Remote workers are a growing part of today's business landscape. The odds of being assigned to a remote team are great. That's why you need to know how to deal with the challenges of working on or managing a virtual team.
Brie Reynolds of FlexJobs puts it this way:
[A]s remote work continues to grow, smart companies will absolutely seek out people who are knowledgeable about remote teams.
The exact number of telecommuters is unknown, but most studies agree that the number of home-based workers is growing in the United States and Europe. According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau figures, 13.4 million people in the U.S. spend at least one day a week working from home. In other countries, the number of telecommuters is even higher.
Companies like to use remote workers because they save money when they do. Overhead costs are lower for remote workers, and remote workers tend to be more productive. Using a virtual team also gives companies access to a larger talent pool. It only makes sense that many home-based workers are part of remote teams that require collaboration.
Working on or managing a freelancing team that requires you to collaborate with others can be a challenge if you're used to working alone. It can be even more challenging when your teammates are located all over the globe.
In this article I identify the challenges you'll face when you work on or manage a remote team. I also explain how you can face and overcome each challenge.
Facing the Challenges of a Remote Team
Teamwork and collaboration are difficult even when team members work in the same building or live in the same city. When team members who have never met in person work together, the challenges are even greater.
Common challenges faced by geographically diverse teams include:
Sharon Hurley Hall understands the problems of managing a remote team. She managed 12 remote writers for a copywriting agency. She explains the biggest challenge she faced:
Not everyone in the team had the same standards in terms of writing and delivering work. On occasion, I'd find myself staying up till midnight to complete work that hadn't been delivered by the assigned writer or that HAD been delivered, but was so late and far off the brief that I couldn't submit it.
Marla Markman also manages remote teams, both for IT projects and for self-publishing projects. Her remote teams averaged seven team members.
Marla describes her biggest problems managing a remote team:
In the IT realm, my biggest problem is communication. Also, sometimes different time zones and language differences add to communication problems. And personality differences play a role. I have had some workers I couldn't communicate with in the traditional way.
You can overcome the challenges of remote collaboration with the right knowledge and planning.
The extra effort to overcome challenges is worth it. According to Brie Reynolds:
A manager who understands how to manage and lead people in a remote environment, and how that differs from traditional in-office management, is a huge asset to a company. Leading remote workers requires someone who is a proactive communicator, who reaches out to his or her team regularly to offer help or guidance, who understands the goals of the organization and can explain how each person on the team is making an impact.
Challenge 1: Scope
When working on a remote project, make sure you know what needs to be done. A misunderstanding could cost thousands of dollars if left uncorrected.
Sharon Hurley Hall describes how she overcame scope-based challenges on her team:
I learned to handle [the problem with standards] by encouraging writers to ask more questions if they were unsure and by setting due dates a couple days early so I could reassign if necessary. Over time, though, that problem almost disappeared as I stopped working with unreliable team members.
If you're managing a remote team, use these steps to make sure everyone on your team understands their responsibilities:
- Have each team member sign off on their responsibilities. Getting a written agreement from team members is as important as getting a written agreement with your client. If your client doesn't need team members to sign off on the project's scope, create a scope document and ask each member to sign it.
- Define responsibilities clearly. If team members don't know what they should be doing, the result can be confusion. Even worse, you may wind up working on the same task as another team member while other tasks remain undone.
- Create or adopt a standards guide. Whether a team includes writers, coders, or other professionals, a simple guide keeps everyone on the same page. When possible, provide examples. Or, adopt already published guidelines such as The Chicago Manual of Style for writing projects. WordPress developers can use the WordPress best practices found in this tutorial. Tuts+ instructors can use our style guide for writing tutorials.
If you're working on a remote team, don't hesitate to ask questions. It's better to ask a question now than to do it wrong.
Challenge 2: Staffing
If you hire remote team members, you know finding qualified workers is a challenge. The wrong team members can sink your project. If you've ever worked with a bad team member, you know what I mean.
Here are some tips to make sure you find the right people:
- Know what skills and experience you are looking for. For example, don't look for a web developer (a description that fits many people). Instead, look for a web developer with Drupal experience (a more specific description).
- Review the candidate's LinkedIn profile and professional website. Pay attention to recommendations and endorsements they've received.
- Many creative professionals maintain a professional portfolio of past work. If your candidate has a portfolio, be sure to take a look.
- Pay fairly. The least expensive candidate is often not a bargain. There are plenty of Internet horror stories from managers who hired unprofessional freelancers. What those stories don't include is that often those workers received far less than the going rate for their services.
