We’re All Working at Home. Can Our Team Handle It?

When co-workers go virtual, conflict and confusion can result. Leaders must be ready to act
Robert Gerlsbeck
Asian Business man with tin can phone. Concept about communication.

Thanks to coronavirus, millions now find themselves working from home. There are benefits, of course. No more fighting traffic or waiting in long lines at Starbucks. Another bonus: It’s suddenly OK to work in your pyjamas.

But working from home creates its own problems. An especially glaring one is our ability to work as a team. In the office, with co-workers around us every day, it’s much easier to be in lockstep with teammates. But when the only connection is virtual, teams can quickly become less effective. The result can be confusion, anger and disunity among team members. 

What challenges do virtual teams face? And how can these be overcome? Smith Business Insight spoke with Matthias Spitzmuller, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business, to find out. Spitzmuller researches team motivation and team leadership. He says the ability of teams to work successfully in a virtual environment depends a lot on leadership. Communication may need to increase, he says, while conflict must be identified and dealt with quickly. Here, he answers our questions about the pitfalls of virtual teamwork. 

What’s a really big problem that virtual teams face?

Virtual work can easily create misunderstandings among team members. When people are together in an office, face-to-face, they rely a lot on non-verbal cues to interpret what others are saying. As humans, we pick up a lot of information from the expression on people’s faces. So think about a situation where someone in a team says they disagree with you. In person, you might see that they have a smile on their face and that the non-verbal cues they exhibit suggests their disagreement is made with good intentions. But when you’re working virtually, you don’t have that context. So you’re more likely to assume the worst and take it personally. You may feel you’re being attacked, which can lead to conflict within teams. In the early stages of going virtual, that is something teams tend to struggle with.

What other challenges does not working face-to-face cause?

Another consideration is how team members develop a shared understanding of their work, or what’s known as a “shared mental model” in which team members are aligned on tasks, goals, member roles and norms for acceptable behaviour. When we’re working in close proximity to each other, team members are effective at developing a team mental model. But virtual teams can struggle with this because people on the team have less exposure to one another. Therefore, it’s important that virtual teams set aside dedicated time to discussing tasks, goals, norms and roles.

Is there a danger that when people work remotely they can become less motivated?

I recently asked a poll question of my class of MBA students: How many of you are more motivated or less motivate to work remotely? About two-thirds of them said they would be less motivated. When I asked why, they said that there is less urgency to get work done when you don’t see the other people on your team every day. So you’re more likely to get distracted, to lose focus. It is the face-to-face contact with our teammates and our managers that helps make work salient. Working together in an office next to each other creates a sense of urgency. A solution when working virtually is to schedule more regular check-ins in order to keep everyone focused on the tasks that are important to the team. 

What steps do leaders need to take to ensure teams are as effective virtually as they are in person?

First, they need to emphasize the common identify of the team. Virtuality can pull teams apart, so re-emphasizing common tasks, the team vision, long-term objective and what connects the team is important.

Second, since team members will now interact with each other less frequently, and in a way that is less rich than face-to-face contact, it is important to ensure that the work of team members is aligned with each other and with the strategic directives of the organization. Minor changes in the work of a team member can make the work of other team members redundant or deficient. So managers need to pay constant attention to the alignment of actions of individual team members.

Third, managers need to ensure that team members remain connected to the organization. So leaders will need to be more hands-on, more involved on a regular basis, for example by ensuring that the organization provides the necessary resources to the team and the team has the support of senior decision-makers in the organization.

Finally, there needs to be a constant focus on managing conflict. Given that virtual teams are more prone to experience conflict, team managers need to identify potential sources proactively and take correction action quickly when necessary.

In a virtual workplace, do leaders need to call more meetings?

They definitely have to do more communicating. It’s important to emphasize shared goals and objectives. They may need to say things more often like, “let’s remember, this is the goal we are working towards,” or reminding members to support one another and that, as a leader, you are proud of them. Praise, recognition, positive spirit—all of that serves to support the identity of the team. It can help keep the team together as opposed to letting it fall apart.

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