Virtual Culture and Leadership: How to Manage Long-Distance Teams

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Foresight 2020” research report outlines five key trends in business for the next 15 years. Of these, three trends — globalization, atomization and knowledge management — will have a significant effect on the structure, functioning and distribution of teams within and across boundaries. As organizations become global and cater more to worldwide markets, the prevalence of multicultural and geographically dispersed teams will increase, especially as work gets broken down into more granular units to be managed and delivered by specialist teams or individuals. Atomization will enable firms to “use the world as their supply base for talent and materials …. As a result, effective collaboration will become more important.”[i]

Managing people who are geographically dispersed across time, space and organizational boundaries requires team leaders who are able to communicate effectively and both understand and navigate interpersonal relationships. The virtual team leader of today needs to understand team dynamics, how to create a virtual team culture and what works best when managing from a distance.

Issues in Managing Teams[ii]

What does it take to create and sustain high-performing teams, whether people are working in separate, remote locations or in the same corporate workplace? Lynn Isabella, the Darden School of Business’ resident expert on the subject, tells us that teamwork is at the core of any high-performing team. She offers an unusual Executive Education program on managing teams, wherein participants spend most of their time in rowing shells on a nearby river. She tells us that “what it takes to row together with seven other people is a true manifestation of teamwork in action.”

Winning crews, she says, share some common characteristics. First, every rower on the boat must have a high level of mastery of technique, rowing strongly and well and at a level commensurate with other team members. Second, each rower must learn to row with (not against) his or her fellow rowers. As a member of the crew, each rower must learn how to follow and lead simultaneously.

The athlete trying to stand out will only slow the boat down; individual star status does not make a good crew. Put in the context of business, Isabella says, “think of teamwork as a process of partnering with a distinct group of individuals to accomplish an objective meaningful to all.”

We know that working in teams is not new to business. What is different and new are the conditions making teamwork a competitive business necessity. On any given day at some of the largest companies in the United States, more than 50 percent of the workforce is geographically dispersed, mandating that much work be done in the virtual workplace. For some, this is a new way to operate.

Managing the Virtual Team Process

During the early stages, a team may be characterized by unclear purpose and low levels of agreement among team members. Leaders need to step in and provide guidance and direction, and at the first meeting, the leader should establish ground rules.[iii] These rules include where the group’s calendar is kept, who will keep it updated, when virtual team meetings will be, the medium to be used to conduct the meeting and how reporting will be done. In addition, it is helpful to discuss procedures for dealing with conflicts.[iv]

Trust is an important component of many interpersonal relationships and interactions, whether face-to-face or virtual. The high-performing team is characterized by high levels of trust among members. So how does a virtual team leader build and maintain trust in the newly formed team?

One way to build trust is to hold a face-to-face meeting within the first month or two of the team’s formation. This enables team members to establish a base of familiarity, comfort and trust. If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, schedule a conference call for that first contact.

Another way to build trust is to create predictable and reliable work norms around crucial group functions such as communication within the team. Team members who are responsive to communication, who follow through and who take responsibility for results help build task-based trust, which helps enhance the team’s performance.

Managing Communication

The hallmark of a well-developed and well-managed team is well-managed communication. Given the complexities of globally dispersed team members, the team leader must be hypervigilant first about ensuring that his or her messages and directives are clear and understood, and then about being aware of the nuances of responses and feedback.

Munter and Hamilton recommend using a range of communication styles that they categorize as “Tell, sell, consult and join.” The tell/sell style focuses on control of the content and can be used in situations wherein the team can learn from the sender. The tell style informs or explains, while the sell style persuades or advocates for team members to change their thinking or behavior. The consult/join style is useful when the sender wants to learn from the audience — he or she does not have sufficient information and may require input from the audience. The result is to invite their involvement and buy-in.[v]

As in all forms of communication, technologically mediated communication carries a tone. Since individuals tend to be less inhibited when communicating technologically, virtual team communication has the potential to become harsh and provoke conflict.

