Four Ways Virtual Teams Fail (and How to Fix Them)

A scene from an average company, circa 2017: Sandra, a business analyst, comes into the office at 9:00 in the morning, sits down at her desk and checks her email. She finds a note from Paolo, who works in another country and was hard at work while Sandra was asleep. She forwards an attachment with a few questions to Vera, who works in a satellite office down the street, and then hops onto a call with a contractor based in a distant city. Before she’s finished her first cup of coffee, Sandra has interacted with three teammates, but none of those interactions were face-to-face. Sound familiar?

As technology reshapes the nature of our work, it is also reshaping the nature of our teams. The rise of virtual, distributed teams has liberated businesses to hire the best people for the job no matter where they are, saving time and money. But there’s also a downside: challenges in communication can leave virtual teams feeling frustrated and adrift.

New team, new rules

“Research shows that two-thirds of experienced managers fail in their first attempt to run a virtual team,” says Beat Bühlmann, Evernote’s General Manager for EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa). “For new managers, the failure rate is even higher.”

Beat has studied the factors that make virtual teams succeed or fail for the past 16 years. After making it the basis of his doctoral dissertation (later converted to a book), Beat put his research to work at top companies like HP, Google, and Dell before taking charge of Evernote’s office in Zürich, Switzerland. Beat explains that failure among virtual teams usually comes down to one thing: “They try to apply the same rules that worked face-to-face. They don’t think about what’s different in the virtual team setting.”

Evernote General Manager EMEA Beat Bühlmann

Beat Bühlmann

For a virtual team to function, all the parts must work well together. “Half of the team cannot win,” says Beat. “Either the full team wins, or the full team loses.” Is your virtual team set up for success? Here are four indicators that you might be going the wrong way.

Pitfall 1: Lack of understanding

We tend to think of virtual teams as separated by geography, but people are also separated by time zone, language, culture, religion, and other factors. They might be on a different floor or the other side of the globe. They may even have different missions. “It’s a continuum, not black and white,” says Beat, emphasizing that no two teams are alike. “Your team might be only slightly virtual or entirely virtual, and you need to account for the particular situation.”

For example, you may unconsciously assume that everyone’s work day is like your own. The more distributed your team, the less likely that will be the case. Teammates in separate offices may have different responsibilities, commitments, constraints, or restrictions. They may be subject to different employment laws or have different holidays and vacation policies.

Those offices also have distinct infrastructures, events, and methods of working. “One of the biggest mistakes virtual managers make is assuming every office is like their own,” says Beat. “They’re not.”

Solution: Learn the culture

“Make sure you know the local situation and environment of each member of your team,” including cultural norms and religious obligations. If you have a teammate in another country, learn the etiquette for working in that country (Beat recommends the Executive Planet Guide and Swissôtel Etiquette Map as good places to start).

Talk to your company’s Human Resources team to get familiar with applicable laws, policies, or standards. Create a notebook in Evernote where all this information is saved and shared for easy reference. And most important of all, talk to your teammates, so you know if their needs and your team’s needs align.

Bottom line: Virtual teams are diverse teams. Learn to accommodate the differences, and you’ll be better able to take advantage of the unique perspectives and fresh ideas that come from that diversity.

Pitfall 2: Poor communication

As anyone who’s survived a Facebook or Twitter argument knows, nuances of meaning can vanish in text-based messages. That’s because a lot of human communication is nonverbal. When we speak face-to-face, we pick up meaning from visual cues like facial expression or body language, or paralinguistic cues like loudness or hesitation.

Misunderstandings are 5x as likely to happen when we move away from face-to-face conversations.

Without those nonverbal hints, we lose context that can help us interpret a statement. You may be making a joke, but your use of sarcasm or irony doesn’t reach the other person, only the words do. According to Beat, misunderstandings become five times as likely to happen when we move away from face-to-face conversations.

Misunderstandings are even more likely when the people in a conversation have different native languages. “Non-native English speakers tend to overrate their English skills,” Beat says. And it’s easy to forget that not everyone may understand your slang or pop-culture references.

Of all the methods of communication, emails are the most prone to error. We tend to pour a lot of information into long, dense emails, and because the conversation is asynchronous, we may have no opportunity to clarify or correct ourselves. We can’t even be sure the message was read, much less understood. “If people are too busy, they’re not going to bother. You may have sent the message, but that doesn’t mean they read it,” Beat says.

