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Leading Virtual Teams

Cindy Clouner

Advances in technology have changed the ways teams function. In the late 1990’s, organizations began adopting the idea that effective teams could be composed of individuals stationed across the country, or even the globe. These teams, known as virtual teams, were even touted as the “workplace of the future” (Townsend, et al., 1998). Twenty years later, virtual teams are used by nearly half of global organizations (Minton-Eversole, 2012).

This chapter will explore the characteristics of virtual teams and how they compare to conventional teams, identifying both the strengths of virtual teams and the challenges that they face. Though challenging for all types of teams, virtual teams must approach the issues of goal alignment, motivation, and conflict management differently than their collocated counterparts. Additionally, this chapter will explore the differences between transactional and transformational leadership, the strengths and weaknesses of each style as it relates to leading virtual teams, and answer the question “Is a transactional or transformational leadership style more effective when leading virtual teams?” Finally, the chapter will explore three phases of leading virtual teams and strategies for leading effective virtual teams.

Virtual Teams vs. Conventional Teams
Virtual teams have been defined as “groups of geographically and/or organizationally dispersed coworkers that are assembled using a combination of telecommunications and information technologies to accomplish an organizational task” (Townsend, et al., 1998). Bell and Kozlowski (2002) identified two key characteristics that differentiated virtual and conventional teams – spatial distance and information, data, and personal communication.

The distance between virtual team members could be great, with members living in different countries, or relatively small, with mere miles between coworkers. Although the actual distance matters less, Bell and Kozlowski (2002) indicate that it is how teams interact in spite of their distance that matters most in the determination of whether a team would be considered “virtual.” A lack of face-to-face interactions due to their spatial distance can be considered a defining characteristic of virtual teams.

Although all teams utilize technology for communication, virtual teams rely more heavily on advanced communication technologies, such as the use of web-based apps for project management, videoconferencing, and schedule management, than conventional teams (Bell and Kozlowski, 2002). Rather than supporting the work of the team, virtual teams rely on communication technologies as a primary means of communication.

Gibson and Gibbs (2006) expanded Bell and Kozlowski’s definition of virtual teams by considering four dimensions: geographic dispersion, electronic dependence, dynamic structure, and national diversity. Although geographic dispersion and electronic dependence are both commonly noted as characteristics of a virtual team, dynamic structure and national diversity are less often noted.

Dynamic structure relates to the frequently shifting organizational structure of virtual teams. A study of 101 virtual teams found that virtual teams are often grounded in shared team leadership, rather than having a strong hierarchal approach (Hoch and Kozlowski, 2014). Virtual teams are often more fluid in nature, relying less on the hierarchy common in conventional teams, and may be limited in the length of time they exist (Gibson and Gibbs, 2006).
National diversity speaks to ability that virtual teams have to be inclusive talent from multiple states or countries (Gibson and Gibbs, 2006). Organizations utilizing virtual teams find that the decentralized nature of these teams lend themselves to increased diversity. Without the requirement to relocate, organizations broaden their applicant pool to include professionals outside of their local area, including crossing national boundaries (Johnson et. al., 2001). Additionally, the remote work environment of virtual teams can make positions more accessible for professionals with physical disabilities who may find challenges working in a traditional office environment or in locations that have limited accommodations (Bergel, 2008; Johnson et. al., 2001).

It can be argued that these dimensions of a virtual team are what make them advantageous to companies. Without the geographic constraints of conventional teams, virtual teams allow organizations to recruit the most qualified employees for positions (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002). Through the use of virtual teams, employers do not need to require relocation of their talent, diversifying their pool of potential employees (Bergel, 2008).

When teammates are not required to gather in a common place for work due to geographic dispersion, organizations can save money in the cost of providing physical workspaces to employees. Less on-site employees translates into smaller office spaces, less parking requirements, and less in utilities (Johnson et. al., 2001). Less money is also needed to be spent in travel costs, as well as the opportunity cost that is related to traveling (Bergel et. al., 2008). Additionally, employees may find working in a virtual team appealing because of the cost savings. Eliminating work commutes save employees the costs associated with car maintenance, gas, or public transportation. Additionally, employees recover the time that would otherwise be spent commuting (Johnson et. al., 2001).

