The psychology of leading teams remotely
Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

Josh, a dynamic and charismatic software professional, started his career in a leading IT consulting firm. Within a couple of years, he earned the respect of his colleagues for his exceptional analytical and problem-solving skills. His technical depth brought multiple awards at international level. He continued to grow faster in the organisation and appeared as a role model for many budding professionals.

Things were moving fine until he got a new assignment to lead a virtual team of ten members that would get together physically once a year. Though Josh was initially thrilled to take up the opportunity, he soon started noticing resistance from his team members, cribs on small issues and low engagement levels. There was a delay meeting customer deliverables, resulting in four resignations within a year.

Many of us may find the above story familiar in our own professional careers. Those who are successful in leading physical teams may not necessarily succeed in leading virtual teams. A global survey revealed that about 96% of team leaders consider themselves effective in leading global virtual teams but only 58% of team members feel that their leaders are effective in handling them. This statistic raises the questions: what is so different about leading virtual teams and how can one lead such teams successfully?

A virtual or a remote team is one where team members operate across boundaries and different time zones without the opportunity to work together physically on a regular basis. For instance, if a virtual team has ten members, because of advancements in communication technologies, it is quite possible to have all the members operating effectively from different locations without meeting even once physically in a year. However, several studies show that this kind of interaction can lead team members to suffer social isolation and consequently serious emotional issues such as burnout, loneliness, depression, anxiety, fear and boredom. Over a period, these emotional issues pile up and manifest in behaviour, thus leading to unproductive and toxic work environments.

Can leaders really help virtual teams overcome these challenges? In our experience, we believe it is quite possible to build well-functioning virtual teams, provided that leaders act sensitively to satisfy the three most important psychological needs or hungers of their people. Let’s examine each one in detail.


Human beings are inherently driven to seek purpose or meaning in life. Some of us find meaning in personal accomplishments, some in relationships, and some in overcoming challenges and so on. Imagine someone doing hundreds of activities in a week but being unable to connect these activities to the strategic intent of the virtual team, and finding nobody to share the frustration or discuss ideas. There is a strong possibility that this person may feel lonely, unhappy, stressed and consequently less productive.

In fact, research reveals a prevalence of burnout, loneliness and depression in virtual teams. On the contrary, those who see a larger purpose or meaning in their work do not get bogged down by loneliness or depression. For instance, astronauts on the space station are subjected to extreme loneliness, yet rarely complain about it and remain committed. In such cases, leaders play a vital role in defining a compelling mission. They also keep in constant touch with and keep a close eye on the psychological wellbeing of team members.

People working remotely look for assurance and guidance, and who could be a better person to provide that than a leader? If only the team leader starts checking in a friendly manner how he or she can be of help to the members to achieve their goals, the problem of loneliness and burnout will lessen.


The second important psychological driver is to feel important. When leaders delay their responses while dealing with virtual teams, due to physical separation, it often unnecessarily triggers members to feel ignored or less important. On the contrary, most successful leaders display one common behaviour: they listen to the needs of team members proactively and respond swiftly. Hence, giving a message to a team member is important is vital to arrest unnecessary anxiety and fear around employment or career growth.

Interestingly, we observed in one organisation that virtual team members were retained more often by those leaders who had shown sensitivity in talking to them via phone or through Skype whenever they had to distribute a promotion or a salary increment letter. Those leaders who had simply forwarded these letters via email reported a greater number of resignations in their teams. This shows the importance of proactive communication. Similarly, when members are recognised or given useful feedback for the work performed, it lifts their morale.


Structure here refers to how an individual fill his or her time by engaging in various tasks. Most virtual teams provide flexibility for team members to perform tasks as long as they meet the overall project timelines. Though the members of virtual teams experience enough flexibility, if time is not utilised appropriately, it can lead to boredom. When we combine the complexity of virtual isolation and unstructured work timing, this becomes serious. Virtual leaders can mitigate this boredom by creating a culture where team members can learn from each other and gain skills and knowledge that will be important to their future. 

Remember, we are not trained to comprehend our own emotional states accurately, let alone those of others. This becomes all the more challenging without face to face interaction. However, by paying closer attention to human psychology, it is possible to develop the leadership behaviours to lead virtual teams more successfully.

This piece was originally published in Management Today

Related Posts
Talent Stories: Alex Currie, Vice President, People and Talent at GoCompare

In our #TalentStories series, we put some of Wales' most successful executives under the spotlight, sharing their inspiring stories with you. This ...

Talent stories: Abi Harris, Executive Director of Strategic Planning, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board

In our #TalentStories series, we share career stories from candidates and clients we have been lucky enough to work with. This month we meet Abigal...

Talent stories: Alison Copus, Director of Communications and Engagement, Wales Millennium Centre

In a new series, we share inspiring career stories from candidates and clients we have been lucky enough to work with. First up is Alison Copus, an...

