Michael Elmes, WPI Professor of Organizational Studies

Although virtual teaming has long been a feature of remote learning, the pandemic made online collaboration a reality for most higher ed students — as well as those in the workforce. In 2020, two-thirds of college students exclusively attended virtual classes, and the trend of online learning seems here to stay: According to one survey, 59 percent of higher ed institutions plan to continue some or all of their virtual class offerings. Whether you love working with remote teams or break into a cold sweat when your professor tells you to “break into small groups,” how can you get the most out of working on a virtual team?

We asked Organizational Studies Professor Michael Elmes how to get the most out of online collaboration, and the strategies he shared just may change your entire experience learning — and working — with a remote team. But first, let’s explore the advantages virtual teams can offer (Spoiler alert: they exist!):

Why Virtual Teams Are Worth the Effort

For some, working on a virtual team can feel less efficient compared to the ease of working independently. However, research shows that small teams can carry significant advantages over working siloed. Here are a few of the proven benefits of building an effective remote team:

  • Greater accuracy: One health-services study revealed that teams make fewer mistakes on average than individuals, particularly when roles are clearly defined. Of course, this is especially important in a surgical suite, but bears out in the classroom and lab, as well. In one class exercise, Professor Elmes asks students to simulate a survival situation both as individuals and as teams, and then tracks the efficacy of their decisions. “Almost every time, the decisions made by teams are more accurate than those made by individuals,” he says. “There’s a consensus process you just can’t get working on your own.”
  • Integrating disciplines leads to refined outcomes: Effective teamwork allows members from different disciplines to compare notes and explore the overlap in their expertise. All of this leads to more thoughtful and innovative solutions than are possible with individuals alone. Professor Elmes cites the work of Amy Edmundson, a leading expert on organizational learning. “In our silos, we can get things done. But when we step back, and reach out and reach across, miracles can happen,” says Edmundson. In short, teams allow us to go well beyond the limits of our individual knowledge, exponentially improving our results.
  • Diversity boosts creativity: Groups that are diverse in age, race, and socioeconomics tend to be more creative in their approach to problem solving. Specifically, multicultural teams have been found to be better negotiators, have more flexible ideas, and are more effective in integrating differing points of view. If your team is diverse in its composition, you are more likely to reach the “a-ha” moment you’re looking for. 

Eight Strategies to Get the Most from Your Virtual Team

When it comes to working on a virtual team, the old saying applies: “You get out of it what you put into it.” Here are eight strategies that will help your remote team avoid common pitfalls and work more effectively:

Number 1

Keep your group small.

If it’s within your control, build a team of three to five people — particularly when working remotely. Larger groups are better at synthesizing conventional wisdom, but studies reveal that smaller groups have considerable advantages in innovative thinking. If it’s “disruptive” results you’re looking for, small teams are the way to go. 

Number 2

Establish group norms with a living contract.  
Negotiate your team’s working style and shared expectations early on — and then codify this into a contract signed by everyone on your team. This is especially important for virtual teams who may not have a deep personal history. Up-front conversations and a sense of accountability will go a long way toward keeping your team cohesive. You may also want to revisit your contract periodically as a way to stay on track and minimize interpersonal conflict. And if you find that the contract needs revising based on the reality of how your team works, modify it together!

Number 3

Be aware of assigned and emergent roles.
Assigning roles to the right team members is certainly critical. However, as you move forward, also be aware of “emergent roles,” or the de facto roles members fill out of necessity. Typically, teams assign “task” roles at the outset of a project — roles that help move the work toward its end goal. However, other necessary roles may emerge over time, including integrators who foster collaboration between team members, or social facilitators who keep the team encouraged and focused. Show that you value these emergent roles and acknowledge their contribution as you work together. 

Number 4

Accept tension as normal and healthy.
Part of a team’s responsibility is to negotiate the best path forward in meeting a challenge and then assessing the impact of their choices. According to Professor Elmes, tension is inherently baked into this process — at least, if a team is doing their job correctly. “The teams I worry about are the ones that have no conflict; it usually means they’re burying it,” he says. “We need to reframe our understanding of what is happening when tension arises and we’re ready to take offense. Having a contract and revisiting it can help get perspective on the function of tension.”

Number 5

Speak up.
Be sure to make your voice heard throughout your project, and encourage others to do the same. Organizational psychologists have found that effective teams have a culture of letting everyone speak during group discussions. In fact, one study revealed that effectiveness was linked to having everyone in the group speak the same amount throughout the work. In groups where one or a few people dominated the conversation, “collective intelligence declined.” In contrast, equitable communication within virtual teams builds what organizational experts call “psychological safety,” a critical ingredient for innovative research.

