Do you work in a virtual team? I do. I sit in my home office and work with my team over Zoom, Skype, email and the phone. When I do go into the office, I often find my colleagues aren’t there on the same days I am – so we still end up using virtual communication methods to stay in touch.
The ability to work virtually has revolutionized the workplace, and made it possible for us to work with people all over the world. For me, that’s also cut the cost and time related to business travel, which has to be good!
But, working virtually has its own pitfalls. Below, we look at five common challenges with virtual working, and discuss how you can overcome these on your own project team.
1. Managing Presence Indicators
The presence indicator on your software shows you whether people are online or not. Not all software has this, but many do – it’s a status icon next to your name or photo in the tool. You can change it manually, and in some tools it changes automatically depending on what you are doing – if you are on a video call, for example, it will show you as unavailable to other people.
Presence indicators are great… if you use them!
I have my comms software open for most of the day, but I don’t change the status indicator every time I walk away from my desk.
Of course, you don’t have to make that change every time you go to get a drink. It’s enough to let your colleagues know that you are generally available during the day. However, the challenge comes when you rely on presence indicators to tell you if someone’s available.
You can set ground rules in the team so that people know what is expected of them. Make it clear that you expect them to change presence indicators (or what it means if you don’t require that). Set expectations that you might not all be at your desk, even if your status shows as logged on and available.
You can also send a quick message on chat asking if they are available. Then you aren’t wasting your time writing a long urgent question, only to find out later they were in a meeting.
2. Response Delay
Many virtual comms tools work on a ‘broadcast’ approach. I write a message, and eventually you read it. That’s not very two-way or real-time.
In my experience, it doesn’t matter that virtual comms often don’t happen in real time. As long as your colleague gets the message and acts on it in a timely fashion, that’s good enough.
However, one of the challenges with virtual comms is expecting that instant response, as we saw above.
Manage everyone’s expectations around response times, and you’ll find the virtual communications in the team are a lot smoother.
3. Managing Time Zones
I worked in one office where we had three different clocks on the wall, each showing the time zone of part of the team. Where you work with colleagues in different countries, knowing what time it is with them can be very useful.
The clocks are a very visual way of remembering time zone differences, but you can do the same with digital tools. Create alternative clocks on your phone or tablet, and refer to those when you need to find out the time where your colleagues are.
Think about scheduling meetings so that it isn’t always the same people up late at night or early in the morning. And remember that even though you are working, others might not be – be conscious that your emails might make them feel pressured to reply, even if it is the middle of the night for them.
This is easy to manage by again, setting expectations. Make it clear that while you might be messaging during your working hours, you don’t expect a response until it is their working time.
4. Managing Misunderstandings
I’m sure this doesn’t need much explanation! Misunderstandings happen often on virtual teams, especially where you don’t share the same language.
Emails are a particular source of challenge – you want your messages to be short and to the point, but not to appear abrupt or rude! It’s a fine balance, and often, when we’re in a hurry, one that is easy to get wrong.
If you are communicating messages that might be hard to understand in writing, pick up the phone! We don’t have to do all our communication via software and computers. Sometimes a quick call is all that it takes to get the message across clearly and simply.
5. Knowing How to Use the Tools
Finally, virtual communications feel harder when you don’t know how to use the tools. Yes, many software products are intuitive these days, but there are often little shortcuts and tricks which make them easier to use.
Get into the habit of sharing tips and tricks with each other. Encourage your colleagues to spend some time learning how to use collaboration tools so they get the best out of them. Make sure people know where to find online help if they need it.
When you are hosting a webinar or online meeting, practice in advance! Have a small meeting with one colleague as a test run. Then make sure to send clear instructions to anyone who hasn’t used that product before. As there are so many collaboration tools, and each one is slightly different, they will most likely value the tips and instructions on how to join the meeting and contribute effectively.
None of the tools I have used have ever been difficult to use, but they do take a little bit of getting used to the first time – and it’s awkward to keep stakeholders waiting while you work out how to annotate your slides. Practice first and make the whole online experience better for everyone in the virtual meeting!
More and more of our meetings are moving to online settings, and personally I think that’s a good thing. However, the better skilled you are at virtual communication, the more you will get out of the settings and the easier it will be to overcome the challenges. Why not set aside some time with your team to discuss how you can work together more effectively online?
Elizabeth Harrin is the creator of A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, which she started in 2006. She has won a number of awards for her internationally popular blog: "A Girl's Guide To Project Management." She also authors two additional blogs, regularly featuring interviews she conducts with industry experts: "Talking Work," and "The Money Files," on Gantthead.