Managing virtual teams

September 2019

Written in cooperation with

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There are many business advantages to an increasingly virtual workplace: it saves space, reduces the travel budget, offers flexibility, and increases diversity in your talent pool. However, research suggests this increasingly virtual world is coming at a cost to team performance.

Advances in technology have triggered what’s been called a ‘spatial revolution’ with flexible and virtual working becoming the new norm. In the UK, for example, working from home has increased by a fifth (19%) over the past decade with other studies showing how 46% of organisations use teams who interact primarily through virtual communication.

Team virtuality continuum

of virtual team members report never to have met their virtual colleagues face-to-face.
organisations use teams who interact primarily through virtual communication.

Since nearly every other organisation has teams that primarily interact virtually, you’d be hard pushed to find many teams that don’t at least use some virtual tools, like video conferencing or instant messaging. Team virtuality is thus now understood as a continuum1, with teams varying in the following: geographical dispersion, time differences among members, electronic dependence and workplace mobility (i.e. how much people can work anywhere, anytime from any device), and the proportion of their interactions that involves real-time communication.2,3

How Virutal Is Your Team?

Pros and Cons of Virtuality

For organisations and individuals, greater team virtuality definitely has benefits.

  • Organisations can reach the best candidates regardless of their location,
  • They can mobilise knowledge more easily, and
  • They can save on costs.

Similarly, for individuals there’s much greater flexibility to work from home or on the road; with many people opting to work remotely to avoid office distractions and the stresses of commuting (FlexJobs 2017 Survey).

Yet most people still highly prefer face-to-face communication over any kind of e-communication (including e-mails and video conferencing) at work. And with good reason. Teams are hindered when they don’t work enough face-to-face (and we’ll describe why in a minute). Besides regular obstacles like different time-zones and understanding different accents, there are more severe issues connected with virtual collaboration, like the inability to make snap decisions, and the frustrations when a teammate won’t talk, and you can’t just head down the hall to ask why. A SIS study notes that waiting for information costs an average of $9.97 per employee per year.

Some studies have also shown that high virtuality reduces the frequency and quality of communication (including its openness) and a team’s co-ordination and efficiency (i.e. the time to complete a task).4

Handling Virtuality in Your Team?

See the Two Key Challenges

#1: Underestimating shared leadership potential

A recent study found that half the team leaders out there significantly underestimate the shared leadership within their highly virtual teams. Underestimated teams visibly underperform.5

In terms of what’s blinding them to shared leadership potential, this study suggests it may be that:

  • they assume that there can (or at least should) only be one leader,
  • they believe that only they have what it takes to lead
  • and/or they’re afraid of being replaceable.

#2: Building trust when team members have never met face to face

Trust is essential for the performance of all teams, it’s true, but research has shown how it is particularly linked to performance in highly virtual teams.6

Specifically, evidence from multiple virtual teams has shown trust to be key ingredients for making teams:

  • work harder,
  • collaborate more,
  • communicate to get things done and
  • produce better results.7

Trust-building heavily depends on how we see each others’ credibility, reliability and self-interest.8 Trust also subtly rises among team members through nonverbal and social-context cues; these help them express and understand each other’s tone, feelings and nuances.9

Without face-to-face interaction, for many, building trust in a virtual team can feel like creating and nurturing a garden in a desert.

How can you build trust within your virtual team?

1. People look for ‘tells’

So be sure to make the right impression.

We have evolved to assess the people’s trustworthiness by watching their behaviour, responses and interactions.10 We seek e.g. indicators of cooperation or signs of free-riding (benefitting from resources or services but not paying for or contributing to them).

When you’re working face-to-face, it’s easy to watch how others behave and decide if you can trust them.

In a virtual environment, this ‘monitoring’ information is limited, forcing people to look for trustworthiness ‘tells’ 11 (a poker term that means ‘cues about the cards others are playing’). Consequently, when starting in or starting up a virtual team, remember that little cues can mean a lot. For example, answering emails or requests slowly may make others see you as hard to trust or likely to stumble. It also helps to be make a habit of letting others know when you’ll be unavailable.

Meanwhile, streamlining mutual availability in a team can trigger leaps in performance and decisions to commit to ‘being there’ for teammates.

