Virtual Team Challenges and Ideas for Improvement

By Debbie Mysliviec, Program Director, RMI

In this world of interconnectivity of computers, using email, and instant messaging, many are faced with working on a team whose members don’t sit right in the cubicles next to them. The term virtual can be interchanged with remote, i.e. different country, different city, different building, different floor, work at home, or traveler. “The probability of collaboration between two people is 3 times more likely with those who sit next to each other than with those who sit 30 feet away.” When virtual or remote you can’t see body language so it can result in miscommunication. It is difficult to work as a virtual team due to communication, time zone differences, and coordinating tasks and objectives.

As resource managers, often those resources we manage and our management peers are located remotely making the need for good virtual management skills imperative. What we learned from the RMI Power UP – Leading Virtual Teams webinar are some ways to overcome the obstacles of working remotely and how to triumph in building relationships and trust in order to achieve success together.

For leading virtual teams, we need to do the following:

Clarify goals (for the organization, team, project, and meetings)
Clarify roles (who is taking notes in meetings, who owns the distribution list, who sets the agenda)
Agree on processes (and discuss what they are, same acronym can mean different things in different locations)
Build relationships (key component)

Ways to build relationships as a virtual team:

Hold regular conference calls, scheduled and not cancelled (30 minutes works)
Share victories, challenges, best practices (allow time for an employee to say how grateful he/she is for something another team member did)
One participant mentioned that their team gets together for 15 minutes at the beginning of the day to just chat about the weather in their home city, and they end with a motto for the day
Put small groups on special projects together (2/3 employees in different locations)
Get together and create operating guidelines for the team (format of team calls, how to reach out if there are issues, meeting deadlines, etc.)
Use a common workspace for decision making and problem solving
Take time to revisit the success of the team’s relationship building (team calls frequency, focus on the right thing, etc.)

Ways to build relationships between individuals:

Engage in small talk (i.e. “How was your weekend?”)
Use the ‘virtual cup of coffee’ (make sure the person answering the phone knows it is okay to say, “not a good time for this, let’s do it later”)
Use video conferencing to make a more personal connection (note that many work at home people aren’t too keen on this because they aren’t required to have many “work” clothes, so give advance notice!)
Learn the favored way for each person to be contacted (cell, email, text, etc.) and the best time for contact. (My mom used to say, “please don’t try to have a conversation with me until I’ve had my first cup of coffee”)
Schedule a call to talk about how to work together
Learn about cultural differences (even within a country there can be a huge difference between regions)
Disclose something personal about yourself (when you admit mistakes or funny tales from your life, the other person will more easily share more)

Having spent many years working at a home office, I can relate to many of the issues that are presented here, and can verify that these tips will help. We always laughed that if we were an aisle over in the grocery store and heard a co-worker talking we would know them for sure, but if we just walked by them without hearing the voice we most likely wouldn’t recognize them. It takes time and effort to get to know your teams on a deeper level. It certainly helps to already have a trusted relationship built when you have a request for that extra assistance on a challenging project.

If you would like to hear the RMI Power UP – Leading Virtual Teams session, you can go to this link at