Leading Virtual Teams – A Literature Review
University of Siegen, Germany
University of Siegen, Germany
University of Siegen, Germany
University of Siegen, Germany
University of Siegen, Germany
With the outbreak of COVID-19, many organizations
are facing the challenge of switching to virtual work.
A large number of teams suddenly need to work no
longer physically but digitally together. However,
switching to virtual teamwork is not only a special
requirement for the team, but also for the leadership
of virtual teams. Despite great efforts to explore
virtual leadership, research still lacks an overview of
the leadership of virtual teams. We address this gap by
presenting the results of a narrative literature review
conducted by five independent scientists to map the
broadest possible spectrum of results with special
attention to a heterogeneity of the results. Thereby,
our work provides a point of departure for a structured
exploration of virtual team leadership.
Almost nothing is as it was before COVID-19. All
over the world people are getting sick, schools and
companies are closing, and the health system is
overloaded in many places. The worldwide pandemic
forces us to rethink many areas of life. At the same
time, the crisis offers great opportunities. In the work
context, for example, digital communication channels
are increasingly used and the remote or mobile
working is becoming a matter of course (Gaudecker et
Even before COVID-19, many digitization projects
were initiated, started and implemented, too (Oztemel
& Gursev, 2020). With the advent of the virus,
however, digitization had to be carried out much
faster. In various organizations, it became necessary at
short notice that both the actual work and the
cooperation with colleagues had to be carried out
digitally. In the past, multinational companies and
organizations have faced this challenge with a slower
pace. Due to COVID-19, all organizations have to face
this challenge and replace the established meeting
room with virtual solutions. That is why virtual team
meetings are now as much a part of working life for
many people as real meetings were before the crisis.
Digital collaboration is not only a requirement for
team collaboration, but also for team leadership
(Gibson & Cohen, 2003). The implementation of
virtual teams had to be done quickly and consistently
after the discovery of the virus. Where these processes
had often been characterized by long consultations and
inhibitions before the crisis, solutions now had to be
implemented quite fast. The preparation time for
employees and managers was correspondingly short.
Best practices and examples of how this could be
solved as effectively as possible were of little or no
use, as the framework conditions of these examples
were completely different from those of the current
Virtual teams have already been considered in
research, but a comprehensive overview of the current
situation is missing. Further research is needed
because the future will continue to be shaped by virtual
teams during and sometime after the rapid change. The
aim of the paper is to give an overview of the current
state of research on virtual leadership and its
implementation. It provides a starting point for further
research and suggests future studies to investigate
virtual leadership in more detail.
To meet the objective, the following sections are
structured as follows: First, we give an overview of the
virtual teams. Then, we describe our methodological
approach and discuss our findings. We conclude with
providing potential contributions for theory and
practice and highlight the limitations of our work.
2. Related Work
What are virtual teams and how are they defined?
Existing literature provides different definitions, for
example: “Virtual teams are geographically and
organizationally dispersed teams […]. Due to such
dispersion, physical contact in virtual teams is reduced
or lacking altogether which means that collaboration
is enabled by IT-solutions such as computer-based
communication“ (Lilian, 2014, p. 1251). Under the
conditions of COVID-19, many people were enabled
to work in such a virtual team, even if they were not
actually geographically dispersed. Consequently, this
definition does not give a comprehensive answer in the
current pandemic. This shows that it is necessary and
possible to use hybrid approaches. There is not only
one definition of a virtual team but rather a continuum
between the design of presence and virtual work (Bell
& Kozlowski, 2002). Another study offers a literature
review with definitions of virtual teams. It identifies
and extends 12 key factors that need to be considered
and describes a methodology that focuses on
supporting work in virtual teams. (Ebrahim et al.,
The change from presence to virtual work is foremost
a process change that must be established itself, like
the introduction of software in companies, which is
often understood as a process change. Effectiveness
increases with the experience of working in virtual
teams. Employees need time to get used to the new
situation. In addition, communication in virtual teams
must be more precise, concise and unambiguous
(Bakshi & Krishna S., 2008). This explicit
communication is essential to avoid
misunderstandings, which can arise practically faster
than in personal communication. It is therefore
necessary to clearly define areas of responsibility and
to set standards and fixed deadlines. The establishment
of structures and fixed virtual meetings are important
to enable regular ‘personal’ exchanges, e.g. through
video conferences. This increases trust in the team,
strengthens cooperation despite distance and reduces
the feeling of ‘being alone’. Teams generally benefit
from communication and from the exchange of
personal information between team members.
