Five things to be aware of when leading virtual teams

This year, many teams who were used to regularly working and meeting in an office environment have been forced to adapt to remote working. In many cases, this happened almost overnight without much warning and without much recognition of the required infrastructure, the different home set ups of individual team members, and little (if any) risk assessment and transition management.

Although commuting is often viewed as a burden, the physical act of travelling to a workplace can make it easier for us to set boundaries and distinguish between work and home life. The ‘always on’ digital culture and flexible working has been blurring these boundaries over the last few years. However, the overnight move to employees working from home en masse appears to have accelerated this trend, with work becoming all-encompassing and employees finding it increasingly difficult to maintain core hours.

Recent studies have found that people are attending more meetings, receiving more emails and are working longer hours, with the average working day increasing by around an hour. Over the last few months, I have heard many stories of diaries being packed back-to-back with one online meeting after another, leaving people little or not time for thinking, planning and actually doing the work they need to do. In addition, if your diary is not particularly busy with ‘personal commitments’ because of restrictions on socialising and travel, it is easy to convince yourself that it is fine to spend more time on work during time which you previously would have reserved for non-work activities.

The current reality for many people is that they are having to manage complex set ups at home and work erratic patterns to fit in with a partner’s work patterns, caring for children and/or other dependents, and even household members who are shielding. There are also people who feel increasingly isolated and lonely working from home and the work overload is having a negative impact on wellbeing.

Five things to be aware of when leading a virtual team


Communication and transparency are even more important for the effectiveness of virtual teams than they are for physical teams. The higher the levels of trust, the more effective your team is likely to be. Trust is easy to build up but is easily lost, so it is important to make extra effort to build trust through communication and being very transparent. For example, admitting to mistakes and showing how you will put it right.

2. Shared Leadership

This is where leadership is not concentrated in one person. Leadership tasks are actively shared between a group of people with distinct roles in a leadership or project team. Make the most of people’s unique skills and capabilities, be clear about who is doing what, and communicate this to the team. 

3. Clarity around roles and expectations

Have conversations at an individual and team level, to explain things and ensure fair and equitable distribution of work. Check that team members are clear around expectations. For example, some team members may believe – even if there has never been a conversation around this – that they are expected to check their work phone and emails outside of normal working hours and/or work during the time they would have been commuting in the past, making it difficult to switch off from work.

Take notice of your colleagues’ behaviour in meetings. For example, if someone becomes unusually quiet and withdrawn, have a separate conversation with that person – take the time to check in with them outside of the meeting environment and ask them how they are coping. They may not admit to anything being wrong the first time you ask but be persistent if you sense that they may be struggling.

4. Give people control

There are many things that we cannot control. However, think about the things you do have some control over to increase efficiency and a sense of wellbeing in yourself and your team.

5. “Leading takes thinking time, not just meeting time”

Lead by example. For example, block out time in  your diary which does not involve meetings so that you can have some thinking time. This will put you in a better place to make good decisions – it is better for the team and for the organisation if leaders do this!

Acknowledgements: Professor Almuth McDowall’s presentation on digital transitions and leadership at the International Society for Coaching Psychology (ISCP) Congress 2020 provided me with inspiration and content for this article.

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Mandy Murdoch – Coaching Psychologist, Accredited Coach and Consultant

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