How to make virtual teams work

Remote working is not a new phenomenon. But as the coronavirus health crisis spreads rapidly across the globe, it has suddenly become the exclusive mode of working for much of the world.

Never before have so many people, at all different levels, been working in virtual teams.

Our ability to continue to get work done therefore collectively hinges on making virtual teams function effectively. As such, we are now all grappling with the challenge of how to replicate in the virtual space the type of deep, high-quality and effective work relationships we have in the office.

The challenges of virtual team work

The main challenges of virtual work can be summed up by what I call a lack of ´depth perception.´ For this, imagine you are leading a team of scuba divers.

If you are currently in the water, you’ve got a good sense of the ocean’s depth. But if you’re up on the boat waiting your turn, your perception is lacking. The same is true for managers of virtual teams.

As a manager you are distant not just physically, but you´re also operationally and emotionally distant from your team and the work they are doing. The task then is to be able to overcome these three types of distances so your team can function better.

Challenge 1: Geographical distance

When it comes to managing employees, out of sight can mean out of mind. For instance, we know from social network research that geographical distance correlates highly to networking behaviour.

In other words, when you stop meeting regularly in the corridor or in other face-to-face settings, you tend to nurture a specific relationship less.

Being geographically distant from colleagues can also mean time zone differences between team members. Depending on how geographically spread a team is, that means the window for all members to connect in virtual calls or other types of meetings can be very limited.

As a leader, you need to be available and create multiple points of contact that are convenient for your team. This may include after-hour contact. Luckily, there are a number of different communication options that are available for this such as phone and video calls and collaborative like Slack and Microsoft Teams.

While you cannot reduce time zone differences caused by geographical distance, you can mitigate them by ensuring equal “suffering” in your teams. For example, try rotating times for weekly meetings so no one member is always getting up early or staying late.

Also, ask your team members for their timing preferences. Even when there are no time zone differences in your team, some people may well prefer to meet in the morning and others in the afternoon.

Challenge 2: Task and operational distance

The potential for misunderstandings arising when carrying out your normal work (such as those due to communication styles and cultural differences) is much higher in a virtual setting, as you are not as able to notice and rely on nonverbal cues.

Managers unused to managing virtual teams can also feel a loss of control when work switches online, worrying that (as they cannot supervise their employees in the same way as in the office) they will not work as hard or as efficiently.

This can lead to managers holding biased perceptions of performance, and being tempted to micromanage. When working from home, especially under abrupt and surprise circumstances like the current situation, team members are also likely to be juggling unique domestic and family dynamics that could complicate their work lives.

The change in work setting and corresponding changes to people’s normal work routines and rhythms can mean it is harder for individual workers to achieve the focus they need for deep work.

How to overcome task and operational distance

As a leader, you should establish clear rules of engagement on how to work together.

This means setting expectations for the frequency, means, and ideal timing of communication, for example, “We use videoconferencing for daily check-in meetings, but we use instant messaging when something urgent comes up.”

Clarify the expected communication style in the team (which helps to overcome misunderstandings), and make use of redundant communication so double check whether you have been understood by rephrasing, writing down meeting minutes and recording important calls.

Trust your team. Instead of thinking about trying to control their work processes, switch to focusing on output-based control (“I want you to deliver x by z…”). Remember, remote work should not have a negative effect on productivity.

In fact, a VP of HR at Unilever showed that when employees were given more flexibility, they ended up taking more personal sacrifices for the organisation. If you try to monitor employees too closely, you will likely lose that extra commitment.

And finally, show patience, empathy and understanding in light of team members’ more blurred work and home situations.

Challenge 3: Emotional and relationship distance

Because you do not know the everyday reality of your colleagues, it is more difficult to understand and empathise with them.

Employees may also miss the informal social interactions of an office setting, leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness. In particular, extroverts may suffer from experienced loneliness more in the short run, especially if they lack opportunities to regularly connect with others during remote work.

More generally, research has found that physical isolation is negatively associated with virtual employees’ perceived respect in the organisation, and that this relationship explains the lower organisational identification among more physically isolated virtual employees. This, in turn, may put the loyalty of high-performing remote workers at risk.

Encourage informal conversations and opportunities for team members to connect outside of work tasks.

For example - pair up members in the team to talk about anything apart from work; conduct virtual reward ceremonies; or encourage team members to give virtual tours of their workspaces to provide more details about their teammates’ worlds.

Another thing I would advise is to make the working climate more personal.

People often recommend that we should try to make the virtual environment as sterile as possible for video calls. An unforeseen interruption though, like one of your kids storming into your room in search for a cuddle, or your cat jumping on your lap, is a huge opportunity to better connect with your colleagues and convey part of your personal life and identity.

Have individual calls to find out about how each individual member is going, and ask about their needs and concerns in general.

In the current climate, managers must stay positive too. One way to do this is to create uplifting narratives that keep your team hopeful.

On a wider firm level, senior executives of every organisation need to be much more visible right now to give people hope, calm them down, and envision a positive future.

An opportunity

Keep in mind that this is a huge opportunity for us to keep developing our remote work capabilities, and gain better understanding of which of our tasks and practices may be better to keep online in the future.

It also gives us the chance to really rethink our current work practices, and make sure they are fit for purpose. Even though the current situation will not continue forever, the learnings developed through this time will stand us in good stead once the crisis subsides.

Sebastian Reiche is chair of the managing people in organisations department at IESE Business School