Organizational Psychology: What Are Virtual Teams?

Virtual teams emerged as a necessity in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the threat of COVID-19 decreases, many organizations have maintained policies that allow workers to work from home or other locations outside of company offices.

A smiling worker engages with co-workers via videoconference on a monitor.

Thanks to innovations like cloud computing and video conferences, virtual teams and communication are firmly embedded in the business world and remain effective methods for worker productivity. Leveraging virtual workspaces empowers companies to recruit talent from all over the world and increases worker satisfaction — thus benefiting the companies’ bottom line.

But for an organization to truly prosper using the virtual model, leadership must have a firm understanding of the opportunities and challenges of the environment. Executives often rely on organizational psychology professionals who have earned a master’s degree in the field to help them understand what virtual teams are and how they can be operated efficiently.

What Are Virtual Teams?

A virtual team, sometimes called a remote team, is a group of individuals working for a company who interact through electronic communication methods such as videoconferencing, messaging apps and work management platforms. In these virtual workplaces team members are often dispersed by geographic location, meaning that several time zones can be represented on one call.

According to McKinsey & Co., 35% of workers could work from home full time in 2022. Further, 87% of workers who were offered at least some remote work took the opportunity at least three days a week. That means workers want to work from home, and the companies that offer the benefit are likely to attract the best talent.

But just because a company offers their employees the opportunity to work remotely does not mean the employees will be satisfied with their experience. For companies who want to excel in retaining talent, leadership needs to conduct best practices in the virtual workplace.

How to Create a Healthy Virtual Workplace

The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies five practices that create a healthy and productive working environment — all of which center on a team culture of open and transparent communication. These include:

  1. Work-life balance: Flexible work arrangements and resources help employees succeed outside of their jobs, thus making them more productive and motivated during the workday.
  2. Health and safety: Implementing programs that support worker productivity through preventing, assessing and treating physical and mental risks helps workers feel supported.
  3. Employee growth and development: Initiatives such as a continuing education stipend can empower employees to learn new skills and bring them back into the workplace, increasing the firm’s competitive advantage.
  4. Employee recognition: Workers become energized when their efforts are noticed and appreciated. Recognition programs — both formal and informal — can improve worker satisfaction and engagement.
  5. Employee involvement: Opportunities that give workers a sense of ownership through shared decision-making help them to feel more confident in their ability to do their job and expand it to be more effective.

Just as leadership needs to be aware of what makes virtual teams successful, it’s equally necessary to consider common pitfalls. Toxic virtual workplaces can take a negative toll on employees’ emotional well-being and mental health, making them less productive and at risk of quitting. Organizations should attempt to avoid:

  • Lack of communication and transparency from leaders and managers about changes at the company, including layoffs, pay cuts and other concerns
  • No respect for work-life balance and expecting employees to be “always online” to ensure productivity
  • Micromanagement and monitoring practices that infringe on employee privacy and eliminate any sense of trust and autonomy
  • Cyberbullying and harassment via email, chat or other forms of virtual communication — all of which are rife with opportunities for missteps and mixed messages
  • Lack of social engagement and personal connections with colleagues outside of the day-to-day business concerns

Even though there are differences between what virtual teams are and what in-person teams are, mistakes can happen in both environments. But for organizations willing to learn, adapt and evolve, the potential for inclusive and fulfilling virtual workplaces is high. Follow these tips to create a supportive working environment for optimal employee well-being:

  • Let employees know that the company understands their productivity may lag at times.
  • Provide proper equipment so that employees can maximize the use of technology.
  • Be open, honest and transparent in formal — and informal — communications.
  • Schedule time to talk to employees, without an agenda. Allow them to share their thoughts.
  • Remind employees about resources that the company offers for mental health and other concerns.
  • Be sensitive to time zone differences.

Learn to Help Virtual Workplaces Thrive

The narrative that all workers will return to their brick-and-mortar offices after the pandemic is finished. Organizations across the world are building long-term organizational structures that are centered in the virtual space — and they’re calling upon organizational psychology professionals to draw the road map to the future.

Earning an online master’s in applied psychology program from USC can empower professionals to lead the way through evolving work environments in areas such as human resources, operations management and consulting. Find out how you can affect meaningful change in business and drive organizations into a healthy future.

Recommended Readings:

Applied vs. Clinical Psychology: The Power of Real-World Solutions

What Is Consumer Psychology?

Why Companies Need an Organizational Development Consultant in 2022


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

Corporate Finance Institute, Virtual Team

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

Harvard Business Review, “8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health”

McKinsey & Company, “Americans Are Embracing Flexible Work — and They Want More of It”