Virtual team collaboration has clear potential advantages. It also comes with real challenges in terms of trust, bonding, motivation, and conflict management. As virtual work becomes the new normal for many international NGO professionals, here are five success tips.
Leaders underestimate the difficulty of establishing trust across virtual teams.
In virtual settings, staff may be more hesitant to share their vulnerabilities. Yet candor within teams is important, and not just for trust-building. It is also important for performance.
With less sharing and less candor, how can we expect team members to be empathetic with each other? This both hurts team cohesion and team leaders may perceive their staff as less committed, producing a downward spiral of distrust.
Staff may also withhold effort more often in virtual teams. Called “social loafing,” in virtual settings, more people may perceive that they can hide behind the efforts of others. Or—on the flip side—they may perceive their efforts as not sufficiently rewarded, seen, or celebrated.
The lack of casual and spontaneous, unplanned social encounters further may hurt social cohesion within the team.
Rates of conflict and tensions can also be harder to manage within virtual or hybrid teams. And virtual conflicts can come across as harsher.
Physical distance makes it more difficult for teams to form common mental models of a shared future as a team, and the norms and goals that come with that. In the meantime, because we communicate with each other primarily through devices, our task orientation (as different from our relationship orientation) gets further enhanced.
Contextual clues such as audio and video are important in communications.
Technology-enabled messaging—especially text communication—does not offer nuances, making it susceptible to misinterpretation. Particularly when discussing sensitive or conflictual issues, we need to caution against the use of text-based communication wherever possible. People tend to attribute negative meaning more easily to text-based messages—potentially quite differently than what was intended. Biases can compound this misinterpretation. Language and cultural differences add yet another layer of complexity to the issue.
Here are some tips to counter virtual collaboration challenges.
- Use rich communication modes (audio and video) for issues that are sensitive or where in-depth deliberation is important. And keep the conversation synchronous with live communications like video conferencing (Zoom, Teams, etc.) and phone calls.
- Up your relationship orientation. Expand beyond a tendency toward a ‘task orientation’ to allow for humor, rituals, celebration, warm caring talk, and celebrating successes. By using your emotional intelligence, you strengthen community and kindle motivation.
- Hold people accountable for performance. Trust then verify. Trust is about more than familiarity and liking. It is also about competence, performance, and dependability. In virtual settings, where people do not feel as ‘seen’ and where there is greater competition for mindshare, people need to signal their trustworthiness more overtly by working on tasks.
- Communicate generously and listen actively. In the past, workplaces taught staff to be succinct. In the virtual space, we need to say more to mean more. Do not be afraid to over-communicate and elaborate. Provide context and check for understanding. And give the benefit of the doubt. It is easy to give a negative interpretation to a message—one that might be different than what was intended.
- Build clear communications norms within teams and organizations regarding how to communicate with each other, by what means, and for what purpose. Where do we upload, download, and co-create asynchronous documents? When and where do we use instant chat messaging; when do we text or call each other on the phone or use video conferencing; and what response time do we expect from each other?
BONUS TIP: Before the pandemic, research indicated that the average tenure of distributed team members in hybrid teams was shorter than that of co-located teams. Right now, many organizations are experiencing ‘the great resignation.’ We need to prioritize bonding and team cohesion—not just performance.
As has been said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Don’t give in to a tendency to over-index on ‘task orientation’ when virtual teams actually need more relationship orientation. To lead a strong virtual team, we leaders must prioritize consistent cultivation of trust and motivation.
This blog shares key learnings from a November 2021 Virtual Team Leadership workshop that the authors held for the InterAction community. A free mini-course on virtual team leadership launched on January 17—register and subscribe for more learning HERE. For insights and skill-building opportunities to thrive in our changing world, subscribe to the InterAction NGO Futures Digest.
Deborah Willig directs the InterAction NGO Futures initiative to accelerate NGOs’ ability to adapt and evolve in service of their missions. The InterAction NGO Futures initiative creates a safe exploration and co-learning space among sector leaders in support of transformational change. It facilitates peer learning, supplemented by events with outside experts, to build awareness and agility skills, leveraging the savvy of leaders to affect sustainable change.
Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken is an experienced INGO consultant, coach, author, and thought leader with a focus on leadership development, change management, and organizational culture and extensive global expertise in civil society practice as well as academia.
Ahmed Abdelhakim Hachelaf is an Algerian adult education specialist and author focused on leadership development, citizenship education, and human rights. He currently is a Peace & Conflict Education Specialist with Generations for Peace.