Leading a Virtual Team in the 21st Century

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A business person meets with a virtual team using a split-screen monitor.

In the digital age, organizations have increasingly shifted toward virtual work processes, decentralizing and globalizing teams. This movement was sharply accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which cemented virtual work and communication as common practice. Thanks to innovations like cloud computing and video conferencing, virtual teams and communication are firmly embedded in the business world and remain effective methods for work productivity.

While creating virtual teams can yield benefits for businesses of all sizes, it can also introduce new challenges for business leaders. Unique concerns regarding technology reliability and security, geography, and building connections in a virtual space add a different dimension to fostering cohesion and trust within a team.

However, leading a virtual team doesn’t have to be intimidating. With the right leadership, virtual teams can be just as strong as their in-person counterparts. Businesses can use best practices regarding virtual leadership to help them overcome common obstacles. This, in turn, can help organizations build effective virtual teams that can function as seamlessly as they would if they were in the same room.

Consider these communication tips and learn how an education in organizational psychology can help leaders form successful virtual workspaces.

Be Sensitive to Time Zone Differences

Teams spread around the country, or even the world, offer limited windows of opportunity for productive communication. Just a 3-hour time difference can make coordinating conference calls, video or otherwise, a frustrating obstacle.

Rotating and changing meeting times helps put everyone on the same playing field when it comes to coping with different time schedules. Sensitivity to people’s regional time as well as their personal schedules can relieve unneeded pressures caused from consistently waking up early or staying up late. As a leader, coordinating a fair meeting schedule and receiving the team’s buy-in fixes any time zone issues.

Provide Proper Equipment

Tech equipment evolves quickly. A virtual team equipped with outdated or low-quality desktop computers, laptops, tablets, routers and smartphones may be ill-equipped to consistently connect with their teammates. This roadblock to smooth communication can lead to frustration and a fractured team dynamic.

It’s important for business leaders to ensure their virtual teams have high-quality and dependable equipment. It’s also crucial that leaders don’t place the burden of paying for obtaining business equipment on their employees.

Create a Communication Plan

It can be difficult to measure employee engagement when the team is separated and cannot be accounted for physically. A lack of engagement leads to lower productivity, which in turn, creates tension. A disconnect can easily occur in virtual teams if low engagement is left unchecked. These difficulties can be mitigated by developing and implementing a cohesive communication strategy.

This strategy should encourage engagement both within and outside of group meetings. Establishing different channels of communication, such as a virtual bulletin board, can give teammates a space to collaborate and trade ideas as they would in a real-world setting. It’s also important to build individualized communication strategies with each team member, including agreeing on their preferred method of communication and setting times to catch up and check in on progress.

Business leaders should also use the different communication channels at their disposal to create a virtual “open door” policy that assures telecommuting team members they can discuss issues and concerns in a safe, secure space.

Build and Maintain Trust

Virtual teams that have issues with trust and accountability usually have poor communication. If not addressed, this situation can degrade into a downward spiral. Less communication equals less trust, which breeds worse communication, that leads to even less trust and so on. It is a vicious cycle that cannot be allowed to get out of control.

Building and maintaining trust can be the biggest challenge in leading and guiding virtual teams. Stronger trust produces better and more frequent communication. Informal conversations and personal relationships help foster trust and, therefore, better communication. If possible, have your team meet in person a few times a year, quarterly or semiannually, to maintain bonds as well as smooth out any previous misunderstandings.

Respect Work/Life Balance

The influx of technology and tech devices has made communication easier than ever. However, it also makes it easier than ever for work to creep beyond traditional work hours, as business leaders and virtual team members are just a call or text away. While convenient, this practice can easily disrupt employees’ work/life balance, which can cause stress and dissatisfaction.

Business leaders should avoid the temptation to contact virtual teams outside of traditional work hours to give them the time and space to maintain a proper work/life balance. This restraint respects team members’ boundaries and allows them to recharge, so they return to work fresh and focused on tasks. This can lead to better production and increased morale.

Be a Leader in the Virtual Space

Effective leadership can direct, encourage and motivate, whether in person or in the virtual space. By knowing how to engage with remote teams in a way that makes them feel comfortable and involved, leaders can transform virtual teams into cohesive units that help businesses achieve long-term success.

Understanding human behavior, whether it’s in person or conducted digitally, is more than the basis of psychology — it is an essential component of virtually every business and organization. USC’s Master of Science in Applied Psychology degree prepares professionals to excel in the fields of consumer and organizational psychology.

Learn how the program can help you inspire teams and become a business leader.


Recommended Readings

Creating and Maintaining a Psychologically Healthy Virtual Workplace During COVID-19

Organizational Psychology in Today’s Virtual Workplace

Using Psychology Tools to Hire the Best Employees



BetterUp, “The Success Behind Virtual Teams: The Ultimate Guide”

Entrepreneur, “Tips and Strategies for Managing a Large Virtual Team”

Forbes, “Five Tips for Successfully Managing Remote Teams”

Forbes, “Virtual Leadership: 5 Best Practices to Lead a Virtual Team”

Human Resource Development International, “The Increased Use of Virtual Teams During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Implications for Psychological Wellbeing”

Monday, “Remote Work: Your Guide to Creating and Maintaining Strong Virtual Teams”

Small Group Research, “Did the COVID-19 Lock Down Make Us Better at Working in Virtual Teams?”

Society of Human Resource Management, “10 Tips For Managing Remote Workers”