Can we fix a dysfunctional virtual team?

As the world is pushing more and more towards remote working, there will be new and novel challenges that all of us are going to face. After all, the virtual workspace is nothing like a normal workspace. We are social animals and we are wired to work in social environments with other people. And, this, has mostly been the norm for all of our lives.

The Real Problem (the cause)

If you have ever worked in a team, you know how challenging it can sometimes be even when everything seems to be fine. Arguments naturally arise, personal conflicts and sometimes even back-stabbings happen. But problems like conflicts are not always bad.

However, the same arguments, conflict, and problems in a team can be aggravated in a virtual workspace simply because virtual teams do not have the same level of contact. Contact has many benefits. We naturally tend to understand each other better when we are in the same place. It’s not surprising that more misunderstandings can take place in the virtual environment. The formula can be put in the following way:

And, with no structures being put into place to fill in the gaps that the lack of contact has left behind, we are not going to fix a dysfunctional team. In short, the real problem—the big elephant in the room is people’s issues. People’s issues are amongst the biggest problems that may lead to a failure of any team—but it is particularly more important for a virtual team who may not have the same opportunities to meet in person.

The main problems of this type may include:

  • lack of trust & team relationship 
  • Insufficient and a lack of varied communication 
  • bad accountability 
  • lack of motivation
  • arising of personal conflicts

If we want to fix dysfunctional teams, we ought to fix the real cause or its source. The fact is: many virtual teams do not get the chance to meet in person, and, if they do, it is extremely infrequent. Naturally, if people are not trained or if they not have placed any structures for team-building activities, team members do not develop the same strong relationships that would have been available for them. In fact, in the book: Virtual Team Success by Richard Lepsinger, he showed that around half of all virtual teams had never participated in any skill development or team-building activities. And, this seems to be recipe for disaster because team members could quickly feel isolated. Consequently, if one feels isolated, one’s level of motivation and sense of accountability is negatively affected. This would create the perfect condition for the rising of misunderstandings, unmet expectations, and if these are not addressed, they will ultimately lead to the loss of trust. And, the loss of trust is the root cause of a dysfunctional team.

Can it be fixed?

These problems can be fixed in two ways. The first is through innovative technology that facilitates team-building activities. However, these activities must have a clear and well-defined structure. In other words, if there are no structures or rules for these team-building activities, it will only remain effective if a leader is doing it right.

Therefore, this leads to the second possible solution, and that would be leadership training into these activities, their benefits, and how they should be incorporated into the healthy routine of the team. An effective leader who has been trained in the virtual space understands very well the importance of team-building activities. 

What are team-building activities and why are they so important?

They could include any of the following and they all try to provide team members with the normal experiences they would have had in their workplace—ultimately, if done right, it could fix the imbalance by creating a sense of comfort and trust. The list includes:

  • Tell us about yourself 
  • solving problems, puzzles or doing quizzes on specific apps as a team
  • conflict mining 
  • Dress up and enjoy virtual parties 

However, just remember that these team-building activities like any other task require its structures and discipline, and it will certainly be ineffective if it is not done with a specific structure, purpose, and framework. The one that I like is dressing up and having a virtual party. Be creative—drink, have fun or just talk about your personal life. The trick for the team leader is to find the right activity that brings his team back into a state of harmony and relationship. Each team is different, and so the virtual team building activity that may be appropriate for one team may not also be so effective for the other. So try a few different ones and tell us what you think—maybe you can even invent your own!


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