- Hire from a trusted source. Envato Studio is a good resource for finding qualified members for your remote team.
As a remote worker, review the list and make sure your profiles include everything a remote team manager needs to know. Highlight any team projects you've already worked on.
Challenge 3: Finances
For international teams, exchange rates and different currencies can make a real difference.
If the conversion rate between your currency and the currency you are paid with fluctuates during the project, you could earn far less than you expected.
Here's how to address challenges caused by differing currencies:
- If possible, specify the currency you will be paid with. For example, my work agreements often specify USD (U.S. Dollars) because I live in the United States.
- Check the currency rate and look at the trend over the past few months. Is your currency converting favorably? Check this currency converter to find out.
- If you hire team members, avoid misunderstandings by asking which currency each member wants to paid with.
- Outline the payment method and timeline in the work agreement or other written document.
Handle financial details early in the project to avoid problems later on.
Challenge 4: Geography
While many team problems are more difficult for remote teams, there are three problems remote teams face that other teams often do not.
Time Zone Differences
As a remote team member, you'll likely face time zone differences. Sometimes these differences are slight—an hour or two. At other times, a time zone difference means that some workers work while others are asleep.
Sharon Hurley Hall dealt with this problem. Here's her advice for remote team members trying to schedule meetings:
The key thing to do - and I learned this from the agency - is to establish what time zone you are working in. You can set a deadline for delivery at the close of day, but team members need to know that it's the close of day Eastern time, for example. Scheduling calls can be a challenge, but it's manageable among US/UK/Europe - Australia and places with a double digit time difference can be a challenge. I use EveryTimeZone to check times and have multiple timezones in my Google Calendar.
If your team members speak different languages, it's harder to communicate. Unless you, or your team members, are bilingual (and fluent), it's a good idea to include a translator on the team.
Even when team members use your language, they may use it differently. Dialects, slang, and regional usage can affect the meaning of words.
If you aren't sure what a team member means, ask for a clarification.
As geographically diverse teams become more common, odds are good that you'll work with someone from a different culture. Here's what you need to know.
Cultural diversity can be a great advantage for your team, since members with different backgrounds approach problems from different angles. Cultural differences can also present a challenge, especially if they cause misunderstandings.
A team member's culture makes a difference for the team. Accepted business practices and behaviors differ across cultures. As a remote worker, you need to be prepared for differences between team members.
Whether you manage a culturally diverse team or are just working on one, learn everything you can about the different cultures of your team members. No matter what, be patient and polite.
A Harvard Business Review article, Managing Multicultural Teams, provides even more specific tips for working with culturally diverse teams.
Challenge 5: Communication
Communication issues add to the problems faced by remote teams. While all teams face communication problems, distance and the tendency to use email make these problems worse for a virtual team.
The differing personalities on a remote team can make good communication a challenge, especially since team members can't just walk across the office or drive across town to work things out.
Marla Markman explains how she deals with communication issues on the virtual teams she manages:
My job is to make sure everyone does what the client wanted. I am also the client liaison and have to communicate what the workers are saying and explain that to the client. I've learned I have to figure out how each person communicates best and use that method of communication with that person.
Marla's also been on some teams that used innovative and unique ways to stay in touch. For example:
Several years ago, the owner of a social media company that I worked for had team members meet in Second Life [an online virtual world]. We set up avatars and held virtual meetings there.
Use these tips to deal with communication issues:
- Get to know your team members as individuals. Everyone works differently. Knowing and understanding how your team members work best strengthens the entire team.
- Ask for (or provide) regular status reports. Status reports help you identify potential problems early. The Tuts+ tutorial on status reports can help your team with this step.
- Be available to answer questions. If you manage the team, tell team members to ask you questions when they need help. Answer questions quickly and completely. It's better to spend time early in the project clearing up misunderstandings than to spend time on rework later in the project.
- Encourage discussion and the sharing of ideas. Provide a place for remote workers to discuss the project. Popular project management tools like Basecamp and Asana include communication from within the tool. For a simpler and less expensive alternative, set up a secure private forum for discussion on your company's website.
- Keep your project discussions private. Make sure the free versions of tools like Trello and Google Drive are secure by limiting document access to your team members only.
Working with a geographically diverse team doesn't have to be difficult. With the right planning, collaborating with other remote professionals as part of a virtual team can be a rewarding part of your career.
Marla Markman explains why remote team managers shouldn't be afraid. She points out, "The same skills that make you a good manager of an internal team translate over to virtual teams."
So, be aware of the challenges remote teams face and have faith in your abilities. Don't hesitate to work on or lead a remote team.