Six Challenges of Coaching Virtual Teams & How to Address Them
Published on Sep 24, 2018 by Phillip Sandahl
With the rapid rate of technological innovation over the past couple of decades, the changes we've seen in the workplace have been considerable. With increasing frequency, more teams within more organizations are being created with members who are globally dispersed and connected only by technology. As team coaches, we need to learn how to do our work in an ever growing virtual world which means coaching virtual teams. That’s the reality.
From the organization’s point of view, creating virtual teams makes perfect sense. It allows the organization to draw from a vast pool of global talent. Without the limitations of location, team members are being chosen on the basis of their talent, experience, skill set, and temperament.
Also, from the organization’s point of view, there are excellent reasons for virtual team coaching. There is the obvious elimination of travel costs, hotel, and meals. But beyond the out-of-pocket financial costs are all the time costs associated with travel. Team members are away and unavailable; there is more stress on employees and their ability to be productive. There are significant costs associated with gathering the team together in-person.
Additionally, virtual team meetings are easier to schedule and more convenient for team members. It's an excellent way to optimize the time commitment for team members and maximize the investment in team development. More teams will take advantage of team coaching when they see that it fits their needs for economy and efficiency.
The trend is unmistakable. Organizations continue to emphasize the creation of virtual teams, including the hybrid combination of some co-located team members and some team members dispersed. Coaching virtual teams brings a unique set of challenges and in this post, we’ll look at the top six.
Challenge #1: Technology
There are more ways than ever for teams to connect in a virtual environment. That’s both a benefit and sometimes a headache, even when the technology works without issue.
For the team coach intent on working effectively, it starts with familiarity and competency with the technology platform. That’s easier when it’s the coach’s choice; more challenging when the coach is being asked to use the company’s setup. Not only are there many platform options these days, but there are also more device options to accommodate.
It used to be so simple. A phone. These days, we need to make the meeting work on all sorts of devices: phones, tablets, notebooks, laptops, and desktops. Best practices in the case of technology start with practice, which is easier if it's a platform you use often, and technical support is available if the platform unfamiliar. Also, have a backup plan. Assume there will be technical problems.
The technology is a challenge, especially until you’re comfortable with it, but it doesn’t have to be a barrier. In fact, there are ways that the technology can contribute to engagement and actually support the process by using the available features of the online platform.
Take A Survey Or Create A Poll
One of the advantages of using the polling feature in a virtual meeting environment is that the scores are always aggregated and anonymous. It gives you a “team” response which is more systems-based than voting by verbal polling or raised hands.
Use The Chat Feature
It provides a way to encourage participation for those team members who are more comfortable with writing than speaking to the group. It has the benefit of shifting the energy, inserting a quiet reflective moment, and it’s a way to capture thoughts, opinions, and good ideas that you have access to later.
In some platforms, you can create breakout rooms for small group conversations which can be especially valuable for larger teams or as a way to divide a topic into many elements.
It provides a way to share visuals from remote locations, easier than in-person. Sharing presentations or documents of course but also party photos. Because it’s technology-based doesn’t mean that the remote team space has to be impersonal. Far from it. The webcam gallery of faces is one simple way to give a team gathering a more personal environment.
Challenge #2: Logistics
The goal of coaching virtual teams is an optimal team coaching experience and the best use of the team’s time, attention and energy. The format and schedule will vary from team to team depending on availability, budget, and geography, but here are some typical guidelines.
Length of Session
90 minutes seems to be the right length for a scheduled session. Longer than that and conference call fatigue starts to set in and the effort to work remotely becomes less productive.
With virtual coaching, there are often more frequent sessions compared to gathering the team in-person. A common pattern would be twice monthly or every two weeks.
This becomes an issue in a virtual coaching environment when teams get larger than about 12. Given the nature of the technology environment, with a large group, it is more difficult for everyone to stay engaged.
Time Zone Issues
Our number one recommendation: spread the pain. As much as possible, look for day/time overlap knowing that in some cases that won’t be possible. Make sure the late night or very early morning time slot does not land on the same virtual team members all the time.
