Leading virtual teams: Success factors and obstacles

The virtual team meets in an online video conference

Remote working and virtual teams are not just short-term reactions to the exceptional situation of the Corona crisis. Rather, they have established themselves as a new form of collaboration in many companies. So when leading virtual teams, you need to take measures that are different from those you apply in-office.

On the one hand, this is due to the fact that companies today are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified employees. To a certain extent, they are dependent on freelancers and the international talent pool. On the other hand, it has become clear that collaboration in virtual teams offers enormous potential and brings numerous advantages. However, for these to be exploited, the right digital leadership is needed. And this is no easy task.

At Sparrks, we have dealt with this topic in detail. In this article, we show you our answers to the questions:

  • What are the opportunities and benefits of working in virtual teams?
  • Why do many digital teams still fail?
  • With which tips does the development and management of virtual teams succeed?

Advantages of virtual teams

Collaboration in digital teams offers numerous potential opportunities and benefits for both team members and the company as a whole. We have compiled these for you below :

  • Working in a virtual team can provide greater transparency. New technologies make it easier to see who is working on what and how everyone is progressing.
  • Virtual teams can be composed exclusively according to professional qualifications, since the location of the team members plays no role in virtual collaboration.
  • Aufgrund der Standortunabhängigkeit von virtuellen Teams bzw. Remote Work, kann internationales Expertenwissen genutzt werden für die Produktentwicklung.
  • If the virtual team consists of several nationalities who live in different time zones, project work is possible around the clock with clever task distribution.
  • Companies save significantly on costs with a digital team set-up, as there is no need to rent office space or pay travel expenses, for example.
  • Virtuelle Teams haben einen deutlich besseren ökologischen Fußabdruck, da bei Remote Arbeit keinerlei Arbeitswege per Auto, Bus oder Bahn anfallen. 
  • Due to the higher temporal and spatial flexibility, remote work or working in virtual teams offers a better work-life balance .
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Why virtual teams fail?

Even if virtual collaboration theoretically brings numerous opportunities and advantages and sounds promising, the reality often looks different. Many digital teams fail. Here we show you why:

  • It is not uncommon for virtual teams to lack mutual trust and a sense of belonging.
  • Due to the physical distance, managers often recognize existing conflicts in virtual teams too late.
  • The exchanges that take place via email or in chat rooms between team members increase the likelihood of misunderstandings arising. This is because non-verbal signals are missing.
  • Some employees are less comfortable with the technology for virtual collaboration or remote work.
  • Cultural differences that exist between the members of a digital, international team are often not openly addressed. This makes it easy for conflicts to arise.
  • Often, no clear rules are established regarding the use of media. For example, if team members feel they have to be constantly reachable by phone or email, stress results.

Tips for successfully developing and leading virtual teams

When leading virtual teams, there are some important tips to keep in mind. In the end, virtual teamwork requires a completely different leadership behavior than you know from the traditional office situation. We have compiled the most important aspects for you below.

Taking more time for leadership

When team members work together in a shared office, leadership often simply happens "on the side". There, leaders see much faster and better what is already working well and what is not. Accordingly, it is easier to give direct feedback to employees and guide them.

In contrast, significantly more time must be taken to lead a virtual team. Because it is not possible to lead "on the side" here. Instead, regular team meetings by telephone or video conference are needed, as well as one-on-one meetings with the respective team members.

The one-on-one meetings in particular should be used to discuss how employees are doing, what is currently on their minds and what they are currently working on. In the end, proper communication is even more important in managing virtual teams than it has been in the past.

Targeting media richness

Digital communication media can be distinguished by their "media richness". Media that are not very rich are, for example, e-mails or messaging services. This is because they only convey informative content, while emotional and relational aspects are lost.

On the other hand, video conferencing tools such as Skype or Zoom are more rich media. Here, users also experience the facial expressions and gestures of the person they are talking to, and thus much more personal, emotional information. This generally promotes the development of trust and bonds between people, which is why media with a high degree of "richness" should be used specifically in the management of virtual teams.

Formulating clear guidelines

In einem virtuellen Team ist direkte Kontrolle weniger möglich. Es ist daher umso wichtiger, dass Führungskräfte klare Leitplanken formulieren. Das bedeutet konkret, dass deutlich kommuniziert werden sollte, was die Erwartungen an die Mitarbeitenden bezüglich der Arbeitsergebnisse und deren Qualität sowie Deadlines sind. Weiterhin sollte mit dem virtuellen Team abgesprochen werden, welche Vereinbarungen und Regelungen bezüglich des Arbeitsprozesses gelten. Dazu zählt die Absprache über:

  • the daily structure: should the workday begin with a kick-off team meeting? Does it make sense to have a check-in meeting at the end of the day?
  • Accessibility: At what times should employees be available? When are breaks scheduled and times for focused work? How can it be signaled that employees can or cannot be reached? Is a "Do not disturb" function useful?
  • Reasonable response times: Within what timeframe is feedback from employees expected?

Virtual „coffee chats“

As a substitute for the conversations in the coffee kitchen or in the hallway that take place in the shared office, appropriate meetings should be set up for virtual teams in which work is deliberately not discussed. Virtual coffee chats create more closeness and bonding between employees and have a positive effect on the entire team.

In this context, managers are advised to emotionalize in a targeted manner. In concrete terms, this means the following: While many have the attitude that in a professional context, communication should be rather factual and sober, more personal and emotional conversations can increase satisfaction in the virtual team. Managers can therefore consciously ask questions more often, such as "What was your best experience today?" etc.

Additional organizational, social and cultural competencies

Since the location of the employees is unimportant in virtual collaboration, virtual teams are not infrequently also global teams. Often, several different nationalities and cultures worked together on a project. For managers, this means that they have to observe and take into account different time zones, possible language deficits, different communication styles and work rhythms, and other cultural differences. They therefore need special organizational, social and cultural skills.

New criteria for acquiring employees

When looking for new members for a virtual team, certain aspects should be taken into account. After all, not everyone is suitable for remote work. First and foremost, it is important that employees have a high level of digital affinity. They need media skills and technical know-how. But social and cultural skills are also important. After all, they need to be able to communicate with their team, which may consist of members from different nationalities and cultures.

Setting up face-to-face meetings

Ideally, the members of a virtual team should be given the opportunity to get to know each other personally before starting any project work. This lays an important foundation for the collaboration that follows: A sense of togetherness is created and trust is built.

Organizing a meeting for face-to-face contact may be cost-intensive for a company. Especially if high travel costs are incurred due to the members' different places of residence. Nevertheless, the costs and efforts are worthwhile, as they pay off through improved teamwork and correspondingly stronger results.

Use Case: "Lead effectively remotely"

Do you lead a virtual team yourself and want to improve your leadership skills as a digital leader?

With our use case "Effective remote leadership" you will learn how to fully develop your strengths in these new circumstances. In our business coaching you will be professionally accompanied by a top executive coach who has at least 10 years of leadership experience. Learn more about our use cases here or book a 30 minute demo call to learn more!

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FAQ: Leading virtual teams

What is unique about virtual teams?

Virtual teams comprise people working in different physical locations but towards a common goal (unbound by location but bound by the same business purpose).

What competencies do virtual teams need?

A successful virtual team member is competent with ICT tools, self-motivated, proactive, independent, collaborative, disciplined, intercultural sensitive, effective communicator, and trustworthy.

How often do virtual teams fail?

Figures on virtual teams failing, trailing, or underperforming vary from at least 27% (FinancesOnline) to 82% (MIT Sloan Management Review).

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