Virtual Teams: A Comprehensive Management Guide
Virtual teams and remote work is the latest iteration in the long line of how work has changed.
From the invention of the 8 hour workday, to Henry Ford’s creation of the weekends, to debates on whether we should cut the working day and week down even more. Working from home, digital nomad lifestyles, and globally dispersed organizations are the next generation of office work.
Especially with the advent of better technology, employees are no longer tethered to their desks. Which means that in a lot of the places, the traditional brick and mortar offices are going the way of the Model T.
Virtual teamwork is the new reality for many offices. And statistics show that this trend will only keep going up. This kind of team structure provides flexibility and comfort to employees, while also giving a boost to productivity and increasing employee retention.
Whether they are born out of necessity or desire to be location independent. And no matter if you are fully remote, semi-virtual, or somewhere in between, dispersed teams are looked upon as a great option for companies hoping to save money, grow their business, and assemble the best global workforce they can find.
Virtual teams: Quick stats & overview
- 89% of virtual teams in the world include more than two cultures.
- Good virtual teammates share the following traits: share information (19%), collaborative (18%), proactively engaged (17%), and organized (14%)
- 85% of employees involved in global business activity work on virtual teams. Of this, 89% work in at least one team, and a whopping 27% are in more than four virtual teams
- Also, 85% of businesses think that flexible working policies, helps them be more more productive.
As you can see, there's a lot of reasons to go virtual, if you haven't already. So whether you're looking for some tips or a guide to get you started, we've got you covered.
Here we’ll provide you with a comprehensive guide on virtual teams. We’ll get into the nitty gritty details and explain the difference between the differing terms (remote, virtual, dispersed, oh my!). As well as some of the different kinds of virtual teams you might encounter. We’ll also give you a few reasons to implement this structure and what kind of benefits you’ll see once you do.
We will also provide you with 3 tips to keep in mind for better globally dispersed management. By the end, we promise you’ll be a virtual team master and ready to tackle this new way of working.
Let’s get to it!
What are virtual teams?
Virtual teams VS. remote teams
Virtual teams VS. dispersed, global, and distributed teams
What are the different types of virtual teams?
Benefits of virtual teams
Challenges to virtual teams
Best practices for leading virtual teams
What are virtual teams?
The definition for virtual team is one that is geographically scattered, but connected through their shared use of technology. This can include video conferencing, email and other messaging tools, project planning software, and virtual collaborative workspaces, among others.
Virtual teams may work together asynchronously or even across organizational levels. And in one team, the various members might report to different bosses.
They may be full remote and scattered all over the world. Or even just a semi-virtual team, scattered over across town.
In general, virtual teams can also be called remote, dispersed, global and distributed teams. And the last three can be used interchangeably.
However, with a remote team, there are some nuances between the concepts. As you'll see below.
Definition of virtual teams VS. remote teams
By definition a remote team is composed of people who are not geographically co-located. This can include digital nomads, teleworkers and telecommuters, or people from the same company who work in different branches or on different continents.
Regardless of their positions, the entire team all works directly for a manager. A for example, with remote teams meaning there is a “solid line” of reporting.
A virtual team is a group of people who are brought together to perform specific tasks or resolve specific issues. Some of them may be co-located, but the term usually refers to geographically dispersed teams.
This structure consists of people who work for different line managers, who then might report to other project managers for a short amount of time. Or they might be brought in as consultants from clients, freelancers, or hired by the organization to give their expertise. They are then characterised by this “dotted line” reporting.
However, in a virtual team, members can be added for specific tasks for merely a short amount of time. As such, the manager of a virtual team might not have “hiring and firing” power over their team.
Definition of virtual teams VS. dispersed, global, and distributed teams
When it comes to virtual and dispersed, global and distributed teams, there tends to be more confusion. This is because many times they are referring to the same kind of team structure, but place emphasis on different aspects.
Virtual teams focus more on what brings the team together - technology. While the terms dispersed, global, and distributed emphasize what keeps them apart - distance.
The choice can also depend on the structure of your organization, as distributed and dispersed does not necessarily mean global. In fact, the team members might be located in the same city or even the same building, but not all together.
The term global team can also refer to a specific type of virtual team. This is one in which members from various countries with a diversity of cultures, thoughts, needs, and solutions are brought together to perform a particular purpose or task.