Number 6

Be aware of group think.
All of us can fall into outmoded ways of thinking, and this becomes an even greater threat when a team falls into “group think.” Professor Elmes suggests working together on an “Immunity Map,” following the work of Harvard Business School professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lacey. By developing an Immunity Map together (click here to learn more about Immunity Mapping), your group can become aware of your shared resistance to change and push through when that resistance arises. This can be done at the outset of your group work, or whenever you feel you’ve hit an obstacle and are unsure how to proceed. Whether you use an Immunity Map, or simply work through group think in milestone conversations with your team, be aware of this idea blocker throughout your collaborative work. 

Number 7

Put the work first, unity second (but not far behind!).
“Often, teams have an illusion that they’re working in unanimity and harmony, but they’re actually just going through the motions to keep the peace. They’re not really engaging in the work,” says Professor Elmes. “When you focus on meaningful synergy, on really engaging one another, that can be scary, but that’s where the good work comes from.” Ask questions, challenge assumptions, and stay in service to reliable outcomes.

Number 8

Build relationships.
Of course, putting the work first doesn’t mean ignoring the need for kindness and connection. Remote team-building exercises can go a long way toward building camaraderie, getting to know how each of your team member’s thinks and what unique perspective they bring to your group. Warm-up exercises can be as simple as answering, “Why are you taking this course?” or as expansive as having team members write out and share a timeline of their life. When face-to-face meetings aren’t possible, team-building exercises go a long way toward building a cohesive and connected virtual team. 


Keeping Communication Flowing

Dysfunctional teams often point to poor communication as the primary obstacle to their success, putting good communication in a category of its own. How can you ensure your team communicates effectively? We asked Professor Elmes to suggest a few ways to keep your virtual team on the same page, improving your project outcomes.

  • Communicate clearly and explicitly: Does your virtual group know exactly what you plan to do next, or what you expect of them? Has the group leader clearly stated the project objectives (in other words, how will you know when your work is done)? Whether you are the group leader or not, make sure that you end meetings by briefly restating what you plan to do next and what you expect of others. This is even more critical when working virtually, as murky or overly wordy digital communications can lead to false assumptions and misunderstandings.
  • Communicate in various styles and mediums: When tackling a large idea that is critical to your work together, is there a video that might explain the concept? How about an infographic, chart, or other visual aid? Is there a reading that summarizes what you hope to convey? Assume that your group includes different types of learners and communicators and provide diverse media that allows everyone to access the material based on their strengths. Communicating in various mediums assures that everyone walks away with a shared understanding.
  • Build in synchronous communication: Naturally, virtual teams rely heavily on digital communication (e.g., discussion boards, email, direct messaging, etc.), but there’s no substitute for synchronous communication, that is, communication happening in real time. Make sure your team schedules time for phone calls, Zoom meetings, and in-person meetings, when possible. “The richer the medium you use, with face-to-face being the most rich, the greater the connection you’ll experience,” says Professor Elmes. 

By approaching your team projects positively and employing research-based strategies to keep them productive, you will get the most out of working on a virtual team. Regardless of how you approach virtual teaming, one thing seems certain: remote collaboration is here to stay. “When students graduate from WPI, they’re going to be put on many different kinds of teams, many not of their choice,” notes Professor Elmes. “Some might be dysfunctionally large or only exist for a few weeks. Ultimately, we have to let go of the interpersonal hang-ups that may arise and focus on how we can solve the problem at hand in a meaningful and constructive way.”

Many of WPI’s students experienced virtual classrooms well before the pandemic, allowing them to thrive during the transition to remote learning. And because our faculty are trained in best practices for teaching virtually, they will help you get the very most out of virtual project work—including with the strategies outlined above.

1. Statistic represents schools participating in the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (NC-SARA)

2. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/09/16/new-data-offer-sense-how-covid-expanded-online-learning

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1955345/#:~:text=Teams%20make%20fewer%20mistakes%20than,2004%2C).

4. https://abacusgrpllc.com/blog/post/takeaways-from-amy-edmondsons-how-to-turn-a-group-of-strangers-into-a-team-

5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tendayiviki/2016/12/06/why-diverse-teams-are-more-creative/?sh=7fa4a9f17262

6. https://hbr.org/2019/02/research-when-small-teams-are-better-than-big-ones

7. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

8. https://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/15341_Readings/Group_Performance/Edmondson%20Psychological%20safety.pdf

9. https://mindsatwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Chapter9.pdf

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