Making virtual teams work

Team building can be challenging if the members are thousands of miles apart. However research has indicated ways to help virtual teams manage conflicts and become high performers.

Twenty years ago, a work colleague was likely to be someone who sat next to you in the office. Today it may well be someone you have never met.

An increasing number of us now work in virtual teams – diverse groups of people, often at locations around the globe and linked only by an IT network. If you work for a multinational corporation, a company that encourages people to work from home, or you are a consultant supporting a client’s operation, you may be part of one already.

Virtual teams save on time and travel – they allow companies to bring together people with specialist skills from anywhere in the world to solve problems and get products to market more quickly. But while all teams depend on co-operation to maintain performance, virtual teams face particular challenges of their own.

“Virtual teams are often selected on the basis of expertise,” says Dr Remi Ayoko, an expert in organisational behavior, particularly conflict management at UQ Business School.

“They are often people of different genders and ages, from diverse cultural backgrounds and operating in different time zones. They lack the social clues that people get from face-to-face contact.”

“Another factor is that individuals within virtual teams tend to work autonomously and there is a lack of clarity over who is the leader. All these things can affect productivity.”

Dr Ayoko spent three months observing virtual teams at work as part of a research project to identify what factors single out the high performers. She and her team of researchers followed them as they progressed through the different stages of teambuilding – known to psychologists as forming, storming, norming and performing.

A day or two into the project, team members in most groups began to express confusion and frustration as they struggled to get to grips with their task and the technology they were working with.

By the third day, six out of eight groups were in a state of conflict, signaling the start of the ‘storming’ period. Procedures that had been agreed at the beginning were being tested and angry email exchanges started to take the form of more destructive personal attacks.

However, most teams found ways to manage and move beyond the conflict. Team members acted as mediators, offered praise for constructive behavior and suggested rules – all part of the ‘norming’ stage where the ground rules are laid down. Some offered explanations and apologies for previous heated exchanges, or showed humility by asking for feedback on their ideas.

Finally, having defused the tension and stabilised their processes, the teams moved into the performing stage, where humour and a sense of fun prevailed, which in turn helped to give members the motivation to complete their task.

Dr Ayoko says: “Teams that were slow in making the transition from the storming phase or those that spent the bulk of their time in forming and storming performed substantially less well than teams who progressed though all four stages of development. The more time the team spent in the performing stage, the higher the quality of their work.”

She believes that leaders can help groups to proceed more efficiently to the performing stage, while team members themselves can use emotion management strategies to move the process forward.

She has the following advice for leaders and team members:

1.  Choose the right technologies
Problems with technology are one of the biggest sources of frustration for virtual teams. Choose tried and tested technologies where possible and ensure programs are compatible. Consider applications such as file sharing and screen sharing, which make it easier to work together, and social networks which create a virtual water cooler where people can ‘meet up’ online.

2.  Start with a face to face meeting
Face-to-face communication is still a better way to build trust. Bring the team together in person before they interact online and, if possible, at regular intervals during the project.

3.  Understand team processes
Learn how to recognise the four stages of development. Not all teams make it through the whole journey as some destroy themselves along the way. More importantly, engage with the team processes and watch especially how team members communicate and handle arising emotions, frustration and conflict. If you are a team leader, your role is to be proactive and guide members through to the performance stage and beyond.

4.   Be wary of the storming stage
This is a particularly dangerous but critical period which is characterised by defensiveness, attacking and counter attacking. “These experiences are normal in all teams but virtual teams have fewer resources for managing this difficult phase,” says Dr Ayoko.

“Leaders should ensure that some people don’t categorise others and don’t dominate the discussion.” Expressing appreciation online and asking for feedback (see below) are both ways to help teams move out of the storming phase.

5.  Create a climate where disagreement is allowed
Conflict and criticism are not in themselves bad and managers should encourage an environment where people can debate issues without them becoming too personal. Open communication is particularly important in virtual teams.

Expressing negative emotions and statements of frustration can be useful in highlighting problems and motivating the team to overcome them. It can also help to create a sense of camaraderie – ‘we’re all in it together’.

6.  Ensure criticism is constructive
However where negative emotions turn into personal attacks, it can be damaging to the individuals concerned and escalate into a destructive cycle of conflict.

As one team member advised others: ‘Learn to disagree without being disagreeable and to understand other people’s point of view and where they are coming from. Attack the idea, not the person!’

“One of the established ways to deal with conflict is for the person being criticised to explain their actions,” says Dr Ayoko. “Explanations help others to have a window into your behaviours and this is even more important in virtual teams.”

7.   Provide opportunities for feedback
“Seeking feedback demonstrates openness and humility,” adds Dr Ayoko. “It invites the team to move away from personal attacks towards building ideas and provides positive role models for others’ behavior. The ideas that occur as a result help move the team past the storming stage and into the norming stage.”

8.   See the funny side
Encourage team members to have a sense of humour. Dr Ayoko adds: “Telling jokes and funny stories and the use of emoticons elevates the mood of team members and provides them with the energy to maintain work effort.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019