As we move into month eight of the global pandemic, most of us are probably used to the Zoom meetings, virtual happy hours, and coordinating schedules online. The question is: How can we best work on virtual teams? Over the past few months, the world of work has been faced with new challenges including but not limited to building trust within teams, virtual communication, and work-life management. This information may provide some ideas for creating more engaged virtual teams and is based on a best practices report created for, a company that strives to make research about the bettering the world of work more accessible. If you’re interested in taking a survey on virtual work and COVID, clear here.
Virtual Team Advantages and Disadvantages
First, let’s talk about the advantages and disadvantages of virtual teams. Some challenges that virtual teams present are technological difficulties, lack of nonverbal cues that are perceptible in face-to-face conversations, time-displaced communication due to spatial dispersion, lowered trust, and decreased work identity. Advantages that might help mitigate the downfalls are fewer travel costs/commuting, more autonomy (potentially), quicker communication, less discrimination, and more equity amongst team members.
All of these difficulties that arise when working virtually may be navigated if there is someone capably steering the boat, pointing to the immense importance of leadership within the virtual work world. In these times more than ever, leaders need to be skilled in conflict management, communication, managing team processes, and inspiring trust within the virtual team.
Trust focuses on vulnerability, performance, and perceptions of motivations behind behavior. Trust building in virtual teams looks a bit different from face-to-face teams, typically established through following through with commitments rather than personal relationships and vulnerability.
So how do leaders build trust in these virtual teams? Here are a few tips on building trust:
1. Establishing Norms
What are the norms? They often include specific expectations about responsibilities that act as a mutual understanding for the team. Norms serve as a way to remove ambiguity within teams, which is helpful in the ambiguous world we are living in currently. Creating a norm charter can be helpful in abating the ambiguity of virtual teams. These charters may include things such as virtual meeting etiquette expectations, who owns documents for revisions, and virtual communication rules.
2. Create an Agreed-Upon Task Timeline
It is important to provide clear expectations, explanations, and communication so employees are all on the same page when it comes to project deadlines. Maybe this includes providing updates on progress toward project completion. Trust is built when team members see that everyone is committed to working toward a goal together and working toward success.
3. Trust and Communication
Communication should be predictable, so established norms surrounding communication are important. With the loss of “water cooler conversations” due to the virtual environment, setting clear expectations about how to communicate and when is vital to the success of virtual teams. Some examples of these could be timeliness with email responses and letting team members know when you’ll be out of office.
Virtual work has been on the up-and-up for the last few years. With no option of not working virtually, people may feel disconnected from their coworkers. Communicating well can be a vehicle that facilitates effective teams.
Here are research-based tips for improving virtual communication:
1. Matching Technology to Tasks
Technology should match the task at hand and employees need to be capable of using the technology that is necessary. This may include emails, video calls, phone calls, or text messages. It may be tempting to try the newest technology to try new ways to communicate, but it must meet the needs of the team. Another thing to consider is whether the communication needs to be synchronous (Slack, Zoom, Teams, etc.) or asynchronous (email, SharePoint, Asana, etc.).
2. Purposeful communication
Communication is key to the success of teams. Virtually checking in with team members is so important. Openly discussing shifts in priorities, goals or plans ensures that the team stays on the same page. Asking frequent, short questions have to be acceptable to allow people to rid themselves of ambiguity. Being explicit about how each person wants to communicate can make for less confusion.
3. Supportive Environment
Even in virtual environments, people may crave personal connections with team members. Giving teams the opportunity to connect with coworkers to provide a social outlet may increase feelings of belonging to the team. Being able to talk about non-work-related things connects team members. Another helpful tool is to provide regular personal feedback. Personalized and specific constructive feedback should be an iterative conversation between employees and supervisors. Although constructive feedback is valuable, recognizing successes or wins is also key to communicating with team members.
Work-life management, a.k.a. work-life balance, refers to managing work obligations as well as personal and family obligations. Being able to manage both is more important than ever while working from home.
Here are a few tips for managing your work-home boundaries:
1. Focus on maintaining both physical and social boundaries between work and home life.
An example of this may be to put on work clothes to go to your work from home space or to go on a walk to mimic a morning commute to work.
2. Focus on maintaining temporal boundaries.
It may be tempting to wake up later or even stay at work later than usual because you are in your home, but it is important to create boundaries when it comes to time.
3. Utilizing your employee benefits
Such as using your vacation time or paid time off can be ways to physically separate yourself from work.
4. Take micro-breaks.
These can be seen as mini brain breaks to allow yourself to pause on work-related items and distract yourself for a minute or two. These can decrease fatigue, which may hit all of us sooner in the day with all of the virtual meetings.