Keeping your virtual team close no matter how far apart


In today’s workplace, virtually all teams are virtual. Photograph: iStock

In today’s workplace, virtually all teams are virtual. Photograph: iStock


Leading virtual teams requires a new set of skills and approaches from today’s leaders. It starts with some of our very basic assumptions about how teams interact.

Picture in your mind’s eye the most productive, creative and dynamic team hard at work. You probably have an image of a group of people, sleeves rolled up, huddled together around a table, or maybe working at a bank of screens in an open-plan office. There is constant interaction and debate between them. Ideas are tossed backwards and forwards.

Our default setting when we think about effective teams is to expect them to be physically located together. And indeed, there is evidence that co-located teams are more effective. Once teams are no longer located together, even the slightest amount of distance, such as being separated by two floors, results in a dramatic decrease in effectiveness.

So what is the answer? Do we just insist on our teams being in the same location, all the time?

As much as this might enhance teamwork, is it realistic in today’s work environment? Global businesses need collaboration across borders and time zones. Organisations need to access talent, wherever it is located, and they need diverse teams that can work effectively together across distance.

Flexible working

Millennials entering the workforce today expect flexible working to be the norm. According to Techcast, 30 per cent of workers across industrialised countries will be telecommuting by 2019. Many predict the imminent demise of the office-based 9 to 5 pattern.

Managers are now expected to be able to manage virtual and dispersed teams just as well as teams in the same location. This requires managers and leaders to develop and deploy a whole new range of skills to foster collaboration and communication at a distance.

Key to building these skills is to recognise that there is more than one type of distance that virtual team leaders need to manage.

The first, and most obvious, type of distance is physical distance – geographic distance, the actual miles or kilometres that separate us. Physical distance also includes the distance created when working across time zones.

Physical distance causes all sorts of practical issues, but technology is constantly giving us better and better tools to manage it – video conferencing, online collaboration tools and before too long, tools using virtual and augmented reality. These will all help us manage physical distance, although we can never eliminate it unless and until teleporting and time travel become a reality!

The second type of distance is operational distance. This is distance when we are working across organisational structures with differing reporting lines, procedures and operating rules, or working with people from different areas, disciplines or functions. Here we experience differences in the language, terminology and jargon used, or conflicting goals and priorities.

To navigate this type of distance, leaders must be absolutely transparent and deliberate in their communication strategy, and work hard to establish common goals, vocabulary and shared information.

Cultural distance

Then there is cultural distance. These are the differences in our personal value systems that drive the way we think and make decisions. These value systems are influenced by our national cultures, but also by our families, our communities, our beliefs and our life experiences.

We should never fall victim to a sense of false sameness when working globally. Culture runs deep. Culture is also complex, and building cultural intelligence requires openness, curiosity, sensitivity and flexibility.

Finally, there is what we call psychological distance. This is the degree to which we feel separated from each other. This is probably the type of distance that has most impact on how we operate as a team. A high degree of psychological distance can cause us to misunderstand and mistrust each other and feel disengaged and demotivated.

Paradoxically, we don’t have to be physically distant to feel psychologically distant. We can feel alienated and mistrusted by colleagues or bosses sitting at the next desk. Building trust across distance is hard but not impossible with the right attitude, tools and behaviours. Social media can teach us a lesson here: how many vibrant, supportive communities have been built online whose members have never met in person?

In today’s workplace, virtually all teams are virtual. Leaders need to assume distance, and work to manage it. We can still create that mental image of the perfect team – they will still be interacting, debating and developing great ideas together, just not in the same place at the same time.

Olivia May is programme director at the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute at Queen’s University Belfast


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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