How to effectively build and manage virtual teams

In this blog, we cover everything about virtual teams including definition, types, advantages & disadvantages, management, and a sample checklist to help you build one. We also draw analogies from Liverpool F.C’s transfer policy when it comes to hiring for your virtual team.

What is a virtual team?

The definition of a virtual team is: A group of people who interact using information and communication technology (ICT) to achieve a goal/ task. They are also known as dispersed or distributed teams. They are most popularly known as remote teams.

Close your eyes and think about the word ‘team’ for 5 seconds. Most of us would have imagined a group of people standing in a straight file (Sorry, I have OCD!).  We always make the connection to teams as a group of physical entities present in the same location! Fast forward to 2020, virtual teams are the need of the hour! Virtual teams discount geography as a barrier to work together and achieve a common goal.

What makes a virtual team different from a conventional team?

 

Like every other team, a virtual team consists of members working together to achieve the same goal, but they differ in one small but significant detail.

Virtual teams vs Conventional teams

The most significant difference between a conventional team and a virtual team is the numerical measurement called ‘distance’ between team members. Conventional teams usually work in the same location (same room, more often than not), whereas virtual teams are distributed across various geographical locations and are usually more diverse in terms of ethnicity. 

According to studies, high performing Virtual teams are expected to have the following requirements:

  • Global mindset of team members;
  • Access and utilization of technology to the benefit of the team;
  • Supporting the information flow with different media;
  • Virtual conflict management;
  • Dealing with time and distance challenges;

Virtual teams provide a structure that makes it possible for individuals to work for an organization across time and space. Successful virtual organizations are those wherein collaboration, cohesion, and trust takes place among individuals. Despite the challenges faced, companies are investing heavily in organizations to recruit talents, expertise, and training in order to overcome these challenges.

Companies fear the ‘work from home’ model as they believe they can’t get their employees to grind out results day in and day out without the ‘All-seeing-eye’ of the supervisor. Well, that’s a tale from the past as supervisors and managers of today have access to live dashboards and reports which more than just tell a story about an employee’s performance but can double up as their personal Marauders’ map  [ 😉 ] to run effective virtual teams. On the other hand, intense micromanagement is so early 2000s. Additionally, micromanagement leads to undesirable effects like employee churn, burnout (both parties), poor morale, etc.

An extensive study carried out by MIT Sloan management review on 80 software development teams across the globe claims that virtual teams can lead to increased efficiency and better business results.

Moreover, researchers from Kellogs school of management strongly claim that teams are most creative and innovative when they work individually by following something called the ‘Cave and Commons design’. In this model, team members retreat to their caves (personal place of comfort) to come with ‘novel’ and ‘disruptive’ ideas which are later debated in the commons (video conference calls,etc.)

Caves and Commons - Kellogs school of management
People work in silos ( caves ) to come up with creative and disruptive ideas that are later debated on in the commons.

If you’re still a believer in old-fashioned chained to a desk model, ask yourself – how long are you going to keep staring at progress and not do anything about it?

 

The different types of virtual teams

Depending on the role of the members, objectives, goal, and lifespan — Virtual teams are classified as: 

1. Networked Teams

Networked teams consist of a group of individuals with different functional expertise. They are recruited to share their knowledge and experience in order to achieve a common goal. Membership is fluid — members are added to the team based on the need and removed once their task is completed. This type of virtual team is normally employed in consulting business and technology firms

Example – An environmental, health, and safety (EHS) management consulting firm located in Alaska joining hands with academic research organizations in Asia to stay competitive and global at a low cost.

2. Parallel Teams 

Parallel teams within an organization is a method for solving problems in the field of research and development, innovation, or similarly focused projects. The team is intact till the end and no one leaves in between.

Example – Many FMCG companies team up their marketing, sales, manufacturing, and R&D professionals working out of different locations into parallel virtual teams to make recommendations for the local adaptation of their product specifications.

3. Project or Product-Development Teams

This is a type of virtual team where members are brought together from different parts of the globe with an aim to develop a product or a system. Various subject experts from different parts of the globe come together to make something unique.

Example – Whirlpool virtually brought together a team of experts from the United States, Brazil, and Italy for a period of 2 years to develop a chlorofluorocarbon-free refrigerator. These are typically found in the R & D division of the product-based companies.

4. Production Teams 

These teams are formed when the team members need to perform a single type of task. The team members work independently and the end result is the summation of all team members’ contributions. The work roles are clearly defined.

Example – Outsourcing the social media marketing of a german football club to an American social media marketing agency to grow its fanbase in the west.

