Top 5 Challenges of Virtual Teams (+ How to Fix Them)

by Steve Dyson | October 31, 2022

Remote work was already on the rise before the pandemic, but companies soon adapted to a virtual workforce and never looked back. The pros were clear: lower overhead from a lack of office space, a broader talent pool, and more flexible working conditions. 

Despite all the pros, there are virtual team challenges, and it’s not a perfect system. Challenges still arise, and efficient organizations must learn to fix them to stay competitive, deliver incredible value to clients, and keep employee churn low. 

Below are some of the top challenges Silverback has faced since going remote during the pandemic, and some advice on how to create a more sustainable virtual culture.

The Pros of Virtual Teams

Let’s start with the pros of building a dynamic virtual team. Remote candidates help fuel your business with top talent from around the country and are often a more efficient way to work. Instead of being constrained to a smaller talent pool in your city, you can source top talent nationwide, paving the way for a more flexible way to hire and work together. 

With so much flexibility, your team can focus on their zone of genius and eliminate the minutiae that often occur when working in an office. Studies even show that 62% of employees worldwide say they would consider resigning from a co-located organization to a company that offers remote work.

Given the nature of the work we do at Silverback and the high-end services we provide clients, we can afford to stay flexible in how we approach our work so long as deadlines are met, and accountabilities are clearly set and maintained.

Despite all the pros of working in a remote environment, there are also several challenges of virtual teams. Fortunately, they’re preventable or manageable with the right mindset and approach.

Top 5 Virtual Team Challenges + Their Solutions

Virtual teams often run into roadblocks due to a lack of engagement with coworkers and teammates, leading to job dissatisfaction and employee churn. Unfortunately, companies don’t always consider people to be their most important resource, directly impacting revenue and bottom line more than any other factor. Whether it’s your creative members or account managers, as a general rule of thumb, revenue shrinks along with your team’s headcount.

Productivity

A quick Google search shows differing, sometimes conflicting headlines about the productivity of remote working—all from respectable organizations like the Washington Post and the Chicago Booth Review. So which is true? Are employees more productive at home or not? 

Productivity is a challenge that is difficult to define when it comes to virtual work. Some people are naturally more productive at home than they are in an office setting. You often have fewer social distractions at home and have more control over your time. Meanwhile, others feel more distracted at home and need the more robust structure and interaction with colleagues an office offers. 

Yet when people work remotely, it’s easy to slip into silos of work. Even when productive, your remote team may not seem like team players as they adjust to working autonomously and on their own schedule. You may also find the team isn’t working cohesively as some members are highly productive while others lag, leading to imbalances in workload, team & individual performance, and unequal outputs.

Setting specific daily or weekly goals can help manage productivity levels, but this requires carefully analyzing how each team member performs and then making adjustments accordingly. For example, a highly productive team member may work slower (relatively speaking) with less ambitious goals. Make sure your expectations align with individual employees’ work output, and consider big-picture objectives with incremental measurements. 

Team Health and Connectivity 

Team health and connectivity have taken a hit with the rise of remote work. Conflicting time zones and colleagues living in entirely different parts of the country — even the globe — complicate team health and connectivity. Although Silverback does an excellent job working in a virtual framework, it’s still challenging to build meaningful relationships and connections with coworkers you rarely see in person. 

When everyone is physically working in separate spaces, it’s easy to feel out of sync with your team, potentially leading to a deprioritization of connectivity and company culture. Over time, that lack of connection can lead to poor communication and misalignment of values and goals.

You can make strides to bridge the communication challenges in virtual teams, including regular meetings and team-building exercises. But ultimately, there’s no substitute for meeting in person, making memories on challenging projects and fun activities while experiencing the “daily flow” together. Silverback has an annual retreat where we bring in all our employees from around the country for two days of level-setting and team-building. Year after year, we find there is no better, quicker, or more effective team health booster than retreat.

Siloing Between Teams

It’s common to see silos go up between teams, whether they’re working together virtually or in person. Individual teams may become tight-knit to the point of insularity & only leaning on each other, potentially breeding a lack of trust in sharing information between departments. 

Some virtual team challenges include an inability to buy into the vision of a leadership team when those silos are in place. Without familiarity and exposure to other groups, the silos only grow stronger. 

In a remote environment, establishing and communicating the organization’s vision is more important than ever. Sharing common goals can also help bridge teams, along with incentives and opportunities for cross-departmental collaboration and team-building meetings.

Imposter Syndrome 

It’s normal to see remote employees experiencing greater feelings of imposter syndrome, making positive feedback loops more crucial than ever. You might see imposter syndrome manifest by failure to innovate, disengagement with the work, or even overworking. When people feel like imposters, they may feel the need to achieve impossibly high and unnecessary standards instead of mastering their current responsibilities.

Imposter syndrome can lead to imbalances and amplify the challenges of virtual teams. If one person is working too much and the rest of the team isn’t, it can lead to resentment on both sides. Or if someone’s sitting quietly on the sidelines and waiting to be told what to do, productivity can suffer and force other team members to pick up the slack to get a project done.

Fixing imposter syndrome is largely dependent on proactive prevention. A positive feedback loop is a start, but remote workers often need explicit validation from managers & teammates alike that their contributions are valued and they’re on the right track. Leadership teams need a proactive strategy that makes frequent reinforcements and praise for employees part of their employee retention strategy, and something that is ingrained in the company culture.

Unclear Expectations and Communication

When you work together in an office, it’s easy to drop by and communicate nuances about a project. In a remote environment, however, employees may feel they’re working in an echo chamber without clear milestones and touchpoints. It takes more than a Slack thread to ensure everyone is on the same page on a project. 

Without proactively and frequently giving clear communication yourself, you shouldn’t expect to receive it in return. Your virtual team’s issues will inevitably grow as everyone works independently and checks off their tasks with little involvement with the rest of the team. The “heads-down work” mentality reinforces silos and leads to potential miscommunication that creates misaligned project deliverables.

It’s more important than ever in a fully remote environment to be extremely clear about your expectations, timelines, deliverables, and performance reports with your direct reports, other teammates, and (in the case of an agency) clients. You may need a combination of online project management tools, a weekly meeting, and daily touchpoints to ensure communication is a priority. Above all else, good communication requires clarity and follow-ups to keep everyone aligned on a given project.

How Leaders Can Support Virtual Teams

When you don’t work together in an office, that physical distance challenges virtual teams to get creative in developing a unique company culture. However, a leadership team that leads without guidance, support, and communication is substantially more likely to see silos go up, followed by disengagement and employee churn.

Too much structure isn’t necessarily the answer, though. After all, you want to keep your remote work reasonably flexible to appeal to a larger talent pool and honor individual productivity. Without the right nuance of accountability and flexibility, virtual team challenges intensify.

Instead of focusing on an overly granular roadmap that reads like a user manual, focus on communication, even over communication at times. (In a remote environment, over-communicating, while running the risk of being “annoying,” is always better than under-communicating.)  Develop ongoing opportunities for acknowledgment, praise, and cross-departmental activities or projects to support your staff while breaking down silos.

Learn How to Break Down Silos

If you want to support virtual teams & create a healthy remote working environment, watch Silverback’s webinar: Smashing Silos: How to Build High-Performance Teams of Cross-Functional Experts.

Steve Dyson

Steve is a subject-matter expert in all things HR and people operations related; he’s especially passionate about the never-ending quest to identify, hire, train, and retain the best talent in the industry. In his spare time, he loves to travel, read, and cook.

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