• Managing people

5 Keys to Managing Virtual Teams

St Gallen’s Prof. Winfried Ruigrok describes five essential things you need to know about managing your team virtually

Thursday 21 January 2021


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Across the developed world, during the Covid pandemic, thousands of professional and knowledge workers have been forced to stay at home and work as a member of one or more virtual teams. With teams now accustomed to the technology, virtual working is unlikely to go away after the pandemic. Winfried Ruigrok, Dean of the Executive School at St Gallen University, asks what do we know about virtual teams?

1 > Teams have been on the rise for a long period—well before Covid-19 manifested itself. Companies in information technology and other industries characterised by rapid innovation have successfully started experimenting with team-based structures since the beginning of the last decade. Teams go beyond traditional hierarchies. Team members provide their professional expertise required for the task at hand. Although we increasingly understand how to manage teams effectively, senior executives have often been dragging their feet in rolling out physical teams.

2 > Like other teams, virtual teams seek to perform a task in the best possible way. However, virtual teams face the double hurdle of physical distance (which can lead to a loss of warmth and social camaraderie) and communication barriers (such as the risk of miscommunication, of missing non-verbal cues, and of feeling detached). Therefore, running a successful virtual team is an even bigger challenge than running a successful physical team. The flip side is that if we know how to run a virtual team well, we are also better prepared to manage physical teams!

3 > Due to Covid-19, companies have had no choice but to rely on virtual teams. Initial evidence on virtual team effectiveness has been mixed. Research conducted by our Institute after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in spring and summer 2020 suggests that both virtual team leaders and virtual team members believe that they have been relatively effective in running their business. On average around four out of five virtual team leaders and virtual team members feel that their teams have been successful and able to reach their goals.

4 > However, it is not all good news. Due to the double hurdle of physical distance and communication barriers it is more difficult for virtual teams to understand team objectives (especially with new tasks) or to deal with team conflicts.  Our research suggests that people are also more likely to feel isolated in a virtual team.  This holds for both virtual team leaders and virtual team members, although virtual team leaders tend to be more optimistic than their team members.

5 > Therefore, leadership matters even more in virtual teams than in physical teams. Virtual teams will be with us for a long period and may never disappear.  Virtual team leaders should familiarise themselves with the latest tools, particularly in the field of team psychology, shared leadership, and team roles and objectives.  Such tools are available and will help virtual team leaders improve their team effectiveness and members’ well-being.


A group of prominent and renowned colleagues at the University of St. Gallen co-designed the new “Leading High Performance Teams in the Digital Age” course. This practical course will help team leaders gauge critical team features and live up to their virtual team potential. We will provide participants with effective tools for measuring and improving team performance. During seven modules, participants will become familiar with a specific tool to measure critical virtual team aspects such as objective setting, handling of conflicts, team diversity and team leadership. Participants will immediately apply these tools to their own team context, creating an immediate impact.

If you want to share your virtual team experiences, please take this 5-minute survey:

Let’s together make virtual teams a better place!

Our Executive Education programmes are characterised by its high level of relevance for current practical issues, by drawing on the latest results in research.

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