Can Teams Really Develop When Working Virtually?

Written by Karen Plum, Director of Research & Development and Tanisha Krishnan, Associate, AWA

During this strange Covid-19 year, much has been written about the challenges of working apart from colleagues, with a lot of focus on the effective delivery of everyday activities.

People have learned a lot about effective working during 2020 – our client focus groups have shown what they miss about being together and the benefits of spontaneous connection – but they are also finding workarounds, and new ways to work together. The future of work will embrace many hybrid models, so thinking about the long-term effectiveness of teams, as opposed to simply helping them weather the current storm, is required.

How do Teams Develop?

AWA and the Centre for Evidence Based Management have reviewed existing research to identify the factors that contribute to the effectiveness and performance of teams. The results show that strong social relationships are critical and aspects such as trust, a clear vision, sharing information and knowledge, and a willingness to receive and share ideas beyond one’s team are key. In addition, the perception of the support provided by supervisors / managers plays a vital role.

Managers can support the development of colleagues by creating a safe emotional climate, providing coaching and mentoring, setting clear expectations, knowing people well, using effective performance management and so on. When considering the team as an entity, managers can also use a feedback and reflection approach to develop the way people work together. This encourages them to take a breath and review their collective performance, learning and reflecting on what would give them a better experience next time.

What Does The Research Show?

Neuroscience tells us that the brain strives to save energy as part of keeping us safe. One tactic it uses is prediction – drawing on experience to predict the future, enabling us to conserve energy thinking about situations we’ve experienced before. When we work in teams, it is likely that our brains predict what that experience will be like – which in turn impacts how we behave and approach the tasks and collaboration. Negative past experiences are likely to impact the energy and effort we are willing to expend next time – unless something happens to break that cycle.

Research shows that receiving / gathering feedback and reflecting on the team’s work (its decision-making processes, communication methods etc.), are beneficial activities and have the potential to break predictions and refocus energy. Taking this a step further, researchers looked at the effect of combining the two activities (and additionally guiding the reflection) to see if this created added benefit. They also looked at the impact on those working virtually – as it is widely acknowledged that when we see less of each other, trust, information sharing and cohesiveness can suffer. Studies show that the effect of reflection is higher when it is ‘guided’ and combined with feedback (compared to more loosely structured or unfacilitated sessions). Guided reflection sessions lead teams through a series of questions to enable members to reflect on a recent experience, construct their own meaning from their actions, and uncover lessons learned in a non-punitive or judgemental environment (Penarroja, 2017[i]; Tannenbaum, 2013[ii]). Meta-analyses (study of studies) and randomised controlled studies[1] have consistently found that well facilitated guided reflection and debriefing sessions can lead to substantial improvement in team performance (Tannenbaum, 2013; Konradt, 2015[iii]).

Sessions are found to be most effective when they:

  • focus on learning and improvement, rather than evaluation or judgment. A developmental, non-punitive focus promotes more honest and accurate feedback, but also enhances experiential learning, without fear of blame or finger pointing
  • address specific activities, episodes or events, as opposed to more general aspects of team performance or outcomes
  • are informed by different perspectives and sources of evidence – i.e., they include input from multiple participants and at least one additional source of external evidence (e.g. data from elsewhere in the organisation)

One study (Ellis, 2005[iv]) also found that encouraging reflection on successes as well as failures leads to better outcomes. Neurologically, we are drawn to focus on negative outcomes (the brain is wired to be constantly on the watch for threats), and people typically generate more causes for their failures than their successes!

How to Use Research Findings

Having reviewed the research evidence, we have created a framework for managers and teams / project teams. There are four key steps shown in the diagram and explained below, using a real situation as an example.

Guided-reflexivity-process-diagram

STEP 1: Identify and monitor expectations and key successes

At the outset of a project / new task, the team agree key success criteria, not only for task / activity outcomes, but in terms of the way they work together. For example, consider a new project team delivering a client assignment involving data gathering and analysis, reporting results to the client and agreeing next steps to help the client implement recommendations.

Firstly, key deliverables are identified to ensure the client receives agreed deliverables. For successful delivery, the team will certainly need the following:

  • clarity about their individual / team roles and objectives
  • a common understanding of the process and activities to be deployed
  • mechanisms for scheduling, checking progress, identifying and addressing any issues
  • effective project management and a programme to deliver on time and to budget

They also need to:

  • know who is involved in the team and why (i.e. what skills / knowledge / expertise each person contributes) so everyone understands who knows what / who to go to
  • get to know each other (or refresh that knowledge), understand strengths and potential weaknesses (relative to their role) so they can get the most from each person and establish / maintain trust and good working relationships
  • communicate clearly and regularly to enable smooth coordination of tasks and outputs

When the team is formed, they should set clear expectations, to deliver a good outcome for the client and to set the next stage of the process (gathering feedback) in context.

Here are a few ideas for expectation setting in the form of agreed statements:

  1. We agree to create a safe space for our team, so everyone’s ideas are welcomed and listened to
  2. We share information openly and won’t withhold something that could benefit the project
  3. We rely on each other for support and problem solving without prejudice or blame
  4. We adhere to agreed deadlines or give reasonable advance warning if a deadline is compromised

During the project, the team conducts quick checks on the expectations and successes identified in Step 1 to ensure these are on track / aren’t being compromised. If there are issues, the team should implement course correction/s as appropriate.

