We were pushed into the age of fully remote work as abruptly as COVID-19 exploded across the globe. We are all suddenly part of a virtual team. We had no idea this was coming. And to be honest, it doesn’t seem like remote work is going to go away after things go back to “normal”.
Organisations are still scrambling to figure out how to deal with the ramifications of virtual work.
On the other hand, managers and team leaders are trying to figure out how to best keep their teams afloat.
But here’s some good news: Research on virtual teams — the challenges they face and how to make them effective — has been around since the Internet became a thing.
In this article, I highlight some of the most pressing challenges that you are going to face (or admittedly, have already faced) now that you are part of a virtual team. These challenges are primarily related to team processes — how do we get things done. I will also highlight some actionable solutions, based on scientific literature.
This article is meant for teams who are clear on their purpose, goals and roles but are struggling to set the right processes in place to achieve them. Without the former, the latter won’t get you anywhere.
Fun fact. Virtual work or remote work is also known as ‘telecommuting’, to refer to work where commuting time is reduced.
Problem 1: You can’t monitor your team. Trust is essential.
An effective virtual team requires a lot of trust because there is an increased sense of uncertainty. Since you cannot see people physically, you cannot monitor them like you previously could when co-located. If you micromanage, you will be exhausted, your colleague will be annoyed, and everyone becomes less productive. You need to trust that everyone has the team’s best interest in mind.
I like this definition of trust by Wilson, Straus and McEvily (2006, p.3)
Trust is the confident positive expectations about the conduct of another
The whole team becomes more productive when there is trust because less time will be spent checking up on each other and making contingency plans. We can have confidence that our team members will deliver on time.
Assuming that everyone is clear on their roles and their goals, how can we be confident that people are actively working towards them?
Solution: Encourage predictable communication through substaintial and timely responses.
In situations with high uncertainty, one way to build trust is to provide a lot of reasons to warrant trustworthiness. For virtual teams, this means exhibiting communication behaviours that give people a reason to trust you.
In an early study on the initial and final trust levels of global virtual teams, teams that were characterised as “high initial and high final trust” exhibited enthusiasm and excitement in the beginning and sustained frequent communication. Communication was not strictly task-focused but also included social content (i.e. things about their life outside of work).
This shows that teams with high levels of trust get there because they spend time developing all aspects of trust — trust based on rational reasons (e.g. Peter has always delivered his work on time) and trust based on emotional ties (e.g. Peter genuinely cares about my well-being).
Having substantial communication and timely responses helps to build up a history of reciprocal, positive interactions. The more actions someone has performed, the easier it is to predict or approximate their future behaviours. This feeds into our perception of their trustworthiness, which gives us confidence in our team members even if we do not see them. But this doesn’t mean we should be flooding the chat. Rather, our responsiveness should signal that we remain committed to achieving our goal.
The key point to remember is that trustworthiness is a function of prior successful ‘trust transactions’. Therefore, for new virtual teams, having substantial communication provides opportunities to validate trust, and timely responses strengthen perceptions of trustworthiness. As the team develops, less frequent communication is needed to maintain trustworthiness.
Problem 2: The way we interact with our team is going to change. Set guidelines for behaviour.
Spatial separation affects how team members interact with one another. Since the ability to walk up to a colleague and have a face-to-face conversation is suspended, interactions will become more effortful and less fluid. As shown in this study, this means that we can expect lags in information exchange, a higher chance of misunderstandings, and fewer attempts to seek information.
Since communication is asynchronous, it can also become overwhelming — if you’ve ever missed a text conversation that you are not an active participant of only to come back to 100 unread messages, you’ll know how this feels. A flurry of text chat, and endless back-scrolling could have been avoided through a simple phone call.
Solution: Use the right communication channel. Establish norms of functioning
Choose an appropriate communication channel. Effective virtual teams match the communication channel to the function of the interaction, or the task at hand. More complex tasks would require channels that allow higher synchronicity. For example, if the point of the interaction is to have a discussion that involves resolving previous ambiguities, brainstorming and problem solving, with a decision at the end, a video call is most appropriate as lags in information exchange are likely to be counterproductive. Having this interaction over text chat would be overwhelming. On the other hand, if the point of the interaction is to gather information, using email, text chat and phone calls will suffice.
Establish norms of functioning. Norms are particularly important in situations with high uncertainty (i.e. virtual teams) because it provides guidelines on how to behave. For virtual teams, establishing a guideline for how the team should function helps to regulate communication and work.