With the rise of technology there has also been an increase in the amounts of other kinds of virtual teams. You’ll see what we mean in the next section.
Where do virtual teams come from?
Virtual work was born out of telecommuting. This practice began in the 1970s and 80's, from a mix of factors. More women were entering the workplace, and family commitments pushed for changes in work structures. This was helped with the rise of technology, when fax machines, cell phones, personal computers, and the world wide web came along. Changing the whole technological landscape.
Right away many businesses saw the benefits that virtual team work afforded them. And this practice has been steadily rising over the years. Even though many people see virtual teams as a recent phenomenon, examples have been around for decades.
Virtual teams are used in every profession from IT, to services, to engineering, and even healthcare.
Next up, we'll go over some of these specific kinds of teams.
What are the different kinds of virtual teams?
Although, there are a number of different types of virtual teams, here we'll dive into just a few examples.
- Networked teams
- Parallel teams
- Project development teams
- Service teams
Characterized by their fluid membership, new members are added as necessary and existing members are removed whenever their role is completed. The networked teams dissolve when the assigned task is completed. These types of teams are widely used in consulting firms and technology companies
Task oriented teams that usually consist of specialized professionals from inside or outside the organization. They are generally only required for a short amount of time, but are not dissolved after the completion of their tasks.
This type is effective in multinational organizations where a global perspective is needed to make recommendations for the local adaptations of products. For example, a consumer goods company might team up their sales, R&D, marketing, and manufacturing professionals from different locations into parallel virtual teams.
Project development teams
Precursor to modern virtual teams developed in the 1990s which brought together specific experts from different parts of the world. This type usually worked to develop a new product, information system or process. They are typically found in the R&D division of product-based companies.
Service teams are internationally dispersed over different time zones. Commonly found in customer service, they work to provide a service for all hours of the day.
Virtual team Vs. traditional team
Why do organizations turn to virtual teams? There are a number of reasons and motivations for a company to assemble such structures. One reason being that they can actually bring out a number of benefits. Especially when contrasted to a traditional team structure. Some of these benefits include:
Reduced operation costs - virtual teams actually save companies a lot of money! Don’t believe us? It’s been shown that if employers let their employees work from home even some of the time, it would save the company on average 11,000 USD annually.
Think about it. How much would you save if you didn’t pay for an office space, or on equipment and furniture that comes with it? And if you could pay people according to the work they do, not their location?
Take for example the fact that the average marketing manager’s annual salary in New York is 161,000 USD, while in Michigan it’s 108,000 USD. This team structure allows for you to pick your team based on talent, not on what your company can afford. And speaking of talent, that brings us to our next point.
Access to global talent - Allowing your employees to connect virtually let them connect from anywhere. That means you don’t need to limit your hires to the local job market.
This opens up opportunities to hire talent from all over the world. This can be beneficial if you are working on something which requires local insight, like for example launching a new product in Singapore. If you already have locals on your team, that makes the launch process a hell of a lot easier and smoother. Plus, global talent means more diversity, which studies show helps productivity and efficiency and leads to our last point.
Faster to problem solve and innovate - Virtual teams are great for problem solving. Why? Because not only do they have access to the best talent, but you have the best talent coming from a variety of backgrounds.
This makes it easier to source new ideas, think of unique solutions, and create more innovative products. Plus, because remote workers tend to be more productive, more flexible, and more independent, you can see results more quickly.
Learn more about the next shift in business practices: hybrid workplaces. These are offices that can accommodate remote workers and keep workplaces flexible. Read more about this latest trend here.
Challenges to virtual teams
Although this structure can provide a lot of advantages for a company, there are always some challenges team members will need to overcome.
Communication misunderstandings - differences in cultures, languages, and internet connections are oftentimes exacerbated by finicky technology and a lack of clear objectives.
Scheduling snafus - multiple projects, teams, and time zones can be a recipe for disaster if bottlenecks and overbookings aren’t caught ahead of time. Especially if your PM is still using Excel for your project management.
Management issues - this kind of team structure requires significant trust and isn’t well suited for micromanagers. Plus, without “hiring and firing” power, managers may find it difficult to motivate some employees.
However intimidating these challenges are there are some surefire ways to overcome them. And many of these difficulties can be mitigated by following some virtual team management tips.