Responses don’t always help clarify the situation: if someone replies to your email with a “yes” answer, does that indicate enthusiasm or grudging acceptance? Did they understand the details? Are they agreeing to take the next step or only agreeing with your idea?

Solution: Be crystal clear

When working with a virtual team, remember that people have different means of expressing themselves and may not always understand you. Slow down when speaking, and avoid jargon or obscure words. If you’re sometimes misunderstood by your own family and friends online, imagine how difficult it is for a teammate in another country.

In an email, Beat recommends getting straight to the point and keeping it short. “You should never have to scroll in an email,” he says. “If you have to scroll, it’s not clear enough. You would be better off with a phone call or meeting.”

When it comes to requests and commitments, Beat advocates a method he calls “the 3 W’s.” Every communication should be clear about:

  • WHO
  • does WHAT
  • by WHEN

Review your recent emails, chats, and meeting notes. Are action items clear on all 3 Ws? If not, you’ve identified a quick way to improve team communication. And in true international style, Beat points out that the same rule works in German (wer/was/wann) and French (qui/quoi/quand) as well.

Bottom line: Take extra care in your communications, especially if your teammates can’t see your face and body language, and ask questions when something isn’t clear. These steps will save you headaches down the line.

Pitfall 3: Using the wrong channels

The problems with email illustrate a bigger issue: virtual teams don’t always choose their communication channels wisely, and this can harm trust.

“There are two kinds of trust,” says Beat, “interpersonal and task-based.” Interpersonal trust comes from shared experiences and interests, and the fastest way to develop that is through face-to-face interaction. “So in a new virtual team, it’s important for everybody to meet in person as early as possible and agree on how they will work together.” The money spent on travel will be made up in the long term through a more cohesive team.

“If your house is burning, do you email the fire department?”

Task-based trust comes from cooperative behavior, keeping commitments and deadlines, and delivering quality work. That’s easier when teams choose the right ways to communicate. “If your house is burning, do you email the fire department? That would be a bad idea.” Deciding as a team which communications should happen via video conference, phone calls, chat, or email can go a long way toward building cooperation, meeting deadlines, and creating the trust your organization needs to succeed.

Solution: Write a team charter for communication

When Beat joined Evernote, he and his entire team collaborated on a “team charter” that laid out rules, responsibilities, and no-go areas for communication. Every team will have different needs based on their unique situation, but examples of what might go into a charter include:

  • A preference order for communication channels: call if possible, then chat, then email
  • For teams using Evernote Business, standards for shared notebooks, note titles, and tags
  • No checking of email after 8 PM
  • No “Blind CCs” in email conversation
  • Reply “yes” or “no” to all calendar invitations
  • No multitasking or side conversations in meetings
  • All action items include the 3 Ws
  • Exceptions: what counts as an emergency and which rules can you suspend?

When the team has reached consensus, everyone signs the charter, which is then printed out and posted. New hires are also expected to sign.

Bottom line: Agree as a team how you want to work together. Get everyone on the same page and set clear expectations that can be used to build trust.

Pitfall 4: Hiring the wrong people

Unfortunately, none of the above tips will be enough if you don’t have the right people on your team. “Team members are interdependent. That’s part of the definition of a team,” says Beat. “But most companies go through the same process for hiring a virtual team member as when they hire locally. They don’t check to see if the candidate will be a good virtual team member, and that’s why there’s so much turnover.”

It’s not simply a matter of finding someone with the raw qualifications for the job. An employee may be brilliant in a face-to-face meeting and still lack the skills to succeed in a virtual setting. Without the benefit of direct interaction and feedback, Beat says that the ability to listen is paramount.

“I always include an interview stage where I ask some simple questions by phone, then ask the candidate to reply by email. All they have to do is repeat the questions and answer each one in two or three sentences. Most people fail this test. They fail because they didn’t listen to the instructions. If they don’t listen, there’s no way they can succeed in a virtual team.”

Solution: Test for listening and communication skills

In the interview process, make sure you’re talking to candidates the same way you’ll talk to them on the job. That means conducting interview stages in person, by phone, on video, and via email. Each medium gives you a chance to assess different parts of a person’s skill set. Is he or she a good listener? Does he communicate clearly? Does she ask for clarification? Does this person understand the challenges of working with others who are separated by time, space, and culture, and are you confident they can meet those challenges? If not, this person may not be the right fit for your team.

Bottom line: Virtual teams can only succeed when all the members are working together. That means hiring people who are good listeners, good communicators, and good collaborators.

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