By Hannah Kaiser

Although some organizations are beginning to call their remote employees back into the office, virtual teams are still on the rise. Over two-thirds of organizations across the world use remote teams in some form. And, while virtual teams offer many benefits in the way of flexibility and speed due to instant access to communication, remote teams can also introduce many drawbacks and difficulties. 

Teams are at their best when members can collaborate in an environment where everyone is empowered to freely exchange ideas and knowledge, allowing each teammate a chance to offer their point of view. The process often results in better outcomes than individual members could have achieved on their own. 

Virtual settings can make collaboration more complicated. Information sharing may often be asynchronous and through text, potentially causing miscommunication and misunderstandings. Even if the team chooses to use video conferencing often, certain nonverbal cues can be more easily missed when compared to communicating with someone face to face. And, for some, the lack of in-person communication itself can leave people feeling disconnected from teammates, causing them to withdraw from the group. 

While virtual teams come with a unique set of considerations and difficulties, many of the common complications can be prevented or remedied. 

Enabling Valuable Virtual Communication 

In each situation, effective communication is shaped by many external factors. The environment is one of them. Speaking to someone over a video call, even if you can see their face and read their expressions, will set a different context than talking to someone who is physically there with you. 

In a virtual setting, individual insight and experiences may not spread as effectively because spontaneous conversations are less likely to occur. And, as a byproduct of reduced nonmandatory interaction, members may fail to form close relationships with teammates, making them less likely to volunteer insight in the first place. 

Virtual teams cannot afford to ignore these challenges. Here are some ways teams can set up an environment more favorable to collaboration and communication: 

  • Be clear on what ‘collaboration’ means. Before getting started on a project, each team member will need to be on the same page with communication norms. Who is helping who, and how? Who needs to be updated on which tasks? In what forms and how often will group members communicate? Creating a strategy for collaboration can prevent misunderstanding and dysfunction down the line. 
  • Communicate more, not less. Team members should be worried about communicating too little, not too much. There are limits to over-communication, of course (these limits should be clarified before collaboration begins), but members should be encouraged to keep teammates in the loop more often than not. When in doubt, communicate.
  • Address animosity right away. Disagreements can sometimes be productive for a team. However, animosity will be much more likely to occur in a setting rife with opportunities for misunderstanding. Team members should try to diffuse tension as soon as they notice it cropping up. If a teammate seems to be acting passive-aggressively, or if something just feels amiss between members, it is essential to address it right away before it develops into dysfunction.

The Value of Secret Conversations

A unique aspect of virtual communication is the ability to engage in what researchers Swaab et al. (2016) call ‘secret conversations.’ These conversations occur when, during a team discussion, individual members can concurrently chat in private with any other member of the team. For example, video conferencing software, such as Zoom, that allows anyone to start a separate chat during a call gives teams the option for secret conversations.  

Swaab et al.’s (2016) research demonstrated that members who hold a majority opinion are much more likely to be open to listening to those with a minority opinion if there are opportunities for secret conversations. This effect likely occurs because members feel their power as a majority member is reduced when they know members can interact with each other separately from the rest of the group, creating a more egalitarian playing field for the entire team. 

By allowing secret conversations to take place, not only can group communication and decision-making quality improve, but overall creativity will increase as more members feel empowered to use their voices. 

Leading a Virtual Team 

Virtual settings often come with challenges for leaders. Managing a team can be more difficult when members are separated. Leaders may stop feeling as though they are leading a single team, but rather a collection of individual employees who happen to be working on the same project. In the end, they may lose their sense of what is really going on. 

While it may be tempting for some leaders to combat this by doubling down on efforts to monitor their team, this technique will likely backfire. Employees do not often appreciate being closely watched by their leaders. In fact, the more an employee feels they are being monitored, the less trust they tend to have in their supervisor.  

Rather than ramping up monitoring habits, there are several better approaches to consider when leading virtual teams:

  • Be transparent and collaborative with check-ins. Employees will be much less likely to feel drained by monitoring if their leader actively involves them in the process of setting up a schedule. And, leaders should be open to individual preferences during this process. Some may prefer a weekly video call, others may find it easier to have a short text-based chat at the end of each day. Try to find a schedule that works for both the leader and the team member. 
  • Follow the plan. As much as possible, adhere to agreements and avoid random check-ins. If the schedule is just not working for some reason, the leader should be upfront with the employee by directly addressing the issue rather than requesting unscheduled meetings. 
  • Setting and sticking to a goal is most important. As a leader, it’s easy to get stuck dealing with sticky interpersonal conflicts or disagreements on how to get things done. While leader intervention for these issues may be occasionally necessary, it’s important to ensure the team doesn’t take their eyes off the goal. Start with setting a compelling, clear, and challenging goal. The leader can then use the goal as a guiding star during check-ins with a team member who might be getting off track. 

Ultimately, if you want virtual environments to be successful, you have to put the time and effort into developing policies and systems that work for your employees, teams, and leaders. We know this can sometimes be difficult. If you think you would benefit from an impartial perspective, let’s talk. Contact us for a no-obligation, free consultation by clicking this link: Innovative Connections or calling us at 970-279-3330.

Our mission is to give voice and action to an emerging future. As a partner in your success, we would love to help you find your voice, see your vision, and imagine what the right action could be for you, your team, and your organization.