Managing Conflict

The goal of the virtual team leader is to facilitate the success of the team in completing its task and assignments. The leader empowers the team by establishing a common mission that the team members are committed to and resolve any conflicts that may arise. The leader needs to know whether to handle conflict directly, in the group or in another fashion. This is particularly important when engaging cross-culturally; virtual managers “need to recognize cultural characteristics and understand how to communicate in a way that prevents differences from derailing work projects,” says Yael Zofi. She recommends five cross-cultural-communication strategies that she calls LEARN.[vi]

  1. Strategy 1 is to listen and ask frequent questions to clarify the message being conveyed.
  2. Strategy 2 is to effectively communicate. Zofi says that because virtual teams rely on written email communication or phone calls, they need to compensate for the lack of visual cues.
  3. Strategy 3 is to avoid ambiguity, and Zofi encourages the team leader to approach new, different and potentially unpredictable situations without the uneasiness that can frustrate and hinder team members’ ability to communicate.
  4. Strategy 4 is respecting differences. Zofi recommends learning at least one new fact about every team member’s culture, reminding team members to respect cultural differences, refraining from stereotyping, and encouraging openness to discussing options and finding a middle ground.
  5. Strategy 5 calls for no judgement. Zofi recommends a three-pronged evaluation approach: Describe the situation causing concern, interpret possible reasons for the behavior and then evaluate.

Culture and Community in the Virtual Team[vii]

PJ Camp Malik writes that “Establishing a sense of community is essential to the success of any team, no matter where the individuals are located.” Her recommendations include:

  • Replicate the office happy hour via Google Hangouts. Or, for those members who lack video capability, she suggests a shared hashtag for Twitter so team members can keep up conversation side channels.
  • Set a context for remote team members in a meeting. Occasionally teams will get together in one location and have a remote team member dial in. The remote person has no frame of reference for who is in the room or where they’re located. Malik suggests that someone take a picture of the room and send it to all remote participants.
  • Use Twitter as a virtual water cooler. Malik writes that by using Twitter’s list features, you can create a view of what’s going on in your team’s “Twittersphere.” She cautions people to be mindful that Twitter is a public-facing forum; Malik moderates her messages to ensure they are respectful of peers, clients and the company.
  • Get acquainted. When creating a team of colleagues who have never met and who work in multiple locations, Malik suggest an informal team trivia game using traditional icebreaker questions.

Culture, she concludes, is hard to manufacture, so don’t force it. Keep communication lighthearted, and phrase messages as suggestions and recommendations. Most important, she cautions, lead by example.

The effective team leader begins first by building relationships with potential team members to ascertain skills and shared work processes and approaches. Once the team is convened, the leader then needs to understand team dynamics, how to create a virtual team culture and what works best when managing from a distance.

This post is adapted from Darden Professor June West’s technical note Managing Teams From a Distance: Making the Most of Virtual Meetings (Darden Business Publishing).


[i] Economist Intelligence Unit, “Foresight 2020: Economic, Industry and Corporate Trends,” 2006.

[ii] Information in this section draws heavily from Lynn Isabella, “Managing Teams,” in The Portable MBA, ed. Kenneth M. Eades (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2010).

[iii] Golnaz Sadri and John Condia, “Managing the Virtual World,” Industrial Management, January/February 2012: 22.

[iv] Phillip Hunsaker and Johanna Hunsaker, “Virtual Teams: A Leader’s Guide,” Team Performance Management 14, No. 1/2 (2008).

[v] Mary Munter and Lynn Hamilton, Guide to Managerial Communication, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2014), 6–7.

[vi] Yael Zofi, “Why Cross-Cultural Communication Is Critical to Virtual Teams and How to Overcome the Intercultural Disconnect,” People & Strategy 35, No. 1 (2012): 8.

[vii] Information in this section draws heavily from PJ Camp Malik, “Creating Virtual Culture With Remote Teams,” DMI News & Views, Design Management Institute, September 2012.

About the Faculty

June West

West is an expert on organizational communication, particularly during times of change.

West was instrumental in the 2003 inception of the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) to strategically combine the most innovative thinking in business and education to provide education leaders with skills necessary for managing schools. West served... Learn More

Education