Three Ways to Make Virtual Teams More Effective

Gibson-Three Ways May 10, 2021 By: Cristina Gibson, Ph.D.

Creating a cohesive team is always challenging, but a virtual environment adds even more obstacles. Here are some evidence-based solutions to help you establish a more functional, efficient team across all time zones.

The pandemic forced many organizations to adopt a virtual workforce, and many organizations are now re-envisioning familiar workplace structures and integrating permanent work-from- home policies for employees. The more employees work from home, the more they will need to continue collaborating in virtual teams, using technology to communicate, share work, and integrate efforts.

Organizations with virtual teams reap several benefits, such as hiring the best global talent regardless of location, reducing real estate costs, providing opportunities for colleagues to voice their different perspectives, and granting employees more flexibility to manage their work and personal lives. But virtual teams are hard to get right. And global virtual teams are often even more challenging. 

Studies indicate that well-managed virtual teams can actually outperform teams that share office space. Virtual teams have the capacity to improve operational efficiency and employee productivity, which is a win-win for the employer and employee. However, an effective and successful virtual team requires managers to excel in the fundamentals of good management and to address challenges head on.

In my recent research, I discovered three strategies that managers across industries can implement to effectively lead virtual teams. Whether an organization’s virtual team spans a region, nation, or the world, managers must develop team identity, acknowledge and bridge cultural differences, and address any lack of team harmony. 

Establish Shared Identity

Strong group affiliations often help define who we are and become a part of our identity. For many, their profession defines how they see themselves. A strong identity with an organization improves loyalty, participation, engagement, and outcomes. Managers must also help build a strong team identity with the virtual team.

Using language that builds identification, such as “we, us, our,” ensures that team members feel that they belong. It creates a sense of cohesion and emphasizes shared accountability. Similarly, having a common space—a website or a page—or a repository for both work and nonwork sharing helps to reinforce a sense of team identity. These techniques also ensure that members can retain their unique identities associated with their particular culture or profession, which my research suggests is important to balance along with their team affiliation.

Disagreements among members of a virtual team can foster healthy debate that results in innovation, or they can fester and cause disruptions if not appropriately addressed.

Bridge Cultural Differences

It is equally important to understand and bridge cultural differences within virtual teams. Cultural values, orientations, perspectives, and behavior differ by nation and region. Cultural differences play a key role in how people approach work and how they participate in teams. Ideally, as teams are formed, preferences and norms in each culture will be discussed to help reach common ground. 

When this does not happen, cultural differences may reveal themselves when coordination breaks down and may appear as disparate opinions about the structure of work or how the team operates. Open discussion about what happened and why, as well as preferences for interaction on the team, can help to both resolve coordination challenges and bridge cultural differences.  

Address Conflict

Conflicts are inevitable in teams, and even more likely in virtual teams where communication may be limited, team members may be working in different time zones, or different perspectives and misunderstandings lead to disagreements. Disagreements among members of a virtual team can foster healthy debate that results in innovation, or they can fester and cause disruptions if not appropriately addressed. 

To avoid such challenges, managers must create a supportive communication climate, which encourages open dialogue where members feel comfortable sharing different perspectives. The opportunity often arises when someone shares a risky idea or contrasting opinion. If a manager’s reaction is closed-minded and defensive, it sets the stage for a defensive communication climate. A healthier approach is to engage in active listing, asking questions about the idea and investigating it with a discovery or problem-solving mindset. When you create a supportive climate, subsequent disagreements are less likely to devolve into dysfunctional conflict.  

Rather than reverting to old ways of doing business, managers can directly address challenges of managing virtual teams. When they do this effectively, they can build a strong, agile, and collaborative team without borders.  

Cristina Gibson, Ph.D.

Cristina Gibson, Ph.D., is dean’s distinguished professor of management at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School.