Mutual availability

This team was facing low availability of the person F. In this chart, height represents individual availability for teammates. The further team members are from each other, the lower their mutual availability. The arrows highlight people who strongly rely on each other to deliver their outputs – and so higher availability would help them greatly.

This topic was opened up with the team, which led them to establish general rules on how to reach each other more effectively, increasing their availability by 20% in 2 weeks.

2. Take that time from your schedule to share back new insights

Just as we are programmed to seek signs of free-riding, we also notice co-operation as an sign of trustworthiness. It’s easy to obsess on working through your own to-do list when working remotely, but a key way to signal willingness to co-operate with others in a virtual team is by sharing knowledge. So to help build trust with other virtual team members, it’s important to take that bit of time to share anything new you know.

3. Cultivate ‘task-less’ trust

Without the benefits of face-to-face interactions, trust among virtual team members is typically founded on predictable performance, or ‘task-based’ trust. In other words, does someone reliably do what the team needs them to do? But if you want teammates who really, deeply trust each other, it’s important to go beyond each team member checking off tasks. Trust is personal, and members must pro-actively build interpersonal, compassionate trust too.12

As a leader, besides introducing new virtual team members in a way that highlights their credibility and role expertise, don’t forget to introduce them on a personal level too. And urge teams to take a few minutes from the start of their meetings to share some stories and generally what’s been happening in their lives, professionally and personally.13

Informal knowledge

The team was also facing low trust and knowledge among team members, which had a direct impact on the reliability perceived between some people. Only one person (B) who was very well known; most members did not know each other well (in particular J – I).

The further the team members are from each other, the lower their mutual informal knowledge. Height represents how well others in the team know the given person.

What should you do as a virtual team leader to manage the collaboration?

You might help your team to review and confirm its current setup and judge its health in the key areas for effective virtual collaboration:

  • Availability among teammates,
  • Willingness to support others and share knowledge and
  • Informal familiarity between virtual colleagues.

Further reading and references

(1) Hoegl, M., & Muethel, M. (2016). Enabling shared leadership in virtual project teams: A practitioners’ guide. Project Management Journal, 47, 7-12.

(2) Gibbs, J. L., Nekrassova, D., Grushina, S. V., & Wahab, S. A. (2008). Reconceptualizing Virtual Teaming from a Constitutive Perspective Review, Redirection, and Research Agenda. Annals of the International Communication Association, 32, 187-229.

(3) Hoch, J. E., & Kozlowski, S. W. (2014). Leading virtual teams: Hierarchical leadership, structural supports, and shared team leadership. Journal of applied psychology, 99, 390.

(4) Gibson, C. B., Huang, L., Kirkman, B. L., & Shapiro, D. L. (2014). Where global and virtual meet: The value of examining the intersection of these elements in twentyfirst-century teams. Annual Review of Organisational Psychology and Organisational Behaviour, 1, 217-244.

(5) Hoegl, M., & Muethel, M. (2016). Enabling shared leadership in virtual project teams: A practitioners’ guide. Project Management Journal, 47, 7-12.

(6) Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101, 1151.

(7) Gibbs, J. L., Nekrassova, D., Grushina, S. V., & Wahab, S. A. (2008). Reconceptualizing Virtual Teaming from a Constitutive Perspective Review, Redirection, and ResearchAgenda. Annuals of the International Communication Association, 32, 187-229.

(8) Maister, D. H. (1998). A matter of trust. Am. Law, 34.

(9) Millward, L. J., & Kyriakidou, O. (2004). Effective virtual teamwork: A socio-cognitive and motivational model. In S. H. Godar & S. P. Ferris (Eds.), Virtual and collaborative teams: Process, technologies, and practice (pp. 20-34). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.

(10) McNamara, J. M., Stephens, P. A., Dall, S. R., & Houston, A. I. (2009). Evolution of trust and trustworthiness: social awareness favours personality differences. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 276, 605-613.

(11) Ford, R. C., Piccolo, R. F., & Ford, L. R. (2017). Strategies for building effective virtual teams: Trust is key. Business Horizons, 60, 25-34.

(12) Clark, W. R., Clark, L. A., & Crossley, K. (2010). Developing multidimensional trust without touch in virtual teams. Marketing Management Journal, 20, 177-193.

(13) Ferrazzi, K. (2012). How to Build Trust in a Virtual Workplace. Harvard Business Review.

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