It looks like our ’new normal’ is now officially in full swing. Rather than collaborating with our teams face-to-face in workshops and ‘war rooms’ we’re having to chat with our colleagues via tiny little video windows on our laptops.

But what are all these video calls doing to us? Are they affecting our performance? Our productivity? Are they affecting how much we trust our colleagues?

LSE Professor of Behavioural Science Grace Lordan and MSc student Rachel Jaffe have written a fantastic article that outlines the key lessons that all of us can take from behavioural science research about the effects of virtual teams on our businesses.

It turns out it’s not all bad news! Here are the key insights:

1. Virtual teams come up with more ideas

According to a 2018 review of virtual team performance, physically spending time away from our teams is actually great for coming up with ideas.

It may be because we’re less influenced by those around us, or there are fewer distractions in the office, or perhaps just that without our commutes each of us has more time and space to think about our work. Whatever it is, the upshot is that we come up with more ideas when we’re physically away from our colleagues.

There is a catch though. While it seems virtual teams are better at coming up with ideas, studies also show that the most innovative teams tend to be worse at actually implementing their ideas.

So with that in mind, a good strategy while we’re in lockdown may be to invite your team to innovate and generate ideas now, then schedule the implementation of those ideas to happen after lockdown is lifted.

That way you’ll maximise the quality and quantity of ideas, and make sure they actually come to fruition.

2. Virtual teams innovate more (if you’re empathetic)

We’ve known this for a while in face-to-face working cultures: if you want your team to come up with fantastic ideas, be empathetic and encouraging towards them. It fosters an environment that feels psychologically safe enough for people to try out new ideas and make mistakes without fear of failure.

But what happens when you translate that idea over to virtual teams? Does it hold up?

Yes, it does. A 2014 study found that virtual teams that received empathetic and encouraging feedback from their managers over a 3-week period were significantly more likely to come up with more ideas and have a greater sense of creativity than more demanding, transactional teams.

If you want to maintain your culture of creativity and innovation you have to find ways to carry over your encouraging, supportive management style over to our new world of virtual collaboration. There’s more on how to do that a little later.

3. Trust is the key to high virtual-team performance

In a 2010 study, a virtual team of 80 students were randomly split into groups of three and each group was asked to work on a project together.

After the study, the groups were measured on a number of key attributes, and it seems the top performers all shared similar qualities.

They were those who:

  • Formed positive impressions of each other
  • Had greater personal self-awareness throughout the project
  • Had higher ‘virtual co-presence’ from their teammates (i.e they’d communicated virtually more often and regularly)

Interesting findings, since each of these are good indicators of trust within a team.

Effectively, those who managed to foster constant lines of communication and encourage openness among their team significantly boosted their trust in one another – and with it, their productivity.

So it looks like regular catch ups and collaborative video calls are vital if we want trusting and productive teams.

4. Virtual teams risk higher confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the phenomenon where once we’ve made up our minds on something, we no longer engage with or critically evaluate any information that goes against that belief or decision.

If you’ve ever had an argument with someone about their strongly held political beliefs, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.

When it comes to virtual teams, studies show that although a virtual team will exchange more information than a face-to-face team would, virtual teams think much less critically about the information they exchange.

In effect, virtual teams tend to succumb to confirmation bias much more often than face-to-face teams – meaning they’ll send complementary ideas and information to one another, creating an echo chamber of insular thinking.

Now more than ever while we’re in lockdown, it’s critical that we introduce our teams to information that goes against our strongly held beliefs. If we don’t, we might just pat ourselves on the back for our wisdom so hard that we shove our teams into some terrible decisions, projects, or strategies.

5. Humanise your communications

We’re people, not robots, and we need human interactions to guide us, keep us feeling happy, and keep us feeling motivated to do great work.

Stay human by:

  • Talking over calls or video rather than emailing as much as you can
  • Using natural language with one another (rather than business jargon)
  • Creating virtual coffee breaks and more casual catch ups to keep up your culture

Not only will these kinds of humanised interactions foster feelings of psychological connectedness – one of the key traits of more innovative and successful teams – they’ll also allow you to keep an eye on people’s well-being, and identify who might be suffering from burn-out during this stressful time.

Key takeaways

In a nutshell if we’re to make the best of this dreadful situation, the most productive thing for business is to:

  • Encourage innovation now, and implement it after lockdown
  • Be empathetic and encouraging to your teams
  • Foster trust, through regular, open video contact
  • Avoid higher prevalence of confirmation bias by injecting new or contradicting ideas into the team
  • Stay human, no matter what

If you have any questions about how best to communicate to your colleagues while some or all are working remotely, drop us a line. We’d love to have a chat with you.

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