In the day-to-day operations of face-to-face teams, personal meetings, private conversations in the office or joint lunch breaks are the forms of communication in which social interaction and the informal exchange of information take place.

“Trust is the great working capital for all enterprises, without which no useful work can get along. It creates the conditions for prosperous activity in all fields.” – Albert Schweitzer

This type of communication promotes mutual openness and spontaneity in dealing with each other, contributes significantly to the culture of the company and is a fundamental condition for building mutual trust. 

Digital formats as a central means of communication

In the case of virtual teams, these forms of operational communication cannot usually be realized. Conversations in digital formats and via video calls become the central means of communication here. The physical presence and the physical experience of the conversation partner are missing. This means that the generation of emotions and their perception in communication are only rudimentary and essential information is missing in which we express our relationship to the interlocutor. Space for the informal exchange of information is thus lacking. 

In a survey conducted by Munich Business School, just under half of all virtual team members surveyed stated that they had met or gotten to know other team members in person no more than twice during their period of virtual collaboration. One in five had only a single face-to-face meeting. 

The lack of personal contact complicates many processes in everyday work: Even brief queries in virtual teams often require written contact (e-mail), which means answers take longer to arrive. Uncertainty and misunderstandings can quickly arise. Binding deadlines and time limits become much more important so that plans can be implemented as agreed. Spontaneous action “on demand” is not possible.

Challenges in virtual leadership

Virtual collaboration requires a high degree of self-organization among employees. In addition, it is more difficult for the entire team to identify with both the organization and the team itself. This often leads to a feeling of isolation and a lack of clarity regarding processes, tasks, roles, responsibilities and priorities. This leads to misunderstandings and conflicts compared to teams that work in the same space and are in physical contact with each other. 

Studies show that the greatest positive impact on the performance level of virtual teams can be achieved through trained and partner-centered communication skills, consultative and consensual leadership, clear goals and roles, and trust-based relationship building. How can a leader manage to build a relationship when he or she may never or rarely see the teammates?

According to available experience, the following aspects are crucial for this:

Building and maintaining trust through the use of communication technology with measures including the following:

  • fixed, regular meeting times.
  • a clear roadmap for further action 
  • deadlines 
  • the discussion of milestones  
  • regular feedback meetings  
  • fixed times of availability 
  • clear rules for the type, frequency and channel of information sharing 
  • making work progress visible, for example through virtual platforms, schedules and a key performance indicator system to which all team members have access.

Managing team quality of the virtual team with the following measures, among others:

  • distribute roles and responsibilities clearly
  • trust in the employees’ ability to organize themselves 
  • always start virtual meetings with relationship building (having a virtual coffee together or similar).
  • consciously address all team members during meetings and include them in the conversation
  • celebrate successes virtually as well
  • after the meeting, promptly add the minutes as well as decisions and next planned steps to the digital team platform.

To implement these measures in virtual teams, all team members must be highly trusting and the manager must have a low need for control. 

The manager must be reliable for the team, he or she should set a good example for the collaborators and show a structure that points the way. Building and maintaining trust through them remains by far the most important criteria for success. Professional communication that emphasizes togetherness therefore becomes even more important in virtual collaboration than in the traditional leadership structure, where leadership often takes place “on the side” and visibility and quick feedback are provided with physical presence.

OTP offers workshops and seminars on the topics of “Virtual Leadership” and “Working in a Virtual Team”. 

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