In recent years, virtual team working has been on the rise. We know that. However, we also know that there has been a dramatic spike in remote collaboration in recent weeks and virtual teams have been built – and taken shape – almost overnight.

In the coming weeks, some will return to the office. For others, virtual team working is already the norm. For others still, being in a geographically-dispersed team will become the new way of working.

Many employees are at the start of their journey to navigate virtual team working.


Practical support in abundance

In our trawl through the column inches written recently about working in virtual groups and given the need to simply ‘get things done’, we were not surprised to find much of the thinking is on the practicalities of managing a virtual team. This includes the technology used, juggling home and work in the same location and the management of time zones.

There has been little reporting on the very specific additional leadership skills required to lead a virtual team.


Challenges for the virtual leader

Virtual Leader Team Wellbeing

Virtual team leaders have their work cut out. Research shows that virtual teams can struggle to be effective.1 Team workers can suffer increased stress levels from trying to balance home and work life.2 Also, the more electronic media is used for communication by a virtual team, the less effective teams are.3

Research also shows that the essential foundations of all teams – trust4 and cohesion5 – are more important to virtual team success than in location-based teams.


Shift mindset, acquire skills, adopt behaviours

Experience and expertise tell us that virtual leaders most likely to excel in the role are those who enhance what they already know as leaders, view this through a virtual lens and invest in strengthening the four virtual leadership pillars.

They look to:

  • Understand more about themselves and their teams.
  • Be crystal clear about what the team is doing.
  • Demonstrate the alignment between the virtual team and the organisation’s purpose and motivations.
  • Put in place the working methods and the communication and collaboration tools to get the job done.

Each of these four pillars is essential to build effective virtual team working.

The virtual leader must now step up and take ownership, acquire the skills needed and adopt the behaviours required to lead their virtual team. However, they cannot do this alone: they need the support of the L&D professional to guide and signpost.


Nine steps L&D can take now to support the virtual leader

As an L&D leader, there are actions you can take right now to support the development of virtual leaders. These are:

  1. Champion the strategic importance of improving virtual working across your organisation.
  2. Explore how the Zestfor Virtual Leadership Model applies to your business.
  3. Benchmark your business with the Virtual Leader Audit, Virtual Team Audit and Virtual Team Member Audit and highlight development needs and next steps.
  4. Commit to providing the tools to your virtual leaders and their teams so they can have greater insight about themselves and each team member, building stronger connections between people.
  5. Invest in effective, research-based training to develop the skills and knowledge of the virtual leader and virtual team.
  6. Take a pulse survey as a self-reflection of the virtual team’s effectiveness.
  7. Invest in the right IT for virtual working.
  8. Build the virtual leadership mindset into your 360 reviews, succession planning and talent management strategy.
  9. Dot the Is and cross the Ts – develop policies and procedures as needed.

Our recent white paper – The Rise and Rise of the Virtual Leader: Effective Virtual Leadership and the Action HR Must Take – digs deeper into the research and outlines the Zestfor Model of Virtual Leadership.

Get your copy here.


Download White Paper



For more information on how we can support you to support your team, call 0845 548 0833 or email us.



Until next time,





  1. Ortiz de Guinea, A., Webster, J. and Staples, D.S. (2012) A meta-analysis of the consequences of virtualness on team functioning. Information and Management. Vol 49, No 6. p301.
  2. De Menezes, L.M. and Kelliher, C. (2011) Flexible working and performance: a systematic review of the evidence for a business case. International Journal of Management Reviews. Vol 13, No 4. pp452–74.
  3. Baltes, B.B., Dickson, M.W., Sherman, M.P., Bauer, C.C. and LaGanke, J.S. (2002) Computer-mediated communication and group decision making: a meta-analysis. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Vol 87, No 1. pp156–79.
  4. Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J. and Hertel, G. (2016) Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 101, No 8. p1151; De Jong, B.A., Dirks, K.T. and Gillespie, N. (2016) Trust and team performance: a meta-analysis of main effects, moderators and co-variates. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 101, No 8. p1134; Webber, S.S. (2008) Development of cognitive and affective trust in teams: a longitudinal study. Small Group Research. Vol 39, No 6. pp746–69; and Lin, C., Standing, C. and Liu, Y.-C. (2008) A model to develop effective virtual teams. Decision Support Systems. Vol 45, No 4. p1031.
  5. Chiocchio, F. and Essiembre, H. (2009) Cohesion and performance: a meta-analytic review of disparities between project teams, production teams and service teams. Small Group Research. Vol 40, No 4. pp382–420; Evans, C.R. and Dion, K.L. (2012) Group cohesion and performance: a meta-analysis. Small Group Research. Vol 43, No 6. pp690–70; and Mathieu, J.E., Kukenberger, M.R., D’innocenzo, L. and Reilly, G. (2015) Modeling reciprocal team cohesion performance relationships, as impacted by shared leadership and members’ competence. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol 100, No 3. p713.