Tips for leading virtual teams
There are dozens of tips and management hacks for making sure you have the most effective virtual team. To make it simple, we have narrowed it down to the 3 important things to keep in mind.
- Get inspired by other virtual teams
- Use the right software
- Stay flexible
Get inspired by other virtual teams
Although every company has their own unique challenges, there can be a lot to learn from how others effectively manage their virtually dispersed teams. Seeing what others experience can be a useful guide, as it can highlight many of the likely pitfalls, while also inspiring how to move forward.
Companies such as GitHub and Zapier operate with fully remote teams, while other major corporations such as Google and Dell have implemented specialized conditions in the wake of the current pandemic.
You can also search out other companies and take a lesson on how they operate. Here’s a list of 125 other companies that are fully remote whose blogs it might be useful to check out.
Here at Ganttic we’ve been around for more than 10 years, and in that time we have witnessed how teams from very different industries have used resource planning software in their organizations. Below are a few ways that teams in creativity and engineering have been able to solve their global resource management needs.
KiteTeam is a Spanish based company, which localizes video games all over the world. This creative company with offices in Madrid, Brazil, and Mexico, uses resource planning to keep track of their sound teams and recording studios. Saying:
With a flexible scheduling platform, the team can book an actor, creative engineer, audio engineer or any resource all at once. No matter their location.
“Basically, we used to be three different companies. We were looking for a resource management tool that would make it possible to make schedules for all three recording studios. We need to see who is using which recording studio, at what time they'll start and at what time they are done."
Using different planner “views” allows KiteTeam to, "control the bookings of actors." They can also create different views for meeting room availability or views for each of the multiple projects they work on.
Then by adding custom data fields to the resources or projects, their PM can specify certain criteria:
“Thanks to the custom data fields we can enter all the information that one could imagine. When work is already in progress, we use the custom data fields to filter out projects, resources, and tasks that we need."
Not only does resource management software help give a centralized overview to the PM, but using different views and filtering out certain data fields, gives an overview of what exactly they need. Management without getting bogged down by an information overload. Noting,
"It's the big picture that we are after and it's what we get with Ganttic."
2. Pure Technologies Ltd.
Over in a completely different industry, Pure Technologies Ltd. is an international asset management technology and services company. Looking for a more efficient solution to their human resource and equipment scheduling problems, they found Ganttic. Manager Allison Stroebele told us:
“We needed a better way to schedule a project so that we could see who would be involved and what equipment would be in use. Especially when teams were coming from three different offices nationwide and equipment was being shipped from anywhere in the country. We can track at least 80 pieces of equipment now as well, which wasn’t practical previously…. it gives everybody better visibility on where equipment and technicians are and what they’re doing. ”
Another useful aspect that’s great for virtually dispersed teams is the cloud-based software which gives instant insight to any changes. As Alison says:
“We use it every day and all 8 managers use it at the same time. Sometimes we’re on the phone together and we giggle, because somebody changes something and it changes on my end instantly, and everybody loves that.”
Key lessons for working on a virtual team:
- Choose a medium which provides an overview of all your teams, resources, and projects.
- Flexible and customizable software lets you plan exactly what you need.
- Keep your teams connected by ensuring your plans are completely shareable.
- Make sure you can access your plans anywhere with a cloud-based solution.
Virtual team software
1. Communication tools
It’s obvious that you’ll use these to keep everyone tuned in and in touch. But be forewarned, there are some specific times when they should be utilized. As such, these are broken down into different categories depending on how you should use them.
Chat tools - these are great if you need a quick response, as well as for a less official “virtual watercooler” space to share jokes, memes, and build team camaraderie. These include your Slacks and Skypes.
Video and voice chat - for full-time virtual teams, use these sparingly or when you need to convey emotion. Too many voice and video calls can make your team feel like they're in an extended meeting, which can lead to productivity decreasing. Zoom and Skype are ubiquitous, cost-effective software.
Email - save these for more official and company-wide messages, as you want to be able to track these conversations without overburdening your team with a clogged inbox. Email can also often be connected to the next batch of tools.
2. Project management and scheduling software
Scheduling tools - simple schedule makers, which give a clear overview of where everybody is and what they are doing. The best of these give you the option to simply drag and drop where and when you want the scheduled tasks to take place.
