7 Challenges of Virtual Teams (And How to Tackle Them)

Challenges of virtual teams

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The benefits of a virtual team are numerous: you can see higher productivity, spend less, and work with professionals from around the world. However, this still doesn’t mean that working with remote employees is easy. In fact, if you want to run a successful company, you’ll need to understand the challenges of virtual teams and know how to tackle them.

1. Communication

One of the most significant challenges of virtual teams is communication. It is a completely different experience to communicate with people you rarely (if ever) see than with employees who you talk with face to face.

For one thing, misunderstandings are much more likely. When you lack visual cues, it’s easier to misinterpret things like tone.

There’s also the fact that each employee may prefer to communicate in a different way. Some may appreciate the chance to have regular video calls to check in, whereas others will prefer to stick to instant messaging. When communication styles clash, working together becomes harder. One person could find long chats annoying, feeling they’re a waste of time; another may construe a brief message as rude.

All this can lead to several problems, including:

  • Mistakes
  • The need to redo work
  • Lost customers
  • Missed deadlines
  • Tensions between coworkers
  • Lack of innovation
  • Poor decision making

How to Overcome This Challenge

As communication problems manifest themselves in numerous ways, there are a few things you need to do to tackle the issue.

First, set communication guidelines. This should specify what means of communication you’ll use and how long employees have to answer a message during the business week. Lead by example by being a good communicator yourself.

Second, use the right tools. It’s much better to have all your messaging in one place than to spread out communication over a series of emails. With a tool like Slack, you have somewhere for your entire team to talk, the chance to split into smaller groups according to project or type of work, and the opportunity to send private messages.

Another way to stop using emails is to use project management tools. These are key to keeping everyone on track, monitoring progress, and making sure everyone has understood the instructions. Take advantage of the free trials most tools offer to find software that meets your team’s needs.

Lastly, whenever you need to hire someone new, make sure the candidate has the skills it takes to communicate effectively while working remotely. This may mean conducting a few interviews or employing someone to work on a trial basis. Ideally, find hires that have a similar communication style to you.

2. Productivity

We mentioned earlier that productivity can be higher when you have a remote team. This doesn’t mean that’s always the case. In fact, working remotely can be demotivating. Plus, whereas some people find it easier to focus at home than at the office, others find they are more easily distracted — it often depends on their families!

How to Overcome This Challenge

Some employees are already used to working remotely. When making a decision about who to hire, you may like to favor these candidates — particularly when all else is equal.

Another thing to do is help employees make the transition to remote work. Divide projects into smaller tasks and set short-term deadlines. Adding both start dates and end dates to a project is also helpful.

When employees are still adjusting, check in with them regularly. Ask them if they are facing any difficulties and if they require any additional support. Just sharing productivity tips and tools can go a long way.

3. Sense of Belonging

Employees are more likely to feel disconnected from the company if they never set foot inside the office. A sense of belonging is important, as leads employees to feel more committed to their work and produce a higher quality. It also decreases turnover.

It’s extra important to create a sense of belonging with remote employees if some of your other workers do come into the office regularly. The last thing you want is for some employees to feel less a part of the team.

How to Overcome This Challenge

Make sure you talk about other things than work with your virtual team. Learn about employees’ personal lives and chat about things you have in common. If you use Slack, it can be useful to have at least one channel dedicated to a topic unrelated to work.

It’s easier to bond on a personal level with your more talkative employees. Avoid allowing just a few members of your virtual team to dominate the conversation by asking the quieter members direct questions to ensure you hear their views.

As well as interacting with small groups and one on one, spend time as a team. Celebrate birthdays, job anniversaries, and work achievements. If you’re able, hold in-person events once a year.

4. Trust

Related to a sense of belonging is trust. This is one of the biggest challenges of managing virtual teams, as it’s particularly hard to gain trust when you never spend time in person. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible — and it’s certainly worthwhile. Teams see much better results when members trust each other.

How to Overcome This Challenge

Key to building trust is communicating your mission and values with your virtual team. When employees see that their efforts are contributing to a larger goal, they see that the company has integrity.

This is most effective when your overarching vision is a greater purpose than simply to make money or become the top in your industry. Virtual employees (particularly when they’re millennials) like to know that the work they are doing will positively impact society as a whole. You can demonstrate this through sponsorships, volunteer work, and donations to charitable causes.

You should also build trust on a smaller scale. Demonstrate why each team member is critical by making sure everyone is aware of their teammates’ contributions to the project and commend achievements publicly.

5. Accountability

Employees who are unused to working without supervision may produce low-quality work or spend longer than is necessary on tasks due to a lack of accountability. You need to encourage employees to spend their business hours working productively.

How to Overcome This Challenge

The simplest thing you can do is use time-tracking tools. These show you how many hours employees are working and what exactly they are doing. You can see where they are spending their time (what software or websites), their keyboard activity and mouse movements, and even take screenshots at random intervals.

However, it is important to go a step beyond just monitoring. Employees should want to be accountable for their work. As well as making your company objectives clear, talk about employees’ own goals. How can you support them in progressing with their careers?

Finally, assess performance and provide team members with actionable feedback. Doing periodic remote employee assessments can show you where workers need to make improvements.

6. Cultural and Geographical Differences

If you have employees around the globe, cultural differences could pose a problem, especially if a behavior is misconstrued. In addition, workers may be located in various time zones, which can make collaboration difficult.

How to Overcome This Challenge

It’s possible that many of your employees speak something other than English as a first language. Remind everyone to avoid slang and colloquialisms in team communications. You should also avoid specific cultural references — these may even be confusing for native English speakers from other countries!

To cope with the issue of time zones, it can be a good idea to set a couple hours a day (or even just a few hours each week, depending on your need for collaboration) when everyone needs to be available.

7. Security

If you’re handling sensitive information, security is a much bigger concern when you have a virtual team than when all your employees work at the same office. Your team members are all connecting to different networks and using their own devices. To an extent, it’s on them to make sure they stay safe, such as by keeping virus and malware software up to date.

How to Overcome This Challenge

Even teams that only work onsite are never fully protected. All companies need to take security measures to protect data. Those with virtual teams just need to go a step further.

The most important thing you can do is set security requirements. These should include only connecting to a secure network, especially when employees are dealing with sensitive information. If they need to use public WiFi or an unsecure network for any reason, employees must also use a VPN.

You can also require team members to use secure passwords and two-factor authentication. When choosing software, pick tools that have enterprise-grade security features and never use any tools that lack data encryption.

There are both benefits and challenges of virtual teams. To see the benefits, you’ll need to take steps to overcome the challenges. There’s no such thing as a quick fix — this will require ongoing effort, but it will be worthwhile. Put in the time to figure out where your employees are struggling or where their work is falling short and you’ll be able to build a capable, competitive virtual team.

For further support in tackling the challenges of virtual teams, download our remote work management guide. It details (and explains how to avoid) the five most common HR mistakes businesses with remote teams make. Get it now for free.

Laura Holton

Laura is a professional writer specializing in content aimed at small businesses and entrepreneurs. She has helped countless startups find the information they needed to take their ventures to the next level.

Laura Holton

Laura is a professional writer specializing in content aimed at small businesses and entrepreneurs. She has helped countless startups find the information they needed to take their ventures to the next level.


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