Leading Virtual Teams: A First-Time Manager’s Guide
In the past, new managers often had the luxury of cutting their teeth on traditional collocated teams: groups of people, sitting down the hall from one another, who met up in conference rooms to hash out what they were trying to achieve and how to get there. Unfortunately, today’s increasingly global work environment means they re now leading virtual teams. Many first-time managers find themselves assigned to a team of subordinates scattered far and wide.
Managing a distributed team can feel overwhelming as it requires you to navigate many different types of distance: geographic, temporal, cultural, linguistic, and configurational (the relative number of members in each location). Every one of these dimensions affects team dynamics and, therefore, has an impact on effectiveness and performance as well. Daunting as that may seem, there is good news in the form of a large and ever-increasing body of research and best practices on how to increase your odds of success. But first, it’s important to understand which aspects of virtual team dynamics are, and are not, affected by distance.
The effects of distance
While all of the different types of distance listed above affect us, they do so primarily through two core mechanisms: shared identity and shared context. Understanding these will help you develop a much more targeted plan of attack for managing from afar.
First, distance affects how you feel about people. Dealing with the types of distance listed above (often grouped together and labeled “locational”) triggers a sense of “social distance” – an unshared sense of identity, or a feeling of “us vs. them.” A lack of a shared identity has a far stronger impact on team dynamics than any of the types of distance individually. In an experimental field study conducted with Michael O’Leary, for example, we showed that unshared identity arising from social distance increased coordination problems and reduced group cognition in the form of transactive memory.
When teams function with high levels of transactive memory, they know where different knowledge is held in the team and how to access it. For instance, if everyone knows that Hector is a talented forecaster, the team will save time by assuming that Hector is responsible for any new information regarding forecasting. When transactive memory is impaired, however, the efficiency of the group suffers.