Listening to the Language of Virtual Teams

Listening to the Language of Virtual Teams

In the era of COVID, the initiation, development, and launch of untold numbers of virtual teams (VT) was nothing less than extraordinary. Organizations have successfully staffed and launched these groups into virtual reality – a good thing as we know that virtual teams are here to stay.

However, there are distinctions between VTs and in-person teams that can assist you in deciphering the signals they are sending you; all of this makes learning the language of virtual teams a priority for all parties.

While in-person teams and VTs have much in common, there are substantial differences.

As one team leader related, role confusion and responsibilities can be problematic:

“About who has the responsibility of which information and data, we haven’t got there yet.  I hear team members saying “Why does  this still happen?” or “Either ____________ isn’t clear about this or isn’t able to handle it.”

Attentive listening is the first step for leaders to better understand team dynamics and to develop intervention strategies.  Understanding the language of VTs can provide you with the data you need to enable them to perform at their best.

The Nature of Virtual Teams

Examining the structural aspects of virtual teams is essential:

  • Geographic considerations including the location(s), countries, continents, and time zones of the virtual team members is the first piece of this puzzle. Planning and coordination of meetings, communication/collaboration, updates, and deadlines and deliverables are at stake.
  • Modes of electronic communication. What are the primary and secondary means of communication?   Will there be opportunities to interact f2f?
  • How formal is the structure of the VT?  Are there SOPs (based organizational norms) in place or does the team need to establish?  Is membership fluid or fixed? Are the tasks and functions of the team constant or will these be in flux?
  • Diversity: Will there local, national, and/or international members?   What are the backgrounds, fields, and areas of expertise, and learning styles of the members?  Are many of the members based at HQ?  These characteristics can be major considerations in the design and operational aspects of the team.

Distance creates unique challenges. For example, team development stages manifest at a much slower pace and leaders play a pivotal role in ‘regulating’ the cadence of these stages.  Team members often want to “skip over” these critical stages of development and the awareness and capacity of the team leader will come into play, particularly in the early stages.

A concept known as transactive memory is a defining attribute of all teams but most important to VT.  Team members are connected, pool their data, and expand their own capacity by accessing information known by other members. In the early 2000s, the “term transactive memory systems” (TMS) was developed to describe the dynamic nature of team processes.

For example, these 3 concepts are key to understanding virtual team effectiveness:



(Corderer, J.L., & Soo, C., Impediments to Virtual Team Effectiveness, 2008)

For team and executive leaders, consider that:

  1. Team leaders play a vital role in both in-person and virtual team development and performance.
  2. The quality of a team’s transactive memory system (TMS) is heavily influenced by psycho-social processes such as trust, participation, conflict, communication, and cohesion among and between members.

These ‘soft skills’ are, in fact, vital to develop and enhance for superior team performance. Assessing team performance is all about knowing how to recognize signals which herald team discord and dysfunction.   (See our confidential team assessment: brief team survey).

Here is one manager’s comment about enhancing communication:

“One thing I have noticed is that communication between people and the willingness to share knowledge is greater once people know each other.  Rather than just being able to contact them on e-mail or talk to them on  the phone, or, if possible, actually talking face to face.”

Psychological safety is a key consideration when looking to enhance team performance and productivity.  This term describes the team member’s ability to reveal oneself “without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career” (Kahn, 1990, p. 708).

And the key implementation of safety development is all about, you guessed it, effective leadership.  Providing a supportive environment was found to be important, but the role of empowering leadership clearly is essential to VT success.  Two key elements to assure work engagement and collective efficacy (see diagram above) were viewed as being strongly influenced by leadership behavior.

Team development is a cost-effective and targeted series of actions that reveals both needs and strengths of the team.  We can assist you in tapping into those leadership skills that are designed for the world of VT.

Contact us with your questions and/or concerns about how your onsite teams and virtual teams are performing – there is no charge for this consultation.  Better yet, complete our brief team survey and we can review your team’s profile together.

Thanks for tuning in!

About WorkLife Xcel

We provide focused, custom-designed services to enhance leadership and organizational performance. Could your organization benefit from these enhancements? WorkLife Xcel partners with you to facilitate exemplary organizational and leadership growth. Get in touch today to help your organization achieve its true potential.

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