Virtual teams lend themselves to hiring employees that focus more on productivity rather than other characteristics (Bergel et. al., 2008). The national diversity that virtual teams can bring lead to a more heterogeneous team and discourages discrimination based on race, age, gender, or physical ability (Bergel et. al., 2008).

Challenges of Virtual Teams
Although there are significant advantages to virtual teams, there are disadvantages to them as well. Because virtual teams rely so heavily on technology to facilitate communication, lack of experience in these applications among team members can be a significant barrier (Bergel et. al., 2008). This could mean that otherwise qualified team members may hesitate to take a role that requires them to work on a virtual team. Virtual teams may also not be conducive for every type of organization. Companies focused on manufacturing or have tasks that must be completed in a specific sequence may not be well suited for virtual teams (Joinson, 2002). Finally, another disadvantage to virtual teams is that not every professional has the skills to work in a virtual space. This could be particularly true for extroverted employees who thrive on social interaction, as well as those that struggle to stay motivated without the structures of conventional teams (Joinson, 2002).

Although there are benefits to the utilization of virtual teams, they present challenges to all team members. The dispersed nature of virtual teams can be a barrier to productivity that relies on the work of others. Having team members in other states, countries, or continents makes scheduling meetings challenging due to time differences (Bergel et. al., 2002). Frustrations can mount between team members who start and end their day at difference times, particularly if it holds up the progress of a team member (Joinson, 2002). There may be only a few hours of the day that all colleagues of a team are working congruently.

Although virtual teams allow for more diversity among team members, this can also lead challenges. Differences in language and culture among team members can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings that hinder the development of trust on a team (Bergel et. al., 2008). Team members that all agree to speak a common language can still experience challenges if the common language is not native to all team members, as it may be challenging to clearly communicate your needs, challenges, and ideas in a second language.

Even team members that do all speak a common language are at increased risk for miscommunication within a virtual team setting. When communicating in person, nonverbal cues such as gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, and body language play a significant role in how messages are received. Since often times the communication done in virtual teams occurs without looking at each other, miscommunication can easily occur (Bergel et. al., 2008).

Challenges are not just limited to the team members, but also to how virtual teams are led. Bell and Kozlowski (2002) discuss the challenges of executing the two leadership functions, performance management and team development, when working with virtual teams; both functions can be hindered by the lack of face-to-face interactions. Leaders of virtual teams may find it challenging to monitor the performance of their team members, as well as provide the coaching and recognition needed to have a highly functional team.

A review of the findings from both surveys and research about the challenges of virtual teams by Robert Lavasseur (2012) found the top three challenges for virtual teams to be cultivating trust among team members, overcoming the lack of face-to-face contact, and overcoming communication barriers. Since virtual teams, by definition, lack frequent face-to-face interactions, team members may miss out on nonverbal communication cues such as facial expressions, body language, and eye contact, leading to an increased risk of miscommunication. Johnson, Heimann, and O’Neill (2001) identified three common communication problems for virtual teams: (1) an unclear understanding of the expectations related to their tasks and how those related to the overall project; (2) challenges getting in touch with team members; (3) difficulty translating the true meaning of a message when it was relayed in a text-based means, such as emails.

Zander, Zettinig, and Makela (2013) found similar challenges to virtual teams in their research. They identified what they referred to as “three critical challenges:” goal alignment, knowledge transfer, and motivation.

Virtual team members may find they prioritize tasks differently than their peers based on their cultural experiences and make assumptions about how the team’s objectives should be met. Leaders of virtual teams will need to find a way to align the goals of their team members so they can work as a cohesive unit. Knowledge transfer is also a challenge, as the lack of face-to-face contact can lead to communication barriers that impede the ability to share necessary information. Finally, motivation can be a challenge for virtual teams. Since leaders of virtual teams do not see their directs regularly, it is more challenging to identify their needs and respond to them. Additionally, members of virtual teams may have varying degrees of commitment to the team, which can impact performance (Zander, et. al., 2013).

In addition, conflict, and the management of it, can be a significant challenge for virtual teams. The lack of face-to-face communication can mean that it is hard to identify if miscommunication is happening and that conflict related to miscommunication can go unnoticed for longer than if occurring in conventional teams (Johnson, Heimann, and O’Neill, 2001). Lavasseur (2012) even referred to conflict as the “Achilles heel” of virtual teams. Because of this, leaders of virtual teams should be mindful of the detrimental impact conflict can have on team success and take steps to proactively address it.