The case of virtual and co-located. In some cases, you'll have a combination of some team members co-located, like the people at “headquarters”, while some remain dispersed. Our recommendation: if some are solo, make all the team solo. The dynamic of seeing a social gathering of some team members while others remain isolated can create a feeling some are “in” and some are “out”. Having everyone in their own location also minimizes the chance of people having side conversations and helps ensure a better quality audio experience.
The Need for Quiet and Privacy
In preparing virtual teams for team coaching it’s also important to emphasize the need for quiet & privacy. It eliminates distractions and creates a safer space for real conversation that won’t be overheard by others.
Challenge #3: Structure
What can we do in 90-minute segments that can have an impact? When we’re in-person with the team, two or three hours feels tight. Now we’re squeezing the session into 90 min. It means making adjustments in our planning but there are still key coaching outcomes that can occur.
The simple act of getting together with the intention of building a stronger team and being in honest communication with each other is, by itself, a valuable outcome. How often do teams take that opportunity when left to their own busy schedules? Team coaching gives them a reason and an opportunity they rarely take the time for. Use the opportunity to help team members get to know each other on a more personal basis. Virtual teams don’t have a break room or water cooler where they can build those relationships; make time for that with teams in virtual space.
Accountability and Learning
One of the core benefits of a coaching model is the emphasis on action steps, followed by holding one another accountable for the action, and then harvesting the learning from the action taken. The virtual environment is more than suitable.
Every team coaching session, whether it’s in-person or virtual, is an opportunity for the team to do real work on an important team issue. The team picks a relevant and timely issue that needs a solution or a plan, then for the next 30 minutes the team conducts a “business as usual” meeting, and the coach observes the team dynamics in action which creates abundant material for feedback and coaching.
The virtual environment is well suited to these common outcomes including the convenience of setting up smaller breakout discussions.
For some team members, the virtual environment may feel safer or more comfortable for the sorts of personal appreciation or acknowledgment that might be part of the session.
In fact, there are actually inherent strengths of a virtual environment when we note that this virtual world is a verbal channel. Yes, we are big advocates for using the webcam so people see each other as human beings, not disembodied voices. Using the webcam also helps maintain engagement by eliminating multi-tasking temptations. But compared to the rich, visual environment of an in-person session, the virtual session comes up short. In the virtual environment, we rely on the verbal channel. And that translates into strengths for:
- Creative thinking/innovation
- And as we already noted: Action planning and Acknowledgment
When many of the visual cues are missing, the verbal and audio channels are more important. That means listening and being aware of tone of voice and the impact of what's said and what isn't.
Challenge #4: The Experience
This is not your every day “con call”. Despite the technological challenges alluded to earlier, team members are more comfortable and adept with the tools for virtual connection. That’s the good news.
The bad news: they now have well-practiced habits that do not serve us well in coaching teams in a virtual world. A team coaching session is not an everyday conference call where being present at 25% or less is acceptable and more or less the norm.
Building Trust And Intimacy In A Virtual Work Environment
Team coaching and team development should improve a team’s effective collaboration. It is about the relationship; the content of the conversation is important but that’s not where the team learning happens. High performing teams have learned to create deeper levels of trust, honesty, and connection. That’s the experience we are trying to duplicate in the virtual environment.
Skills for a Verbal Channel
One of the clues to making that virtual world more effective is to once again reflect on the nature of that environment: it's a verbal channel. That awareness gives us a focus area: focus on and improve skills for that verbal channel.
For teams, that includes listening skills of course. Active listening. Summarizing. Clarifying. The most valuable skill teams can learn is the skill of being open and curious. It’s a skill that will support the team in any interaction but because it is a verbal skill. It's especially well suited for a virtual environment—an environment where it is easy to practice and the payoff will be noticeable.
