Working virtually

What people feel

Many people have positive things to say about working virtually: much less travel, different people with different backgrounds getting together, new ideas, 24 hour work (it’s especially managers who make the last comment!) Others are more negative: too many emails and meetings, work days get longer because of time differences, misunderstandings multiply. In fact, some people have said to me; “there’s no such thing as a virtual team!” The other names also have negative implications. Compare “remote” team or “dispersed” team with “intact” team for example. So there are some issues to working virtually, but these can be overcome to get great benefits.

The challenges

There are two big related challenges. The first is the fact that loyalty is local. If some one is working in a Brazilian office with two managers, one who sits in the same place as him and the other in Europe, who do you think he responds to most when both managers are pressing for some urgent work to be done? There is a stronger relationship with people we see every day and their urgency comes across more forcefully when we see their body language as they are talking to us. Emails can be put aside more easily to deal with later, especially when they arrive in the middle of the night! Also relationships with team mates are much stronger when colleagues can gossip around the water cooler, and the desire to support people is stronger when we have a good relationship.

The second challenge is to get individuals in different locations with different cultures to work well together. You need a single set of assumptions about what it means to say X and do Y. Without a single set of assumptions, misunderstandings multiply and relationships then deteriorate. The more complex the task, the greater this challenge becomes.

Let’s take the example of a team working in all continents. A simple task can be passed on from team to team to get 24 hour work and a quick solution. The manager asks them to decode a piece of DNA for example. The team members in Finland start off the process, pass it on to USA, who then pass it on to China. It goes from there to India who finish it off and pass the final results back to Finland.

What happens when the manager asks for something more complex, for example to look at the DNA sequence and find genes that will increase the yield from wheat.

The Finnish workers have been experiencing cold winters, so they look for genes that support cold tolerance. USA has been experiencing very unstable weather so they look for genes that tolerate changing climatic conditions, China has had a drought so they look low water requirements and India has been flooded so they suggest forgetting wheat and looking at rice instead. No answer arrives, just a lot of contradictory possibilities. However this example also shows the great strength that teams from all over the world can have. Their diversity, while creating communication problems, can lead to great creativity and better solutions, if properly managed.

Communication is the key

Virtual teams need to get to know each other at the beginning. This helps increase loyalty and the connection between team members. During this initial phase, it’s essential that team members work out their single set of assumptions about what it means do say X and do Y. They need to work out who they are as individuals and as a team and how they will communicate and work together.

After that, there need to be clear and well communicated project goals and plans. These must be explained in detail and everyone’s understanding should be checked. Then trust the individuals to get on with it!

All communication must be explicit – you can’t read between the lines when you’re a continent away! Virtual team members also need to be very proactive with communication. In an office, you can sit and wait for information to come to you. This won’t happen virtually, so virtual workers must be very assertive about getting the information and support they need.

Decision making processes are also different virtually. People working face to face can sit together and work out a consensus. In a virtual team, this is almost impossible. Instead it makes sense to go to the person with the most expertise and ask them to decide alone. This takes a lot of trust, which should be built in the first phase of a teams life and people must also feel empowered enough to take these decisions.

This leads to another difference in working virtually. Power doesn’t come so much from status (I’m the manager therefore do what I say) as from expertise and knowledge. So team leaders and managers need to let go of their status role and instead become powerful communicators and facilitators who can be personal, motivate, coach and relieve stress – all from a distance.

The SCARF model

This model was developed by David Rock, a business communication coach with an interest in neuroscience, and it can offer some interesting insights for working virtually.

SCARF stands for: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Threats to any of these elements lead to big stress changes in our brain chemistry while positive reinforcement leads to pleasure changes. Unfortunately, like bad news compared to good news, the threat responses are always stronger.

From the things we’ve talked about earlier, it’s clear that relatedness is always going to be less when working virtually, and that autonomy should be higher. To make sure that the team works well virtually, leaders (and everyone else) should pay particular attention to the other three elements.

Status can be increased by positive feedback and celebration of successes as well as showing trust in people’s abilities. Certainty will be helped by very explicit communication with everything spelt out in detail and repeated in different media (for example a telephone call summarized immediately afterwards by email). Both elements will be supported by high action levels. Instead of all working towards the big deadline in 6 months time, the team members should be working towards much shorter intermediate deadlines – every week or two for example. Then everyone knows what’s happening and frequent successes can be celebrated.

Fairness is a very important element. Experiments show people are happier when they receive 50 cents from splitting a dollar 50:50 than when they receive $10 from splitting $50 so one person gets $10 and the other $40. Add this to the fact that people interpret bad news more negatively when they read it compared to when they get if face to face and that people talk more about negative things and you can see a big threat in virtual teams. Any suspicion about unfairness will lead to a gossip wildfire and problems in the virtual team. So it’s essential to be fair and impartial and make sure that people know this is happening.


People need to get the communication and the management style right to work virtually. When that happens, you have the great advantage of diversity. People’s different cultures and experiences will lead to new and better ways of doing things so the virtual team can become much greater than the sum of its parts.

Cath Barlett

Cath has extensive understanding of multicultural working environments from both theoretical and practical perspective, having lived and worked in five different continents. She specializes in intercultural communication and leadership related skills, and has written books and articles on the topic.

Cath also runs multiple training courses related to these topics, see e.g.,
Managing Multicultural Virtual Team

Effective Working in Multicultural Teams or

Leading Multicultural Teams to Success

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