Challenges Facing Virtual Teams

Virtual Teams are responsible for delivering software solutions, similar to collocated teams, however virtual team members are distributed across the globe and rarely meet in person.  They instead rely on chat, video, and voice technologies to enable a continuous daily collaboration towards delivering valuable software solutions.

Here is the list of challenges facing virtual teams:

  • Language Barriers
  • Trust
  • Team Intimacy
  • Cultural Differences
  • Differences in Communication Styles
  • Orchestrating Across Timezones
  • Effective Work Distribution
  • Effective Productivity Tracking

Language Barriers

Years ago, I was on a team who was building a content management system. The team consisted of a group of programmers from four different countries.  The code was particularly difficult to maintain because a few of the programmers adopted a variable naming convention using their mother tongue, while others used English.

In other experiences, I found language barriers between virtual team members slowed the pace of communication, and generally prevented key individuals from speaking up.  I remember a project where some team members were forced to switch language away from their mother tongue.  This completely changed the overall dynamic of the team.  Prior to the switch, the individuals spoke up, were proactive in addressing project issues, and were generally more engaged in their day-to-day work.  Following the switch, the preferred Communication Style also shifted from vibrant real time communication technologies to asynchronous technologies such as email. All told, the language barriers had a significant negative impact on the team. 

Trust

The distributed nature of virtual teams also makes it difficult to build and maintain professional trust.  The old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind” applies as team members struggle to give and obtain the necessary feedback.  To offset these challenges, teams should rely on occasional face-to-face meetings hosted in locations that are practical for all to attend.

Update August 1, 2010 – ODesk which provides a marketplace for online work teams, recently developed a new software application called ODesk Team. What’s particularly interesting about this application are the innovative features it offers to help build trust between the buyer and seller.  Features such as Time Tracker and Screensnap, although arguably intrusive for established teams, can be effective at building trust between parties who are working together for the first time.

Team Intimacy

Intimacy is a good indicator to the strength and health of any relationship including those in a virtual team.  In this context, intimacy refers to the level of caring team members feel for one another’s needs.  The distributed nature of virtual team members will make it difficult for them to grow and sustain high levels of professional intimacy.  Members, who are naturally empathetic and proactive in reaching out to others, may lack the necessary communication and feedback channels, in a remote setting,  that help spring them to action.  This will ultimately impact the team’s Trust and overall performance.

Cultural Differences

Coming from New York City where working lunches are a normal part of any work day, I didn’t anticipate the negative reaction to my working through lunch during a project in Rome, Italy. This was perceived by fellow team members as an act of competitiveness and ultimately required many trips to the espresso machine to reestablish the Trust between us all.

Cultural issues are more pronounced in globally distributed teams. Learning and adapting to the various cultural traits of virtual team members will help grow the team’s trust and intimacy, while not losing focus on the universal business culture of satisfying customer needs.

Differences in Communication Styles

Synchronous communication technologies, such as chat, may be favored when distributed team members share command of the same spoken language.  Asynchronous communication technologies, such as email, may instead be favored when distributed team members are lacking this command.  Asynchronous technologies will permit them more time to process and translate messages. The key is to identify and select those technologies appropriate to the team as I talked about in my own move to a virtual team.

The April 24, 2008 New York Times article on making long-distance business partnerships work confirms the importance of selecting the right technologies whle managing the privacy issues that may arise from their use.

The July 30, 2010 CNN.com article on telepresence robots hints at a new technology just around the corner that may just promote a new level of  communication between team members.

Orchestrating Across Timezones

Virtual team members situated in different timezones presents both challenges and opportunities.   The benefits of multiple time zones are best captured by the expression “follow the sun”, which implies a virtual team structure that permits continuous productivity through the seamless hand-off of work between team members who are leaving for the day, and those coming online. Despite the challenges different timezones bring, the ability to orchestrate this hand-off can have many benefits and will allow team members to work the traditional working hours of their timezone.

On a recent project,  for example, a colleague lived and worked in a timezone that was eight hours ahead of our colocated team.  We struggled with the timezone difference.  In particular we made the mistake of leaving some of his questions unanswered at the end of our workday.  This resulted in nearly a day of lost productivity as his workday started without the answers he needed to move forward.

Effective Work Distribution

The “out of sight, out of mind” adage described in the previous section on Trust, can also impact the effective distribution of work across virtual team members.  Peter Drucker described the job of a manager as one who creates productive work and assigns the most effective people to perform it but the remoteness of virtual teams may make it difficult to understand a team member’s effectiveness.  Managers must find new ways to understand worker effectiveness while ensuring the work is distributed evenly, fairly and avoids overworking virtual team members.

Effective Productivity Tracking

The level of productivity tracking needed in a virtual team will depend on the level of trust between it’s members.  Effective virtual teams who’ve built a solid foundation of trust and effectiveness won’t need to confront this challenge.  In teams where members are working together for the first time and are under pressure to deliver fast, closely monitoring productivity may be the only way to mitigate risk while building trust.  As I mentioned in the section on Trust, ODesk has introduced a software application called ODesk Team, which, in this context of productivity tracking, includes a feature to capture hourly screenshots of the contractor’s work.  While this feature would be unquestionably demotivating in high-performance teams, for some virtual teams, it might just provide the right level of transparency.

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2 thoughts on “Challenges Facing Virtual Teams

  1. Sergio Bogazzi says:

    10 Tools for Distributed Developer Teams
    http://mashable.com/2010/07/14/distributed-developer-teams/

  2. Jack says:

    I would probably add team composition as well. If you work in teams having Virtual Offices from around the world, it requires proper management which sometimes can be an issue.

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