Leadership Styles and the Virtual Team
Although there are a variety of leadership styles, I focus here on transactional leadership and transformational leadership are frequently discussed in the literature as it relates to leading virtual teams.

Transactional Leadership
Transactional leadership consists of three dimensions (Bass, 1997; Northouse 2015):
Contingent reward. These leaders clarify expectations and provide rewards and recognition for meeting those expectations. They create mutually beneficial transactions consisting of trading resources and support for effort made by their team members.
Active management by exception. Active leaders provide ongoing monitoring that allows them to take action in potentially problematic situations before significant negative impacts are made on the team and its performance. Active leaders enforce the rules, taking action when guidelines are not followed.
Passive management by exception. Passive leaders also take action in problematic situations, however, they tend to wait until they are made aware of the problem before intervening.

These dimensions mean that transactional leaders thrive in environments with structure and are likely to integrate structure, procedure, and policy throughout the teams they lead. They tend to be more focused on short-term goals and are capable of achieving those goals quickly (Spahr, 2016). This can be beneficial in virtual teams, as communication and setting clear expectations are necessary for the success of teams that are decentralized (Levasseur, 2012; Watkins, 2013). Since contingent reward is a key dimension of transactional leadership, leaders employing this style need to overcome the barriers related to monitoring performance and delivering rewards and recognition to team members with whom they do not have face-to-face interactions (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002).

Transformational Leadership
Bernard Bass and colleagues identified four dimensions of transformational leadership (Bass, 1997; Northouse 2015):
Idealized influence. Also known as charisma, leaders with idealized influence may be seen as role models within the organization due to their ability to build trust, loyalty, and confidence. They have strengths in garnering support for a shared vision and making ethical decisions, even when the right choice is a difficult one.
Inspirational motivation. These leaders foster enthusiasm and optimism among their team. They maintain high standards, yet provide sufficient encouragement for their team to reach them.
Intellectual stimulation. For these leaders, emphasis is placed on creativity and innovation. Rather than follow procedure for procedure’s sack, team members are encouraged to question traditions and find new solutions that may better meet the needs of the team.
Individualized consideration. Recognizing that each team member is an individual with unique needs, these leaders excel at listening, coaching, and providing feedback to develop the skills of their team.

Leaders who employ the dimensions of transformational leadership are more likely to engage their team in critical thinking to solve problems versus relying on the status quo. This leadership style is beneficial to virtual teams for a number of reasons. First, leaders of virtual teams must be skilled in garnering support for a common vision. Zander and colleagues (2013) identified goal alignment as a key challenge for virtual teams and transformational leaders can utilize idealized influence and inspirational motivation as methods for building cohesion with the team around its goals. Secondly, the dimensions of transformational leadership lends itself well to overcome the challenge of motivation among virtual teams (Zander et al., 2013). These leaders foster enthusiasm, provide coaching, and develop loyalty within their team members that can encourage motivation. Although transformational leaders excel at building the trust needed for successful virtual teams, they may struggle to build the structure needed for a virtual team to succeed.

Although Avolio and Bass (1990) identify the dimensions associated with transformational to be more effective than transactional leadership, leaders of a virtual team may benefit from having a combination of these leadership styles. Although trust is paramount to a virtual team (Joshi, A., et al, 2009) and transformational leaders excel at developing trust amongst team members (Bass, 1997), leaders of virtual teams must clearly communicate expectations and develop policy and procedures to guide a virtual team- both skills in which transactional leaders excel (Bass, 1997). It has also been found that although transactional leadership may lead to increased productivity, transformational leadership may produce higher quality results, greater team satisfaction with leadership, and group cohesion (Hoyt & Blascovich, 2003).

Phases of Leading Virtual Teams
Zander et. al. (2013) identified three phases of leading virtual teams, the welcoming, working, and wrapping up phases. Within each of the phases, Zander and his colleagues identified areas of focus for the leaders of virtual teams. These phases and focus areas address a number of the challenges of virtual teams that have been identified in the literature, including the challenges of goal alignment, knowledge transfer, and motivation.