Teach the team how to ask open-ended questions that are short and powerful. Help teams learn the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions and how that affects the conversation. Introduce the distinction between advocacy and inquiry, and their attention to the balance in their team conversations. In most cases, teams are already quite proficient in taking a stand, stating a position, contributing an idea or proposing a solution. They are not as proficient at asking the curious question, the skill of inquiry.
The Need For Team Training
Teams have become accustomed to the standard con-call and the behavior that goes with it, including the level of engagement, pace, tone, and function. To use the same technology platform to create a different experience will take intention and training. That starts with an explanation but must also include buy-in by the team to take ownership of that goal and hold each other accountable for it. We recommend working with the team to create specific team agreements around protocol and how the team works together in that environment.
Adapt Experiential Work
It’s true we lose many of the options for experiential team activity because the team is not mobile, but there are ways to adapt some of the experiential work when we remember we are using a verbal channel.
Challenge #5: Facilitation
With team coaching, the most important conversation is the one team members have with each other. That’s where the change happens. As team coaches, we are responsible for creating the conditions for that conversation and managing the process. The challenge here is not so much with the virtual environment itself; the challenge is our lack of familiarity facilitating in that environment. There is a social aspect to the in-person team coaching that we miss when everyone is a node on the network. We’re more accustomed to that public conversational setting. We are not so familiar facilitating a team conversation in a virtual-techno environment.
That awareness is for both the coach and the team. This is new territory for every one of us. This is the first place to be transparent with the team: set the context. The goal is to maximize limited time together so have the team set ground rules that support participation. Continued transparency will be key to the success of the process.
Here are some typical issues that come up that can derail or undermine a team conversation.
- The voice that dominates. Sometimes it’s a powerful voice or a bully; sometimes it’s an
- enthusiastic voice but there’s little air time for others.
- Silent voice. It has a presence—but not a contribution. Sometimes it’s the result of thoughtful reflection; sometimes it’s holding back.
- The team leader. the team leader has a unique impact on the team conversation.
- Conversational chaos. People talking over one another; interrupting; loss of focus; too many agendas at once.
And here are a couple of behaviors that are more often issues in the virtual environment.
- Team members leaving and returning: teams tolerating interruptions
- Team members multitasking
These are key areas for team agreements to maximize the effectiveness of the work in a virtual team coaching environment. To the team: “How will you handle these situations if they come up?” In some ways, the virtual environment actually gives us, as team coaches, more permission to be direct.
Challenge #6: Self-Management
Along with all the usual ways a coach might be anxious before a team coaching session, the virtual environment brings a unique set of reasons, especially when it’s a new experience. One typical change for coaches is learning to get the balance right between intervening, listening and observing. As coaches, we are responsible for the process, but that doesn’t mean being a dominant voice. Notice the natural temptation to fill the airspace and overcompensate when the team gets quiet. Pay attention to your own self-management tendencies and triggers.
Note that the skills for team coaching still apply. Your primary focus is still to listen below the surface of the conversation. Listen for the undercurrents and be curious about what’s happening underneath at the emotional and team dynamic level because the team is not likely to be listening at that level. Notice when your attention is being focused on following the content of the conversation when you are listening to understand or analyze the situation for problem-solving. As coach, your value is in helping the team to see the habits and patterns in the way they interact.
This Is The Emerging World
Some would say this virtual world is not emerging since it surrounds us now in every facet of our lives. Our ability to work well within that world as team coaches is the part that is emerging. It is emerging as we become more familiar and as the trend within organizations to create geographically dispersed teams continues to grow.
Frankly, the majority of coaches, virtual team coaching is by far a distant second choice compared to meeting with a team in-person and face to face. Unfortunately, the world of teams will not be accommodating our wishes; we need to learn to be effective in coaching virtual teams. The need for our work is too important. The mission is largely unchanged. It’s the environment that is changing.
Here’s one, possibly more resourceful perspective: this is actually an outstanding opportunity to expand the impact of the work we do. For organizations, the ability to take advantage of team coaching in ways that are more convenient and economical means there is a stronger incentive. In the end, there is a greater potential for impact.