Organization & Leadership Consulting

The Double-Edged Sword of Virtual Teams

virtual teams

Remember when, before video conference calls were the norm, the team was in the same room and we could clearly see the eye rolls, the understanding smiles, the two people in the corner exchanging glances and the boss getting increasingly agitated? Back then there were abundant visual cues that alerted us to more going on than was happening from the shoulders up. Building trust and cohesiveness had a lot more tangible factors to go on.

That was then. Virtual and hybrid teams have become common in many workplaces since the COVID-19 disruption. The current and coming technologies provide many good things, like increased flexibility and visual access to colleagues across the globe. But…approaches to virtual teaming can be a double-edged sword. According to researchers, virtual teams encounter unique struggles with things like trust-building, decision-making, calling-out bad behavior and stereotyping, and recognizing the existence of disconnected subgroups. 

What can we do to maximize this new normal and minimize its “team-erosion” factors?

  1.  Be intentional about building trust.

Trust comes from working together and sharing successes. It also comes from social ties that develop as team members hang out, laugh, push back, and develop safe spaces in which to speak up. Those things don’t happen as easily in a virtual meeting space. We hesitate to trust someone we don’t know well. By creating extra time for social interactions, we can lay the foundation for clearer, stronger communication.

  1. Be aware of stereotyping.

When we don’t receive the nonverbal cues we need to draw accurate conclusions, we tend to fill in the blanks. It’s an easy shortcut. Unfortunately, it also means that our assumptions about someone’s motivations and character may be completely wrong. Once again, spending extra time to intentionally develop relationships can reduce this risk. Being very clear about expectations and motivations is also important. For example, a statement like “Just to be clear, I’m not frustrated, I just think there is a more efficient approach” would clarify the motivation behind an opposing viewpoint.

  1. Watch for formation of unhelpful subgroup behaviors.

One drawback of dispersed teams is that some members have more contact with certain individuals than others. They may share overlapping team assignments or, because of proximity, be able to meet in person more often. The result is two-fold…stronger social bonds are developed but those may also create unhealthy subgroups. Subgroup members may also share information with each other they don’t remember to share with the entire team. These unequal connections may create real or perceived power inequities such as the “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to information, or social groupings where certain members are either “in” or “out”. 

Being aware of the human tendency to gravitate toward smaller groups, those finding themselves in a subgroup can more effectively increase information sharing and whole-team bonding experiences.

Virtual teams are here to stay. While it’s not like the old days, with a little intentionality, we can make virtual teamwork even better…for the team, the organization, and the individual.


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