5. Service Teams

Team members support customers or the internal organization is typically a service/technical support role around the clock.

Example – Customer support teams in the USA finish their shift when support teams in Australia and New Zealand start theirs and with the help of tools like Freshcaller, you can route your calls for service requests to the desired team based on timezones and business hours. Click here to read more!

6. Management Teams

Management Teams work collaboratively on a daily basis within a functional division of a corporation. Big MNCs have management teams that consist of globally dispersed team members who come together to take important decisions/ ideate/ solve issues.

Example – Globally dispersed leaders of an MNC virtually coming together to vote on a campaign.

7. Action Teams   

Action teams are power-packed teams that are usually formed for a very short duration of time to respond to immediate problems. Upon resolving the problem, the team is adjourned.

Example: A team of accountants virtually coming together to investigate a suspected loan fraud during a global pandemic  

Virtual team – advantages and disadvantages

As tempting as it would seem for opportunists, virtual teams have their own share of advantages and disadvantages.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
✅Access to global talent❌ Communication challenges
✅ Minimal overhead costs❌ Impaired leadership
✅ Workforce flexibility❌ Inadequate in-person communication
✅ Deploying 24-hour workday❌ Poor team bonding
✅ Low attrition❌ High attrition

Access to global talent helps an organization to break away from the shackles of having to restrict themselves to hire locally. In 1996, Arsenal Football club hired Arsene Wenger, a Frenchman, as manager of Arsenal football club. At that time Arsene and Ruud Guulit were the only Foreign managers in the famous British league. Arsene became the first foreign manager to win the league in 1998 but it would be interesting to note that from that point onwards Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson was the only British manager to do so. Now the Premier League is the best league in the world with talents from all over the world in all functions. Moral of the story – Hire local if you want to stay local

The healthier?

Long commutes to work tend to cause stress-related health issues. Notable side effects are – high blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, increased anger and resentment at work, absenteeism, lateness, and an ability to concentrate and perform to the same standards as those who live in much closer proximity to the workplace. Working from home allows you to save time, health, and increase productivity!

The more profitable?

No office space means no commute time for your employees and you can save on rent. Different industries have different standards so depending on the type of business – retail or a firm – your rent could be 1 to 15% of your revenue. That’s a lot of money that could be better spent hiring more excellent people to join your team or investing in resources that can help you scale your business globally and move on to deploying a 24-hour workday with teams dispersed globally across various business hours.

But yes, like every team, unless properly managed there are certain disadvantages to virtual teams. Communication challenges would be the primary concern. The quality of your internet connection and that of your Laptop/PC plays a crucial role in communication. Another undesirable effect is the presence of misjudgments and communication gaps between teammates. This is very likely to happen in teams that are very diverse and with no prior interaction (physically) history. Getting the team together physically early-on helps avoid communication gaps and misunderstandings that may arise.

Factors to be considered when forming a virtual team

Despite all its merits, I guess we can all agree it is no cakewalk to form a successful virtual team but also remember that at this moment in time we’re surrounded by endless opportunities. Just typing a sentence into Google’s search bar opens the door to endless inspiration and resources. We’ve summarized the most important points that have worked for us and others worldwide! 

Virtual team communication & collaboration tools

First things first, you can’t build a successful virtual team on compromises, and the last thing you should compromise on is the resources to buy state-of-the-art reliable communication and collaboration tools for all team members.

When it comes to project management – I’d personally recommend the Kanban method. The Kanban method addresses many pain points that virtual teams are likely to face, like working in silos, absence of real-time tracking, bottlenecks, absence of ownership, etc. Tools like Trello, Kanbanize, Monday.com, Freshrelease, etc. help in overcoming these challenges.

A sample Kanban Board
A very basic example of a Kanban board.

Internal communication is yet another department that requires addressing. Quite often, virtual teams consist of members who are globally dispersed, and this creates a  problem of not meeting SLAs and the operational delay in actions that require immediate addressing. Tools like Slack, Microsoft teams, Freshconnect, etc. will help make your life easier.

Your globally dispersed service teams have to be equipped with the best tools possible to achieve your SLAs. Additionally, your agents are the face of your organization, you wouldn’t want the service request call routed to the wrong team or miss a standard inquiry call, both can be seen as a missed opportunity for your business to showcase its commitment to it’s SLAs.