STEP 2: Gather individual feedback

At the end of the project, the team embarks on the feedback gathering activity as follows:

  1. Create a set of questions / statements to gather each team member’s views about how the team performed on the success criteria, for example using statements to which people are asked to respond on a scale of agreement / disagreement:
    a) The team ensured that everyone’s ideas were listened to
    b) It was safe to speak up and voice any concerns to team members
    c) It was clear who to approach for specific knowledge and expertise
    d) Team members actively supported each other to address problems or issues
    e) Everyone met their deadlines or gave good notice if there was a problem
  2. Results are summarised to show the range and average of scores for each criterion and shared with team members, together with any other relevant sources of external data (i.e. results from other project teams’ feedback)
  3. Team members are encouraged to reflect on the team results, and how these compare to their personal view of the team’s performance. As part of the activity, some “ask yourself” type questions could be used to guide team members’ personal reflection, for example:
    a) Are your responses consistent with the team average, or is your view quite different?
    b) If your view is different, can you think of specific reasons for the variation?
    c) How did your contribution to the team’s work affect the outcome? Might others have seen this differently to you? What examples do you have?
    d) What might you want to explore with the team during the reflection session, to change / improve things in the future?
    e) How would you contribute to making the changes you envisage?

The final activity enables individual team members to identify what they could do differently, thereby facilitating better contributions during the team reflection session in Step 3. It isn’t intended that these reflections be actively shared with others unless the individual chooses to do so.

STEP 3: Conduct guided team reflection

Once team members have considered the overall results, they participate in a guided team reflection activity (relatively short, say 30 mins), which takes a forward-looking perspective, rather than focusing on the past.

Ideally the reflection is facilitated by an independent party, whose role is to guide the team’s focus, helping them to think, encouraging them to provide examples and to be specific. The facilitator doesn’t have a personal agenda and remains neutral in terms of outcomes and direction.

The facilitated session would:

  • review the overall feedback of the questions relating to the team’s performance
  • invite team members to suggest what they would do differently for any of the aspects discussed from the overall team feedback. These explanations should be as specific as possible (generalised statements are much more difficult to attach new behaviours to), and draw on successes as well as ‘failures’ or disappointments to keep balance and build on positive experiences
  • encourage the group to identify the strengths and weaknesses as evidenced by the feedback and their personal reflection, but remaining watchful for bias, particularly confirmation bias (where we seek information that confirms our existing view) or hindsight bias (where knowing how something turned out strongly affects how we view past experiences)
  • identify specific actions / behaviours that would produce a different / better outcome next time for the team

In conducting this session, the Ten Components advocated by author, public speaker and lecturer Nancy Kline are worth considering. Here are some ideas to set the right tone for the event:

  • ask everyone to listen with respect and genuine interest – without interrupting
  • give equal speaking turns to all members
  • practice appreciation as well as challenge (with a much heavier emphasis on the former!)
  • give support and space for the expression of strong emotions
  • welcoming diverse thinking
  • create a space where people know that they matter

STEP 4: Agree future model

Having identified potential changes / enhancements / modifications for future projects or the way of operating for a stable team, there should be an opportunity for prioritising and operationalising the changes. The team agrees which should take priority, who should do what, when and how, so that next time everyone is prepared and knows what to expect.

For example, if our previous project skipped over the step of getting to know each other well and know about each other’s skills and roles before we start, then how will we ensure we do this and give sufficient time to it in the next project? This must be determined by the team, not ‘given’ to them by the facilitator or team leader. Participation and involvement are both key to effectively engage people in the outcome.

The actions agreed at this stage will form the basis for the start of the next project, along with any required change management and so the cycle begins again. These steps help teams that continue to work together to have a better experience but also help individuals that move to other project teams to take that learning with them to share with others – improving the overall experience and team development.

In Conclusion

Building this approach into a virtual team’s way of working provides many opportunities to focus on the things that deliver positive working experiences. Starting or concluding projects without such steps potentially leaves virtual team members adrift and working in isolation with little opportunity to consider ways to improve and develop.

The idea is to deepen understanding and facilitate development with a future focus. It is constructive and encourages everyone to contribute their best ideas for future success and the adoption and ongoing development of a growth mindset.  


[1] The RCT is the most scientifically rigorous method of hypothesis testing available – regarded as the gold standard for evaluating the effectiveness of interventions. The study design is believed to yield the lowest chance of bias.

[i] Peñarroja, V., Orengo, V., & Zornoza, A. (2017). Reducing perceived social loafing in virtual teams: The effect of team feedback with guided reflexivity. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 47(8), 424-435.

[ii] Tannenbaum, S. I., & Cerasoli, C. P. (2013). Do team and individual debriefs enhance performance? A meta-analysis. Human factors, 55(1), 231-245.

[iii] Konradt, U., Schippers, M. C., Garbers, Y., & Steenfatt, C. (2015). Effects of guided reflexivity and team feedback on team performance improvement: The role of team regulatory processes and cognitive emergent states. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 24(5), 777.

[iv] Ellis, S., & Davidi, I. (2005). After-event reviews: Drawing lessons from successful and failed experience. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 857–871.

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