Structuring and steering virtual teams: Talent through COVID-19 and beyond

virtual teams

Virtual work is now a reality, necessitated by COVID-19. The pandemic has accelerated a workplace evolution and forces of talent transformation which predated COVID-19. Talent misalignments had already become a flashpoint for many industries, with projections of a further widening of the gap between existing workforce skillsets and those required in the context of the Industry 4.0 revolution – most keenly in manufacturing environments.

The newer generation of employees have different expectations, too. The Generation Z cohort prioritizes autonomy, flexibility and affinity with their company’s values. As digital natives they are attuned to technologies, and expect to be permitted to use technology tools to work smarter, including embracing time- and place- flexibility.

Within three weeks of COVID-19’s outbreak in major nations, the proportion of people working from home had doubled. Now, more than half of these workers say they would prefer to continue to work from home as much as possible when restrictions are lifted. How companies respond will be a significant determinant of their ability to navigate a post-COVID-19 recovery, and their competitiveness beyond.


The obvious advantage of virtual teams is the widening of the recruitment net

Digital connectivity, and the socioeconomic forces of globalization, mean that skills can now be harnessed irrespective of physical location. It’s a symbiosis: the flexibility inherent in remote work arrangements also increases the company’s attractiveness as an employer, a boon for talent recruitment and retention. But the deeper impacts of virtual teams are in their potential to unlock value.

Co-located teams often default to procedural actions and compartmentalized approaches, prioritizing routines and speed. By breaking with established structures and hierarchies, virtual teams encourage boundaryless – or less constrained – thinking around improvements, problem-solving and innovative or even disruptive concepts.

In veering from traditional hierarchies, the very flexibility of virtual teams is itself a major attribute. As a fit within next-generation supply networks, virtual teams can add fluidity and ingenuity, driving productivity gains through new processes or improvement initiatives. Partly, this explains the range of designs of remote teams, from core functional units to cross-functional networked teams, parallel task-forces to hybrid development or NPD teams.


Virtual teams encourage boundaryless – or less constrained – thinking around improvements, problem-solving and innovative or even disruptive concepts.


Dispersed teams aggregate wider backgrounds and experiences, and spread broader qualifications, core capabilities, and knowledge across the organization, in a natural gravitation to diversity. “And it turns out that affects innovation,” says John Sullivan, Management Professor at San Francisco State University.


Individually isolated teamwork brings challenges

Communication is the crux of teamwork, but there is an elevated risk of disjointed, fragmented interaction in a dispersed structure. Although digital channels are instant and efficient, two-thirds of human communication is gleaned non-verbally, which is now lost.

Evidence points to the optimal virtual team size being relatively small, at 10 or fewer. In large companies or divisions this is unfeasible – a drawback which requires innovative virtual team configuration and management which goes the extra mile.

Isolated work heightens the risk of reduced employee commitment and loyalty. Issues of trust, synchronised advancement towards goals, and individual versus joint accountability – these rise in sharper relief when colleagues do not routinely connect, face-to-face.


Although digital channels are instant and efficient, two-thirds of human communication is gleaned non-verbally, which is now lost.


The culture within a company may be attuned to physical co-location: ways of working which forge insights from water-cooler conversations; solve problems through joint analysis around the faulty machine; germinate ideas during meals in the cafeteria. These deeper collaboration opportunities are curtailed within virtual teams.

Similarly, the company’s vision and mission can turn hazy for employees not located at the office. So, too, can the ethos dissipate – the metaphorical fabric that weaves between the desks is not part of the experience of remote staff – and what can get lost is a sense of pulling together, a unified culture that sets the tone, manner and pace of achievement.


But management can mitigate potential obstacles in the majority of organizations

Here are four key success factors for remote, separated teams:

1. The team operates transparently and buys into the corporate purpose.
Effective teamwork is rooted in the culture of the organization, and virtual teams need to experience this despite their dislocation.

Leaders of virtual teams energize the company’s ethos through infrequent but material drivers – such as formalized policy documents governing the team charter in relation to corporate objectives – and regular informal interactions, such as acknowledging and rewarding performance in ad-hoc team meetings. These interactions instill the appropriate attitudinal work ethic, and fully engage remote employees.

2. High-performance virtual teams communicate constantly and conscientiously.
Virtual teams are still teams – and they need togetherness. Managers of virtual teams instill cohesion through a combination of routine but rigorous, mandatory virtual meetings, and obsessive, ongoing informal communication.

3. They leverage technology to connect and collaborate.
Distanced work is now facilitated by a vast array of digital platforms and functions. Effective, harmonious teams use technologies which liberate skills, streamline and promote productivity, and dilute complexity.

Crucially, too, the team understands the importance of cybersecurity – a further reason for standardizing the use of tools, applications and processes throughout the team.

4. Successful virtual teams have smart leaders. 
Synthesizing the efforts of employees without the mechanisms available to physical teams requires leaders to gain employees’ trust, and disperse it throughout the team.

Effective leaders develop a sustained style of checking in, not checking up. They use digital communications not to micromanage the team’s processes, but to focus on its productivity, and balance respect for the autonomy of individual employees with a collective sense of accountability and mutual responsibility.

Virtual teams and remote work are a spin-off of the transforming digital landscape

The near-term will see challenges in linking distanced and co-located teams, and integrating or consolidating their respective workstreams. A hybrid workforce is inevitable, as companies experiment with team architectures depending on priorities and business strategies.

As Industry 4.0 hurtles towards 5.0, and hyper-connectivity increases business complexity, remote workers and virtual teams can mitigate risks, and leverage advantages to tackle extrapolating challenges or capitalize on opportunities.


Read the insight Structuring and steering virtual teams: Talent through COVID-19 and beyond for a more in-depth look at how leaders can capitalize on the benefits of virtual teams.


1‘Getting Virtual Teams Right’, Harvard Business Review, December 2014