Tools like Freshcaller makes sure you don’t miss any incoming calls and help you to seamlessly run a call center with just a laptop and headphones even when you’re facing a staffing shortage. With over 30+ tools (and more by the minute you’re reading this) in its marketplace Freshcaller combines with your favorite CRMs, Agent productivity tools, etc. and puts an end to all problems with the ‘telephony’ tag.

Try Freshcaller

A primer to Virtual Team Management

At Freshworks, we practice what we preach and whilst we’re still evaluating and tweaking our work processes, here is a list of problems that as a manager you’re more likely to face when you start out:
– Team bonding
– Opaqueness  of roles
– Lack of discipline
– Lack of resources at the employee level ( internet connectivity issues due to geography)
– Unequal distribution of work across various time zones
– Tracking commitments
– Lack of ownership 

Hiring

When it comes to hiring, one can take a leaf out of the book of Micheal Edwards —
The visionary behind Liverpool football club’s rise. The man who was responsible for identifying and bringing in players for Liverpool which led them to Premier League and Champions glory after struggling for years with their underperforming strategy. Edwards’ vision was simple and we can apply the same logic whilst building our virtual teams.

1. Hire people who are already experienced in working remotely

What Edwards did – Edwards purchased the best players from smaller (relatively) teams in the league. These players already knew how the league works,the dynamics and tactics of opposition teams, and knew exactly what was needed from them!

2. Carefully construct team roles with your goal in mind

When it comes to member roles, we recommend the X-team strategy advocated by MIT professor Deborah Ancona. The strategy defines three tiers of team members: core, operational, and outer. The core consists of executives responsible for strategy.

What Edwards did – Micheal Edwards made sure there was a leader in each role (defense, midfield,etc.), thereby strengthening the spine of his team. These leaders were backed by the operational go-getters and young emerging talents.

3. Analyze and Forecast

Equip your leaders with the right tools to analyze, introspect, and take action. For example – Call center managers use Freshcaller’s reports to analyze agent performance, call volumes geographically, and take actions based on these insights.

What Edwards did – It was common knowledge that Liverpool, till 2018 despite it’s attacking prowess, was shaky in defense. Edwards got ‘the world’s best defender’ and the ‘world’s best goalkeeper ‘ at the time and strengthened the squad defensively.

Cultivating Trust

When assembling virtual teams building trust within the team can be the most difficult task for a virtual team manager. You rarely see the work buddy concept in virtual teams with whom you can talk everything under the sun since the members very rarely meet. In such a situation it is the role of the manager to encourage team building activities to foster trust.

We encourage Virtual Team managers to build a simple checklist of activities to ensure every employee feels inclusive and is committed to the team’s goals.

An example of a checklist would be:

– Get the onboarding experience right
Fly them in if necessary to physically meet their fellow team meets. Get them to feel comfortable

– Establish objectives and goals
Constantly keep reminding your fellow team members of the bigger picture and how they’re going to achieve it. Every member should know what they’re expected to bring to the table and how they’re going to do it

– Familiarize them with the communication charter
Due to a lack of face to face communication, there are less contextual cues and information about emotional states. Establish norms for language, meetings, feedback, etc.

– Track Commitments and celebrate milestones
As a leader, one needs to make sure that tasks are completed within the deadline. Make sure your team members don’t face any obstacles to complete a given task before a deadline. Don’t forget to celebrate every achievement of an individual/ team member no matter how small!

– Don’t miss your one to one’s
Be the ‘go-to person’ for your employees. The qualities you want to aim for are – Approachable, empathetic, resourceful, and motivating.

Further readingSeven years of remote work taught me how to be good at it, here’s how you can too.

In a nutshell

Agreed! Virtual teams surely miss out on a lot but we’ve reached a juncture where virtual teams are of utmost importance for many businesses. Learn from failures, keep iterating your process and you’d eventually have successful virtual team. The advent of globalization, a worldwide pandemic, etc. merely acted as a catalyst. As more and more companies embrace virtual teams and remote working, it’s high time you jump on the bandwagon.


About Freshcaller

Made keeping conventional teams and virtual teams in mind, Freshcaller is a modern-day reimagining of our everyday virtual phone system for customer support, sales, IT, and Remote Work. With Freshcaller’s cloud-based architecture, it brings together the best of legacy features like IVR and advanced capabilities like Smart Escalations, Call Routing, Custom Call Center Analytics to help you set up a state-of-the-art business call center. Freshcaller offers phone numbers in 90+ countries, requires zero phone hardware, and is extremely easy to use.

If you want to find out more about what we do, check out www.freshcaller.com.

Illustrations by Mahalakshmi Anantharaman. Animation by Yuvaraj Linganathan.