Cartoon image of 5 different people on Zoom screens, tackling the challenges of virtual teamwork
5-second summary:
  • Trust is a key ingredient for successful teams, but it’s even more important for virtual teams.
  • Meeting in-person when a team forms or when a new project kicks off can help distributed teams build trust faster.
  • Creating opportunities for team members to depend on each other and succeed together promotes team cohesion.
  • Formalizing processes to decrease cognitive load may help prevent overwhelm.
  • It’s an interesting time to be a researcher. As someone who has always been fascinated by the ways that people interact with each other, the last 18 months have provided me with the opportunity to look at a familiar concept through a completely new lens.

    Personally, I found that I really love remote work. I’ve found new ways to connect with my teammates and I feel more creative and productive than ever. But I’m a sample size of one. 

    I was curious to investigate what the rest of the scientific community had to say about how to improve virtual work. After delving into multiple peer-reviewed articles about the topic, I extracted some key takeaways that can help virtual teams thrive. Here’s what I learned.

    All teams are virtual teams (at least partially)

    First off, researchers clearly distinguish “virtual” teamwork from regular teamwork. When we work remotely, we are “virtual” in the way in which we interact with our teams. For example, when I work from home, I interact with my team members using instant messaging, by sending emails, and conducting meetings over videoconferencing. In this way of working, I have little, if any, face-to-face interactions with my team members.

    Compare this to pre-pandemic when I was working from the office everyday. Back in those days, I was having lots of face-to-face interactions with my team members. What I find interesting is that even in this style of teamwork, there is still some degree of “virtuality.” Even though we would collaborate face-to-face during the workday, outside of meetings we would still use instant messaging and email. Sometimes, to communicate with team members located in different timezones, we would use videoconferencing in the office, too. 

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    In some respect, all teams, even face-to-face teams, are virtual. It would be very rare to find a team that does not rely on any virtual communication whatsoever. Given this, it would be useful for any and all teams to consider how they can improve their experiences of virtual teamwork.

    Trust is essential

    Before we can consider how to improve the experience of working in a virtual team, we need to consider how outcomes differ between face-to-face and virtual teams. On that front, there is some good news and some bad news.

    The good news is that virtual teams are more likely to generate more ideas in brainstorming activities compared to face-to-face teams. In virtual teams, team members are also more likely to participate equally in discussions compared to team members in face-to-face teams. This is because people may feel as though they are less likely to be judged on their ideas and for speaking up when they are online.

    In terms of the not-so-good news, psychological studies have historically demonstrated that virtual teams perform worse on decision-making tasks. Team members of virtual teams take longer to agree with one another, they exchange less relevant information when making decisions, and are less satisfied with the outcome of their decisions. Team members also tend to feel less bonded with one another and are less satisfied with their experience of teamwork. 

    Why might this be the case? One explanation is trust. A meta-analysis (a statistical analysis of multiple scientific studies) showed that teams that trust one another are more likely to be successful, and this relationship is stronger for virtual teams.

    Think about how you naturally build trust during in-person interactions. I know when I am meeting someone face-to-face, I am a lot more comfortable in the conversation. I’m able to talk a lot more about non-work related matters, I’m able to read the other person’s body language and facial cues more easily, and I feel more like myself in the conversation. 

    Based on the above meta-analysis, that means it’s vital for remote teams to learn how to establish trust across virtual channels. 

    5 scientific principles to improve virtual teamwork

    Now that we have considered key differences between virtual teams and face-to-face teams, let’s examine the research that can help create a positive team culture. 

    1. Meet your team members face-to-face when the team first forms

    Many companies, even if they are remote-first, would recommend their teams have some face-to-face time. For example, at Atlassian, we ask teams to meet each other face-to-face approximately four times per year. 

    However, research demonstrates that meeting your team members face-to-face is most effective if the interactions occur when the team first forms. When teams meet each other face-to-face initially, their levels of trust, cohesion and satisfaction are much higher than when teams do not initially meet each other face-to-face. This is because it is so much easier to connect with people when you initially meet them face-to-face.

    For teams who do not form on a consistent or predictable basis, it would be useful to meet face-to-face at the start of projects instead. These meetings should centre on clarifying ground rules, team goals, and roles and responsibilities. This kind of open communication builds trust and helps avoid pitfalls along the way of the project.

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    2. Ensure team members depend on one another, especially at the beginning of teamwork

    When teams first form, they need to depend on one another and trust each other to truly be effective. One way this can be achieved is through task interdependence, which refers to the extent to which team members need to interact with one another to complete team-related tasks. A field study of 31 virtual teams demonstrated that if team members need to frequently interact with each other and collaborate, they are more likely to quickly develop trust. This type of interaction is most effective at the beginning of teamwork, and less important later on.

    If team members predominantly work solo, and work in a siloed fashion, they have no need to depend on each other – which then makes them less likely to trust each other. 

    3. Reward and recognise your teams!

    Everyone likes rewards and recognition – but they are particularly powerful for virtual teams. When there are team-based incentives, team members are going to feel more motivated, and will work with each other more effectively. This is also a great way to reinforce interdependence.

    If you know your team is going to be rewarded, you are definitely more likely to contribute and to collaborate well with one another. It will help increase your own sense of personal responsibility to your team. Not only that, team-based rewards actually raise team wellbeing! Something we should all be definitely prioritising.

    At Atlassian, we have something called “kudos” that we can use to recognise helpful individuals or teams. It’s a simple $30 dollar voucher that can be redeemed at major retailers, but goes a long way in helping people feel recognised and validated for their contributions. Sending kudos to teams, instead of individuals, would be a great way of fostering a sense of team spirit.

    4. Establish lots (and lots) of communication that has nothing to do with work

    In the office, it is so easy to have casual chit chat with your team members. It could be when you’re stopping for coffee, or walking into a meeting. When working remotely, these opportunities tend to decline, and meetings become a lot more focussed on work. 

    However, teams that make the effort to talk to each other – about anything not work related are more effective, and more satisfied. It is easier to develop trust with each other when you actually know your colleagues on a deeper level, not just who they are at work. So even if it is awkward at first, make the time during your Zoom calls to actually just chat about life, the weather, pets or anything else at all. It truly will make a ton of difference.

    5. Make sure to manage cognitive load

    Anyone who has worked remotely can relate to the feeling of overwhelm when their notifications are constantly going off. It can be even more frustrating when half of those notifications weren’t actually very important in the first place. For virtual teams, quality of information is more important than the frequency of communication.

    Although it is important to communicate openly with team members, too much unnecessary shared information can result in increased cognitive load, which then ends up decreasing performance. It is important to discuss, as a team, ways of managing cognitive load that work for everyone. Simple strategies could include having protected time away from notifications to focus on deep work, or even committing to have a second thought about whether sending someone that ping is truly even necessary.

    Overall, virtual teamwork definitely has its challenges. But with carefully considered strategies and practices in place, there is no reason why your virtual teams can’t be just as effective, if not more so, than teams who aren’t virtual at all.

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