Churchill Coach Carylynn
Organizational Psychologist & Leadership Coach
April 13, 2020
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?”
(Click infographic to enlarge)
Psychological Difference #3: Ambiguity
From the team member/employee perspective, a shift to virtual work can create increased ambiguity at all levels of the organization. Because we often say more than we write (especially considering nonverbal communication), team members who are working virtually will often experience ambiguity around communications. When a team shifts to a virtual work setting, team members may also experience ambiguity around the availability of their colleagues. The ambiguity gap is perhaps the easiest to close, but it takes effort on the part of both leaders and team members. Leaders must set clear communication standards that align with the nature of the team’s work, as well as clear standards around the use of technology platforms.
Tip: Identify the standards that you have for your team around communications and use of communication tools. Articulate these expectations clearly, and role model them. Check in with each of your team members about their access to and comfort level with the technology platforms that they are expected to use, and make a point to recognize team members for using these tools.
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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Cary combines deep scientific expertise in the social sciences with extensive C-suite coaching and consulting experience to elevate even the most successful leaders. Cary’s clients describe her as brilliantly insightful, pragmatically blunt, and contagiously positive. She has a knack for knowing which frameworks and resources will profoundly impact her clients. Where others fail, Cary helps her clients activate new awareness and heighten conversational, relational, and emotional capacities.
After a decade of leveraging her expertise in corporate leadership and team dynamics, Carylynn discovered that coaching is about discovery and creating ways for leaders to better understand themselves, their teams and their environment. Carylynn has a PhD in Organizational Psychology and is a Certified Coach (ICF PCC) and a Certified Master Facilitator (INIFAC).
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