It is important to establish norms related to monitoring progress because there will be high ambiguity on what is appropriate behaviour. For example, everyone should be clear on how often to check and respond to messages. Everyone should also be clear on how often to provide status updates and check on other member’s status. By explicitly setting these norms, these behaviours are seen as necessary for team success, not because of paranoia or a lack of trust. On the plus side, research shows that trust is built when people adhere to norms.
Ensure everyone has a chance to speak and contribute. High-performing teams are marked by equally distributed communication, virtual or not. When it is their turn, do not cut anyone off. Give people ample time to speak. As found in a study on predicting cohesion in virtual team meetings, the pause time between a person’s turn and the same person’s next turn was predictive of highly cohesive teams. This means that everyone should have a turn to speak and be given time to talk. If anyone is dominating the conversation, reel them back and encourage others to chip in.
It is also important to encourage people to be actively involved in the meeting, even if they are not speaking. The same study found that cohesion can be predicted most accurately by the amount of visual activity a person exhibits when they are not speaking. Gestures like nodding, for example, signal active listening. In video calls, where virtual team meetings likely take place, everyone can be seen head-on. This means that it is easy to tell who is listening and who isn’t. Norms should be established around engagement and participation in virtual team meetings.
Problem 3: Everybody is going to feel more distant. Invest time in team bonding.
When we are co-located, interpersonal relationships develop through spontaneous interactions with our colleagues. There are intentional interactions as well, but the ‘random chats’ and ‘coffee breaks’ are actually crucial to developing bonds. It has been found to increase cohesion and productivity.
When teams become virtual, there is no more water cooler to congregate around. Since communication is more effortful, it can be heavily task-focused and less about the social lives of others. If your team members do not already have strong interpersonal relationships, virtual work can make them feel more distant from their colleagues.
Solution: Make time for social chat and play video games together.
In the current climate, it can be easy to just make virtual everything that we used to do in a co-located space. Virtual Friday night drinks and virtual pub quizzes are the go-to post-work activities. These activities usually take place over a video call, but as the world has come to realise, conducting typically co-located experiences through a screen is exhausting. Using the same virtual space for work and fun doesn’t provide enough separation. If people are on the same platform that they use to do work (e.g. Zoom, Teams, Skype), with work-related people (i.e. colleagues) but doing an activity that is not work-related, it might not create enough mental distance for recuperation — social activities will still feel like work.
So, consider playing a video game instead.
By this, I mean games where everyone is represented as an avatar in a virtual world, and video call is not required. ‘Zoom Fatigue’ has become a thing and is so taxing on our brain because video calls require greater attentional effort and make us feel more self-conscious. Playing video games together, on the other hand, is a shared activity that lets people truly wind down. And there are several reasons why.
Video games are unique because they are immersive experiences — they draw people into the game and make them momentarily forget what’s happening in the real world. So it’s no surprise that digital games have been found to aid post-work recovery. And one of the reasons is because it helps people to detach both physically and mentally from work.
Video games are also completely different virtual environments. Everyone is likely represented as an avatar that does not resemble their ‘real world’ selves. People can embark on activities that they do not usually do in their day-to-day.
Video calls are also not required — using ‘voice chat’ over Discord is the preferred method for gamers. This means that nobody will feel conscious about how they look, or about people looking at them.
Finally, you will be engaging in an activity that is inherently built for fun and enjoyment. The whole interaction has nothing to do with work and everything to do with the social experience.
So it’s no surprise that video games have been found to support deep social relationships. The game provides opportunities for shared experiences which becomes a catalyst for conversation. Bonds are formed over the experience and we learn more about the people we work with, beyond the work that they do.
Don’t know what to play? Here are a couple of 4-player team-based games that I’ve really enjoyed playing with my friends. They are easy to learn, easy to set up and don’t have high system requirements.
- Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime (local co-op only)
- Unrailed! (online co-op)
If games aren't your thing, try adopting personal profiles to better communicate your working preferences, personality and values. Saberr's profile tool is probably one of the best ways to help people actually share their profiles with one another but you can make a start using other more manual approaches like Monzo bank have started to do.
Tying it all together.
To develop an effective virtual team, conscious and intentional effort is required. The three main challenges that virtual teams face are:
- difficulty in monitoring performance
- learning how to interact through computer-mediated mediums
- overcoming feelings of distance
In this article, I’ve highlighted how these challenges can be addressed. By focusing on developing trust, developing norms of functioning and developing social bonds, the foundation for virtual team effectiveness can be built.
This is a guest post from Evelyn Tan: Aspiring Industrial-organisational psychologist with a keen interest in using video games for behavioural change. PhD Researcher in Team Dynamics and Player Psychology in digital Games at University of York Centre for Doctoral Training in Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence