Transitioning to Virtual Teams
This article was first published on Creating Open Space March 16, 2020. Re-published here with permission.
Across the globe, in a million ways, business leaders are grappling with the impact of institutional shutdowns, quarantines, and social distancing. Given that early experiences color the way that we think, feel, and ultimately perform, it’s imperative that leaders who are transitioning to a virtual team environment do so with excellence.
As an Organizational Psychologist, I’m sensitive to the ways that virtual teams are qualitatively different than teams that meet and communicate in person. In this blog, I present three psychological differences to consider, along with a set of tips to support your success.
Psychological Difference #1: Isolation
When team members work from the comfort of their home, something not-all-that-surprising happens. Productivity often goes up, at least in the short term Supervisors may see this spike in productivity and assume that all is well, but behind the scenes a potential derailer is lurking. As face-to-face interactions decrease, social isolation and invisibility  increase. And research across the social sciences suggest that both invisibility and isolation have a negative impact on people’s personal wellbeing and their productivity. To address the insidious effects of invisibility and isolation, leaders must make concerted efforts to connect frequently and personally with team members who are working virtually.
Tip: Make a list of all your team members. Be sure to make one personal connection with each of them every day they are working. Connection is most personal when face to face (video) or voice to voice (phone). For those who are used to text and chat, these interactions may feel sufficient, even preferred. To take this to the next level, use this free template.
Psychological Difference #2: Trust
Humans are prone to trusting what they can see more so than what they can’t see. “I’ll believe it when I can see it,” we think. The implication is that when team members move to a virtual setting, we may begin to unconsciously question what our team members are doing, or even how they’re doing it. If we’re not careful, our observations (in this case, lack of observations) can quickly run up the Ladder of Inference and manifest as thoughts and beliefs. For example, we may begin to think that team members are slacking off, or not communicating with other members of the team. In other words, in the absence of information, we assume the worst.
To address this natural yet divisive tendency to assume the worst instead of the best about our team members, leaders need to walk a fine line of knowing without scrutinizing: they need to know what and how their team members are doing without coming across as micromanaging.
Tip: Use your need to know as an opportunity to recognize and acknowledge your team members. Add a column to your list of team members, labeled “Acknowledgements,” and challenge yourself to acknowledge at least one thing that person does each day. If you’re not able to do so, this is a sign that you need to check in. Use your natural leadership style as a guide, and start with an open-ended question. It may be as simple as, “How was your day today?” or “Of all the things you accomplished today, what did you most enjoy?”
The most successful leaders will include those who understand, consider, and adapt their approach to the psychological shifts that everyone is experiencing when confined to working at home. These tips will get you started; please feel free to reach out to me directly for support if you begin to feel overwhelmed or lost.
Take care and stay healthy!
 Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J., & Ying, Z. J. (2015). Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130, 165–218.
 Golden, T. D., Veiga, J. F., & Dino, R. N. (2008). The impact of professional isolation on teleworker job performance and turnover intentions: does time spent tele- working, interacting fact-to-face, or having access to communication-enhancing technology matter? Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1412–1421.
 Mulki, J. P., & Jaramillo, F. (2011). Workplace isolation: salespeople and supervisors in USA. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22, 902–923.
 Allen, D. G., & Griffeth, R. W. (2001). Test of a mediated performance–turnover rela- tionship highlighting the moderating roles of visibility and reward contingency. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 1014–1021.
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