2009.12.01 14:26:27
Susan Jackman

About 6 months ago I wrote a post on the biggest challenges that a design team must face.  I do not feel that I gave this subject matter enough attention and would like to expand on this issue more.

I wrote that there are two big challenges faced by all teams. In-effective utilization or organization of timelines and poor communication.  These two issues work hand in hand against each other.  These issues are based on my experiences working on an international level and online with virtual teams, but are also relevant for a design team that works in different rooms, floors, offices, and if any members are offsite completely. I’d also like to include a third issue into the mix, which is teamwork, or more accurately individuality.

Ultimately everyone will agree that time is money, and these issues will drain both.
Communication (both positive and negative) is the foundation for a virtual teams success.

Some of the challenges faced are:

  • Navigating across time zones (rather than an 8 hour day virtual teams may be "operating" 24 hours a day, possibly 7 days a week)
  • Working across technology - use of different platforms and technology available from the location
  • Working across cultures and languages
  • Creating a shared vision for all team members
  • Nontraditional communication methodologies that may require equipping staff with enhanced skills in virtual communication

A virtual team — also known as a geographically dispersed team (GDT) — is a group of individuals who work across time, space, and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology. They have complementary skills and are committed to a common purpose, have interdependent performance goals, and share an approach to work for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

When managing a virtual team, walls, miles, or more often oceans may separate team members.  Keeping all the members on the same page can be a challenge.

Communication is a pretty obvious issue.  Without good communication between ALL members a million problems can surface. 

Communication Failure

Because non-verbal communication exists in the digital world, this means that misinterpretations will occur when it comes to your team’s communication. The others who read it can easily interpret the words that one person writes in an email differently. This problem increases when you have to interpret your client’s words through a third party company or visa-versa.

In business, effective communication is absolutely critical, and if team members are not able to properly communicate with each other, there is a good chance that the project will end in disaster. The second challenge, which is prevalent among virtual teams, is a reduced ability to construct relationships. With virtual teams, made up of different companies there is very little casual communication that exists among the members of the team.  This is true in any case where multiple companies are pulling together on a project, virtual or not. The same can be said when team members exist in different physical locations. 

Lack of clarity

Communication is more than just keeping the lines open, but also being as clear as possible.  While on one hand it is good to give details when asking someone to do something, it is equally as important to not overcomplicate something with unnecessary information.  Not only does a lack of clarity delay things getting done because it is necessary to go back and forth until everyone understands, but it also causes mistakes and misunderstandings.  Don’t expect people to have to read between the lines to figure out what you’re asking for.  You don’t have time for that and neither do they.

Another critical factor is communication skills. The team member should be able to communicate clearly, constructively, and positively even through the more limited channels of technology, in spite of the loss of many nonverbal cues of face-to-face communications.  This problem increases when dealing with team members of different nationalities and located in different parts of the world.

Distant Communication Complexity

While it may seam obvious to you that it’s only 2:00 PM and you should be able to expect someone to do something for you in the next few hours with a quick email, when your working in a virtual environment and have team members across the country and across the globe, you likewise have members across the time zones.  Is your teammate sitting down to dinner, or out for some Friday night fun?  Perhaps you are in a later time zone and they are done for the day but your just getting started.  Even if you feel like you have a good grasp of time expectations, these things will get in the way to some extent.  While it may be tempting to pick up the phone and just call for some quick clarification, rather than waiting till tomorrow for an answer, but you will be imposing on their personal time to do this.  It’s best to address these kinds of concerns and agree on how to handle them in the beginning and take this into account when assigning deadlines and timelines.

Language barriers

Time zone barriers

Cultural barriers

Timeline expectations

Each member needs adequate time to deliver their responsibilities and delays from one person with affect he next person in line. The timeline issue refers to problems like, late submissions, assumptions that someone else will wait till the last minute to receive your submission, delays do to human error or unforeseen circumstances, not allowing adequate time for feedback, and in general not doing things in a timely manner.  If everyone puts their tasks off to the last minute there isn’t any time left for the team to give feedback or the team members to revise their work. The person at the end of the line, usually the developer or project manager, gets the short end of the stick.  Delays will happen and it is to be expected, but the deadline must move forward to compensate for unforeseen delays.

Individuality and Trust.  There is no “I” in TEAM.

This may not be the best word to describe this so perhaps a more elaborate description would be appropriate here.  What I am talking about is a lack of teamwork as a result of members only looking after their own interests.  This will surface more in a situation where the team members are not individuals so much as they are different companies working together for one client.  For example you may have a design firm creating the designs for the client and a different company, often outsourced, doing the programming.  The more different companies you add to the mix the more complicated it all gets.  In this case you must have one central person managing the project.  These companies will make mistakes and often not take responsibility for there mistakes and it will be up to the project manager to sort them all out as well as keep things moving. Sometimes different team members may have different expectations about what part they play or what tasks they should do and time can be lost when they hit grey areas or assume it’s someone else’s job to do a specific task.

One of the biggest challenges of virtual teams is building and maintaining trust between the team members. Trust is critical for unblocking communication problems between members and sustaining motivation of each person involved. The issue of trust needs to be paid special attention at any stage of team existence.

Know your place

So once again, clear communication becomes crucial and the project manager needs to be the center of communication.

The client needs to send all communication through the project manager and resist the urge to deal with different parts of the team separately. There is an old saying, the right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing and the more hands you have the more important this is.

It may be tempting for the design firm to go directly to the client with questions to save time, but in the long run this will not save time.  If the designer then makes changes tot he site and that say the programmer does not know about, or visa-versa, work may be lost, the other party may assume it’s a mistake and change it back, or any number of similar issues which will make that one task take three-times longer to complete.  The project manager should always know what’s going on if they are going to be effective and keeping things running smoothly and efficiently.

Be specific and detailed about each member’s role and what is expected from each other. Particularly as you transition into another stage of the project, be very conscious of each person’s role and clarity about commitment levels is crucial.

Not everyone can perform well in a virtual team environment.  Each member should be self-motivated and able to work independently. Each member needs to be able to keep working effectively without much external control or structure. The next important quality is that each member be strongly result-orientated. Unless the member shows clear results, there is nobody around to see how intense his or her work activities are.

Project Manager

Having a project manager in this case is even more important than ever.  Managers of virtual teams also need to pay much more attentions to giving clear goals, performance standards, and communication rules. People have very different assumptions on what to expect from each other. To avoid build-ups of misunderstandings, in a virtual organization it is critical to replace those varied assumptions with clear rules and protocols that everyone understands and agrees upon, especially in regards to communication.


There are many advantages to working in a virtual team and I will save those for another post but there are certainly best and worst case scenarios.  Experience in working in a virtual environment, training and education, trust and expertise, communication protocols, strong professional relationships, similar work ethic, and close geographical location, and members who are all part of the same company are why my virtual team is a best-case scenario. Each of my team members is strong enough on their own to handle any aspect of a project and together we utilize each person’s strongest skills.

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