The Welcoming Phase
The welcoming phase of a virtual team is the period of time when the team is initially formed and it introduced to the team’s goals and objectives. Zander et. al. (2013) encourages a focus on goal alignment, relationship building, and task definition during this phase. It is during this time that leaders should put extra emphasis on clearly articulating the goals of the project and how they relate to overarching goals of the organization. Explicitly defining the tasks and their expected outcomes for each team member is important during this welcoming phase.

Additionally, efforts should be made to facilitate relationship building during this initial phase. Developing relationships within a team helps build trust amongst team members (Zander et. al., 2013).

Levausser (2012) also emphasizes the importance of the initial phase of a virtual team. It is during this formation stage of the team that leaders legitimize the behaviors that will ultimately lead to an effective team, including those that help develop trust and effective communication.

The Working Phase
The second phase of effective team leadership is the working phase. Zander and his colleagues identified roles and processes, coordination of tools, and operations as the focus areas during this time. As the leader of a virtual team, it is even more important to understand with whom the knowledge and skills needed to complete tasks resides. Additionally, leaders must be able to facilitate the access of this information to other team members. Coordination of tools refers to the need for a leader to ensure access to the technology needed to for the team’s effective performance. Finally, during the working phase, operations is about the leader’s responsibility for the regular communication of progress to the team and attention to potential conflicts (Zander et. al., 2013).

The Wrapping Up Phase
The wrapping up phase is the opportunity for teams to self-evaluate their success of meeting their outlined objectives. Zander et. al. (2013) recommend focusing on finalization and de-briefing during this final phase. Finalization provides the chance for team leaders to reflect on a team’s success or shortcomings, as well as provide all team members with time to evaluate both their own performance and that of the entire team as it relates to meeting goal. De-briefing serves an opportunity for process evaluation for the virtual team, with team members exploring how goals were met, the process that the work was done, and how the team utilized technology or other communication strategies.

Strategies for Leading Effective Virtual Teams
The decentralized nature of virtual teams can present significant challenges to leading them effectively. Research and personal experience have identified a number of strategies that have shown to be effective in leading productive virtual teams.

Building Trust
The importance of trust in conventional teams is well-documented. Trust among a virtual team is just as important, though it may be more challenging to achieve, because virtual teams by nature are limited in their face-to-face interactions (Brake, 2006; Bergel et. al., 2008).

Although by definition virtual teams do the majority of their communication from a distance, bringing a team together for a face-to-face meeting in the welcoming phase of a new team can help foster the trust needed for an effective team. It is easier to facilitate relationship building, including getting to know team members both professionally and personally, during an in-person meeting (Watkins, 2013).

Setting Clear Expectations
Setting clear expectations is important for all teams, but critical for those of a virtual nature. Team members should have a strong understanding of the expectations as they relate to their role and objectives, as well as expectations for group process (Watkins, 2013).

One strategy to ensure that all team members clearly understand the purpose of the team and their individual role is the development of a team charter. In addition to identifying the mission and objective of the team, a charter should also clearly define how the team functions by outlining the group norms and decision-making process it intends to follow (Combs & Peacocke, 2007).

Research indicates that virtual teams often struggle dealing with interpersonal issues and group process (Levasseur, 2012). Another strategy for setting clear expectations is the development of ground rules can be a way to ensure that everyone understands expectations of their behavior and how to handle challenging situations. It is important that ground rules are established at the onset of a team’s life and tailored to the unique constraints and culture of the team.

Group rules may focus on ways to avoid interpersonal conflict. Setting rules on accepting and embracing the diversity of teammates, exhibiting patience as new team members adjust to technology and any language barriers, and the expectations around communication are just a few examples (Levasseur, 2012). Clear expectations for managing conflict should also be set. Since conflict can take longer to identify in virtual teams, it is important that an expectation is put in place that team members identify and resolve conflicts as soon as they start (Levasseur, 2012).
In addition to group rules related to managing interpersonal relationships, establishing and following procedures for a team’s work cycle is also important. For example, creating procedures for how meetings will be run and the appropriate way to engage in these meetings is important.

