Why we need virtual water coolers: Four reasons why virtual NGO team leadership has its challenges

The context

Do you lead and manage (largely) virtual teams? It can definitely be a suboptimal experience, both for you as a team leader and for your team members. Most of us NGO managers and leaders do a lot of virtual team management these days. Yet NGOs have not planned for this, and managers and leaders are not equipped with virtual team leadership skills. Some NGOs do increasingly have technology tools at their disposal, but they have not necessarily planned how to use these well. And some think, incorrectly, that having the right technology will be the answer. But it is not. As with any technological intervention, what matters is how people interact with the technology. The behaviors that need to accompany the use of the technology matter most. Moreover, on the whole, if you ask NGO staff, I would venture most would say that they still prefer face to face communication as being more effective (as well as more pleasant!). In the meantime, I have heard many a story of a manager who typically has 6-8 Skype meetings per day, which altogether makes me wonder whether that is optimal….

How I learned about virtual team leadership

For the past six years, my former team at the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University and I provided a shared Senior Leadership Development Program to a group of major NGOs (ActionAid International,Amnesty International, Greenpeace International, Oxfam International and CIVICUS) As part of this, last year we offered a workshop on virtual team leadership. This blog posts reflects our research findings as well as input from workshop participants on some of the most pressing reasons why virtual team leadership can be so challenging.

Virtual teams face particular challenges

Research[1] indicates that virtual teams face some challenges that are either specific to this type of team or are germane to teams in general but are extra vexing in the case of virtual teams.

Here is a list:

  1. ‘Social Inhibitors’ to team work | Most importantly, it is simply more difficult to establish trust in virtual teams. Language and cultural differences are harder to navigate when one cannot observe body language. And it is more difficult to establish and communicate a desired team culture as a leader.
  2. ‘Social loafing’ is more possible | Humans tend to hold back in giving their best effort and ideas to the work, when they work in the relative anonymity of virtual teams. They also are more prone to withhold new information. Social loafing is compounded when people sense that their individual contributions will not be noted or rewarded in the same way as when it comes to face to face teams.
  3. Motivating staff can be more challenging | In virtual teams, staff are at higher risk of social isolation. They are also less able to  access opportunities for skill development and career growth. Staff are thus at a higher risk of demotivation and employee loyalty and engagement may suffer.
  4. It is more difficult to monitor team performance | It is harder to enforce norms for team communication and team performance: observing who is deviating from those norms is harder. Holding individuals accountable for lack of performance is harder, as is recognizing team members for their contributions. It is also more challenging  to utilize team member skills to the full in virtual teams.

Your experience?

So what is your experience? To what extent do you relate to these issues identified in the research? And what other challenges have you encountered in your practice?

If you want your NGO to learn about good, research-based practices that will help you manage and lead your virtual NGO teams in better ways, then please contact me: tosca@5oaksconsulting.org

Additional resources

Regretfully, most in-depth resources on virtual team management and leadership are behind ‘pay walls’. The two following short readings, while somewhat superficial by necessity, are freely available:

Watkins, M.D. Making virtual teams work: Ten Basic Principles, Harvard Business Review, June 27, 2013

Ferrazzi, K. Getting Virtual Teams Right, Harvard Business Review, December 2014


[1] Credit goes to Kishauna Soljour, former program coordinator of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University who also obtained her PhD at that University. Kishauna’s research significantly informed this blog post. I also am indebted to Catherine Gerard, Director of the Program on the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration at Syracuse University, who help crystallize the messages from our research.

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