part of their team. To fulfil this goal, excellent leadership skills are required since they would help leaders to create an appropriate image, recognise problems early on and manage the team effectively despite the distance.

Another skill that would be highly relevant in virtual team management is cultural competence. As explained in the previous sections, virtual workplaces provide excellent opportunities for enhancing the cultural diversity of work teams (Krawczyk-Bryłka, 2016; Levi, 2017). While diversity offers many benefits to teams and organisations, it can also hinder communication and cause conflicts. Since these problems usually stem from cultural barriers affecting intragroup dynamics and the lack of cultural awareness, developing cultural competence would assist leaders in managing diverse virtual teams (Krawczyk-Bryłka, 2016). Training leaders in this skill would require improving their understanding of cultural dimensions that affect people’s preferences, beliefs and behaviours. Leaders should also increase their cross-cultural communication skills that would help them to connect with diverse employees and find ways of improving team cohesion.

Additionally, skills in research and analysis would be useful for managers working with virtual teams. According to a study by Krumm et al. (2016), skills in analysis and interpretation are more valuable for virtual team players than for regular office employees. Based on the theoretical framework utilised in the study, these skills support workers’ ability to find evidence-based solutions to problems and identify problems within their work that could lead to poor performance outcomes. For leaders, analytic skills are also essential because they need to be able to recognise issues in team functioning and analyse them with limited data about team members. Research skills, in turn, could help virtual team managers in decision-making and problem-solving. These skills involve capabilities in information search, appraisal of evidence and application of research in practice. Since virtual team management is a popular field in business management research, there is plenty of information online that leaders could use to address issues in their teams. Leaning research skills as part of their problem would support successful evidence-based management in this field.

Practices for Virtual Team Management

Aside from the skills identified above, it is also necessary to help virtual team managers in developing practices that would contribute to their teams’ performance. Firstly, leaders should receive training in collaborative working practices, including collaborative decision-making and conflict resolution. Morley, Cormican and Folan (2015) argue that collaborative working practices are crucial to the functioning of virtual teams since they allow members to connect with one another and provide a sense of engagement. These practices may also help managers to avoid communication issues and conflicts within the team, thus leveraging team performance (Morley, Cormican and Folan, 2015). Hence, these practices would be useful in all virtual team contexts and should be addressed in the training program.

Secondly, formal process design and implementation should be among the core practices included in the training program. As explained by Derven (2016), the lack of formal processes is one of the core reasons as to why virtual teams become inefficient. While it is already challenging to control workers’ activities without their physical presence, the absence of well-defined, clear procedures impairs task completion and progression further. Thus, managers should be able to appraise the design and needs of their virtual workplace and then develop and implement formal processes to support virtual operations. Training in this area will ensure that managers are correct in their designs and decisions and that they have the knowledge and practice necessary to support the successful introduction of formal virtual processes.

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Lastly, one of the main challenges identified in the analysis of literature was performance monitoring and management in virtual settings. Indeed, in a virtual environment, leaders may find it challenging to track and stimulate workers’ performance in the same way as they would in a physical workplace. Still, there are ways of adapting performance management and monitoring systems to virtual settings, although it requires excellent contextual knowledge and understanding of work processes. Training in this field would support managers in designing and implementing performance management practices in virtual teams. The training should focus on developing managers’ knowledge of performance management systems that can be adapted to virtual contexts and ways of tailoring them to teams’ and organisations’ needs. In this way, training will support good practice in virtual team performance monitoring and management.

Conclusion

Virtual workplaces provide excellent opportunities for employers and workers alike. However, these opportunities come at the cost of significant challenges and issues that might affect the performance of teams and individuals. The context in which virtual teams operate is associated with the increased risk of miscommunication, conflicts, disengagement and other issues. Hence, managers working with virtual teams need to develop a set of skills and practices to support their work. The suggested skills include communication, cultural competence, motivation, analysis and research. Additionally, managers would benefit from training in collaborative working practices, formal process design and implementation and performance management.

Reference List

Davis, D. C. and Scaffidi-Clarke, N. M. (2016) ‘Leading virtual teams: conflict and communication challenges for leaders’, in Normore, A. H., Long, L. W. and Javidi, M. (eds.), Handbook of research on effective communication, leadership, and conflict resolution. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, pp. 196-209.

Derven, M. (2016) ‘Four drivers to enhance global virtual teams’, Industrial and Commercial Training, 48(1), pp. 1-8.

Dulebohn, J. H. and Hoch, J. E. (2017) ‘Virtual teams in organizations’, Human Resource Management Review, 27(4), pp. 569-574.

Krawczyk-Bryłka, B. (2016) ‘Intercultural challenges in virtual teams’, Journal of Intercultural Management, 8(3), pp. 69-85.

Krumm, S. et al. (2016) ‘What does it take to be a virtual team player? The knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics required in virtual teams’, Human Performance, 29(2), pp. 123-142.

Levi, D. (2017) Group dynamics for teams. 5th edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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Liao, C. (2017) ‘Leadership in virtual teams: A multilevel perspective’, Human Resource Management Review, 27(4), pp. 648-659.

Lockwood, J. (2015) ‘Virtual team management: what is causing communication breakdown?’ Language and Intercultural Communication, 15(1), pp. 125-140.

Morley, S., Cormican, K. and Folan, P. (2015) ‘An analysis of virtual team characteristics: a model for virtual project managers’, Journal of Technology Management & Innovation, 10(1), pp. 188-203.

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