Developing meeting agendas and sending them in advance to team members, providing opportunity for community building at the opening of meetings, and wrapping up meetings with a list of actionable items and who they are assigned to can help keep virtual meetings on track (Malhotra et. al, 2007). Without these expectations on procedures, team members may find that they implement processes from past teams that may not meet the objectives of the team and can lead to misunderstandings.

Effective Communication
Effective communication is challenging enough in a conventional team setting. Leaders of virtual teams must put great emphasis on clear and timely communication. Ground rules should be identified for what acceptable communication looks like for the team (Combs & Peacocke, 2007). Establishing norms for the team’s communication is an important step in building trust within the team. A 2007 review of research focused on virtual teams by Malhotra, Majchrzak, and Rosen discussed the importance of setting these guidelines that are unique to the team, as without them team members are likely to revert to using the communication norms of their local teams or past employers, which may not be conducive to the team’s goals. Malhotra et. al. recommend virtual team leadership establish the proper procedures for how to handle the following situations:

• Identifying the communication technology that should be used and when to utilize each one
• How to utilize virtual work spaces, including what types of content to post, when to post it, how to comment on postings, and procedures for managing and storing documentation in the virtual work space
• Etiquette for electronic and verbal communication, such as beginning a response with the person’s name to whom it is directed during audioconferencing and developing abbreviations that can be used to quickly see if emails require responses or not

To be most effective, these guidelines must be regularly revisited to ensure they still meet the needs of the team (Malhotra et. al., 2007). Miscommunication can also occur when teammates do not share a common language. Spending time coming to a consensus about what the key phrases and words are to the work of the team can help reduce misunderstandings among teams (Watkins, 2013).

Building Cohesion
Although virtual team members may not be able to congregate in a break room or at the water cooler to build relationships with each other, the relationship building is still an important part of an effective team. Leaders must take extra steps to provide opportunity for team members to get to know each other and develop positive working relationships. In the Harvard Business Review, Michael Watkins encouraged leaders of virtual teams to develop a “virtual water cooler” or opportunities for informal interactions to take place. This can be done by providing a few minutes at the beginning of each meeting to share current personal events or facilitating formal team-building exercises (Watkins, 2013).

Combs and Peacocke encourage leaders to have team members develop personal profiles that include their professional expertise, personal interests, and a photograph (2007). Malhotra et. al. (2007) takes these personal profiles a step further and recommends the use of an “expertise directory,” which makes these profiles publicly available between the team. This document should include details about a team member’s expertise, past trainings and work, organization affiliations, and a photograph of the team member. This document would serve as a virtual team guide, facilitating collaboration among team members.

Provide Recognition
The de-centralized nature of virtual teams mean that leaders must make a more concerted effort to appropriately recognize the achievements of their team members. Leaders of virtual teams should identify strategies to celebrate both team and individual successes. Having tokens of appreciate delivered to team members, beginning meetings with recognition of accomplishments, and celebrating project completions are all examples of ways to provide reward a job well done (Malhotra, et. al., 2007; Combs and Peacocke, 2007).

The rise of technology over the last few decades have expanded the ways organizations can build and leverage teams. Virtual teams allow agencies to bring together the most talented individuals while saving costs, but can also lead to significant barriers in developing the trust that is needed to be effective. Although leading virtual teams can present more challenges than leading conventional teams, through taking steps to strengthen trust, enhance communication, and build cohesion virtual teams can be an excellent strategy for meeting the objectives of organizations, including those in the public health space, in an effective and efficient manner.
Virtual teams may be an underutilized tool in providing quality healthcare, particularly when considering the patient as a member of the team. In that situation, managing chronic disease, as well as treating rare illnesses, can benefit from the implementation of virtual teams. Using technology to connect a treatment team to a patient with a chronic disease, such as diabetes, can provide more comprehensive care with fewer in office visits. Additionally, since one of the benefits of virtual teams is that it allows the most qualified individuals to participate, even if they are separated by significant distance, patients with rare illnesses could have a treatment team including the foremost experts in their disease without having to travel to see them in person. Little has been published on how virtual teams are being utilized in the public health and healthcare fields and more research evaluating its utilization and benefits would be beneficial for the future.


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Leadership in Healthcare and Public Health Copyright © 2018 by Cindy Clouner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.