Resource management - Utilize resources in the most effective way to plan out projects, build your dream team, and achieve company goals. Resource management is imperative to the planning process and as this practice brings control, balance, and efficiency to your plans.
Project portfolio management - PPM software can give project managers and their teams a high-level view of everything. Letting you see the big picture of what’s getting done, what’s scheduled next, and what’s already been completed.
Tip: If you’re looking for a resource planning tool, check out our list of some of the best ones on the market.
3. Collaborative workspaces
Tools such as online whiteboards or GSuite. This gives a space for your team to work together, spitball ideas, and give feedback to one another.
The added benefit of most of these tools is that most include a mobile app, so you can get in contact quickly and without worry.
Key takeaways to choosing the right tools:
- Choose software that doesn’t require lengthy installation.
- Look for something cloud-based and which can be accessed from anywhere.
- Ensure that the tool doesn’t require multiple licensing fees. Because this kind of team structure is often so fluid, paying per user is not the best approach.
- Make sure that the tool you do pick is easy for your team to use, and doesn’t necessitate complicated on-boarding.
- Lastly, think accessibility and simplicity. And don’t be afraid to experiment with different options.
Read on: If you're using Excel for you dispersed team project management, you may want to reconsider by hauling those spreadsheets to the curb. See our list of 5 reasons why Excel sucks at virtual project management and tips on what to do instead.
The most important thing to remember when conquering dispersed team management is that you need to plan to plan. And staying as flexible as you can during the process. if you’re new to this kind of working structure, then be aware that there are a plethora of worries you need to stay mindful of.
With teammates located on all sides of the world, things like opposite working hours, meeting times, and even differing public holidays can cause disruptions to the workflow and create frustration. But with the heap of advantages that remote working has, it can be worth it to let go of these little things and find a balanced solution.
So, how can you stay flexible while also maintaining consistent output and efficiency? It’s not as difficult as you think if you account for certain things ahead of time. So try to keep in mind and plan for:
Opposite working hours - Ensure that you know when your different team members will be available. And try to make it so there are at least some overlapping hours. Share this working time with the rest of the team, so everyone knows when they can get a hold of their workmates, when to schedule meetings, and it doesn't kill collaboration.
Differing national holidays - It’s important to track when your global team has upcoming public holidays, especially if these aren’t included in usual vacation tracking software you use. Knowing when these holidays occur can help you plan out project capacity better and develop more accurate forecasting. Create a calendar of bank holidays, or better yet, make your planner do it for you! You can also use national holidays as a way to learn more about your team members’ home countries and create bonds.
Note dependent or time sensitive tasks - Finally you need to make sure that your whole team is on the same page about what tasks need to be completed, in which order, and by whom. Dispersed doesn’t have to mean disjointed. And it’s crucial to communicate to Sumit in India that his task must be finished before Jenny in South Africa can get started on hers.
So find a system which allows you and your team to track those time sensitive or dependent tasks. Maybe this means using a cloud-based Kanban board or a Gantt chart, to get the right info about the overall timeline and dependencies. Either way, it’s necessary to give your team a clear understanding of what needs to get done and when.Tip: If you're making the move to a more permanent remote solution, check out what essentials you need to work from home permanently.
Connect virtual teams with Ganttic
No matter the kind of team you’re working on or where in the world you’re located, the biggest obstacle for all virtual teams is staying connected. And making sure the various members know what they need to do.
While internet speeds and the cloud have pushed us forward from the original “teleworking”, they can also present some new challenges. Keeping people in the loop and making sure plans are up to date and coordinated is a major management challenge. Especially when your team is spread out.
In this case, it's wise to invest in resource management tools. And software like Ganttic can give you an overview of your projects, tasks, and resources, grouped and customized in any way that you need. Different “views” give the option to organize your planner according to location, line manager, project, available resources, or any other way you can think of.
Once you create your plans, you can share them with anyone. Share the schedule with the team, your boss, stakeholders, or even clients.
Best of all, you’ll know what your teams are doing and your teams will know what they’re doing. Clean, easy to understand Gantt charts give you a streamlined visualization of everything that’s going on.
Take a tour to see more or schedule a personalized demo for more in-depth information. There’s a reason 40% of our clients end up growing with us after implementing a proper resource management system. See how you can increase productivity and efficiency and grow your company to the global level.