Succession planning: A guide

We present our guide to everything you need to consider when it comes to future-proofing your organisation.

The search for Cardiff Airport’s next Chair is underway

New Chair will lead the national airport for Wales in the next phase of its exciting journey

How to approach diversity in your business

Founder Sian Goodson shares her strategies to help SME owners ensure they have a more diverse workforce and senior team.

These HR Trends Can Inform Better Practices in 2019

The human resources industry is ever-changing and adapting to the new technologies, a new workforce generation and the exit of another workforce ge...

Thinking Outside the Box When Hiring

The millennial workforce is definitely not an easy one to please. With employee retention rate lower than ever before, and the modern worker being ...

The importance of adapting and connecting in the workplace

“We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are,” Anaïs Nin once wrote. One place where it is especially apparent that people hold dif...

Goodson Thomas Appointed to once again represent Social Care Wales in the search for a crucial appointment: Director of Regulation (Registrar)

Social Care Wales has a responsibility to protect, promote and maintain the safety and well-being of the public in Wales. An integral part of the W...

How successful CEOs manage their time

For all the power CEOs wield, they can't add hours on the clock or days to the calendar.

Yet everyone wants a piece of them: Leadership team...

Goodson Thomas Appointed to Search for the first Non-Executive Member for Wales on behalf of the Ofcom

Ofcom is the communications regulator in the UK. It regulates the TV and radio sectors, fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services, plus the air...

UK gender pay gap shrinks to all-time low

The UK’s gender pay gap has fallen to 8.6% for full-time employees – its lowest level yet, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS...

Getting people management on the strategic agenda – Where is your organisation on the ‘Innocence to Excellence’ scale?

People costs often represent at least half of total operating costs – particularly in service organisations, where staff play a key role in deliv...

The psychology of leading teams remotely

Leadership from a distance requires a careful study of human nature, says L&D specialist Sudhakar Sampath.

Is Social Media an Effective Recruitment Tool for SMEs?

According to research by The Open University Business, th...

Goodson Thomas Appointed to Search for a Non-Executive Chair for Transport for Wales on behalf of the Welsh Government

Transport for Wales (TfW) is a not for profit company, wholly-owned by the Welsh Government and established in 2015. Set-up initially as an expert ...

Why Welsh businesses are increasingly recruiting non-executive directors

The global financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent period of recession had a variety of effects on Welsh businesses and organisations. At Goodson ...

How to manage family life while growing a business

For business owners with kids, days often involve a careful juggling act of work and childcare. Business calls and emails are regularly intersperse...

Succession planning: By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail

In today's uncertain economic environment, safeguarding business continuity is a key priority for organisations the world over. Succession planning...

Going it Alone

UP CLOSE - How Siân Goodson left a leading recruitment firm to set up her own executive search business with a difference

Returning to an old job - what you need to know

What are the risks of returning to a business or organisation for which you once worked? Recruitment expert Siân Goodson sets out what you should ...

Assembling a team

Having the right mix of skills and experience in a team is essential for success, but equally as important is having a team with a good blend of pe...

Siân Goodson Q&A

Siân Goodson is the managing director of Goodson Thomas, an executive search and corporate insight business based in Cardiff and London.

Goodson Thomas Helps Fast-Growing Welsh Technology Firm Recruit a Top Executive Talent.

Cardiff-based TrakCel engaged Goodson Thomas to find a new Chief Operating Officer to direct its future growth.The pioneering company develops soft...

Goodson Thomas Appointed to Search for a New Director for the National Botanic Garden of Wales

Established in May 2000 as one of 3 millennium projects in Wales supported by the Millennium Commission, the National Botanic Garden of Wales (the ...

Goodson Thomas Recruits Three New Associates After Rapid Growth

Goodson Thomas has started 2016 by taking on three new associates to improve our offer and meet the demands of our growing client base.

Why You Should Always Look Internally When Replacing Top Talent

So, your chief executive is leaving and you need to find a replacement. Where do you start? Do you try to have a clean break with the past and brin...

Goodson Thomas to Lead the Search for New Group Chair - Seren Group and Grŵp Gwalia

Goodson Thomas has been appointed to lead the search for a new Group Ch...

Goodson Thomas Appointed to Lead the Search for Care Council for Wales (Social Care Wales) CEO

Goodson Thomas has been appointed by Care Council for Wales to conduct ...

The Pitfalls of Social Recruiting

In just a few short years social recruiting - i.e. recruiting through s...

Closing the Gender Pay Gap

Women managers in Wales are effectively working for free nearly an hour...

New Recruitment Business Launched

A new Cardiff and London based recruitment business has been launched b...

New Headhunting Firm Launched

A new business that aims to help organisations in Wales recruit, retain...

Get in touch
Whether you are looking for support as a business, or would like to discuss your own career progression, please do contact us. We would love to hear from you.