Consequently, this must be possible or made possible
in the virtual space (Pierce & Hansen, 2008). Virtual
leadership plays a special role in discovering common
ground. This strengthens the bond within the team and
creates trust among team members and in the leader
herself or himself. To achieve this, it is even more
important that the team members have the feeling that
they are working towards the same mission and master
the same challenges. The leadership of virtual teams is
a decisive factor. In the literature it is assumed that the
establishment of availability times is important,
because working hours can vary, and constant
availability can lead to an increased stress level (Naik
& Kim, 2010).
3. Methodological Approach
To answer our research question, we took a close look
at existing research (Rowe, 2014; Schryen, 2015). We
proceeded our literature review in a narrative manner
and carried out the search with five independent
scientists in order to map the broadest possible
spectrum of results. We searched in common search
engines such as Google Scholar, Web of Science,
Scopus and PUBMED. We did not make any
restrictions according to the year of publication or
subject area, because we wanted to cover the widest
possible range of sources. In addition, each scientist
chose her or his own keywords to ensure the greatest
possible variance. Even if some terms were similar
(e.g. “virtual teams”, “virtual leadership”, “remote
work”), a great heterogeneity was achieved.
After searching, the five researchers gathered the
results in a joint workshop, discussed the manuscripts,
prioritized them and – if necessary – excluded them.
After a comprehensive literature database with all
articles was created, every scientist read the texts and
was able to gain a broad impression into the state of
research on virtual teams. The first insights and
intermediate results were then discussed and reflected
in workshops with practitioners. Against this
background, the current work is composed of
theoretical and practical insights.
4.1. Changing from Presence to Virtual Work
Digital technologies are a prerequisite for digital
teamwork. However, the introduction of digital
technologies is not adequate to make a virtual team
effective (Ebrahim et al., 2009). Internal group
dynamics and external support mechanisms should
also be considered (Lurey & Raisinghani, 2001). One
key task of leaders in the initial phase, is to ensure role
clarity, i.e. all team members are aware of the different
roles and responsibilities, as a lack of visibility can
make the team members feel less able to achieve
results (Ebrahim et al., 2009).
In addition, research suggests that virtual team leaders
should complement virtual teamwork with structural
support (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002; Hoch & Kozlowski,
2014; Kiesler & Hinds, op. 2002). Virtual teamwork is
characterized by turbulence and unpredictability,
which can be compensated by stability and the
reduction of ambiguities provided by structural
support (Zaccaro et al., 2001; Zigrus, 2003). Structural
support indirectly influences the motivation and
behavior of team members via structural attributes
(Bell & Kozlowski, 2002). Hoch and Kozlowski
(2014) highlight that structural support in virtual teams
has a strong positive effect on team performance.
Structural support can be provided by a fair,
motivating and reliable reward system (Hertel et al.,
2005; Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014; Nunamaker et al.,
2009), and by a transparent communication and
information management (Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014).
Furthermore, literature suggest that virtual team
leaders should create a flexible environment by
incorporating principles of agile development. This
helps to reduce risks related to communication,
coordination, and control inherent in virtual teams, and
helps teams to improve their communication (Paul et
al., 2016; Yadav et al., 2009). To ensure a flexible
environment, Paul et al. (2016) emphasize that it is
crucial (1) to provide an opportunity to meet together
face-to-face at least once initially or, if that is not
feasible, to provide an intentional socialization phase,
(2) to encourage the teams to discuss and establish
project coordination protocols, and (3) to provide
adequate technical support, with recommendations of
appropriate technology use and support for the
However, in addition to the support provided through
the leader in switching from physical to digital work,
the most important thing is that the leadership acts as
a role model (Kayworth & Leidner, 2002; Roy, 2012).
Since the team members look to the leader for
guidance, it is their responsibility to set a good
example (Roy, 2012).
4.2. Computer-meditated Communication
Communication in virtual teams includes the use of
computer-mediated communication and thus differs
from face-to-face communication (Haines et al., 2018;
S. K. Johnson et al., 2009). First and foremost, virtual
team communication is usually based on computer-
mediated asynchronous information and knowledge
dissemination, i.e. different conversations on different
topics can be conducted simultaneously by several
team members (Lilian, 2014).
Furthermore, research has shown that individuals on
virtual teams communicate and participate more
evenly (Dennis & Garfield, 2003; Fuller et al., 2016,
2016), but the communication is also more impersonal
(Lepsinger & DeRosa, 2015; Schlenkrich & Upfold,
2009). Encounters in the coffee kitchen and office
grapevines are missing. One of the most important
challenges for managers is therefore to motivate their
team to engage in continuous communication, which
increases cohesion and motivation, and to build trust,
which together leads to successful team performance.
(Lilian, 2014; Purvanova & Bono, 2009).
Since virtual teams lack informal spontaneous
opportunities to connect, Lepsinger and DeRosa
(2015) highlight strengthening the team members’
relationships as another important task of the
leadership. They suggest different ways to strengthen
team cohesion: (1) If celebrations (e.g. birthday parties
or debuts) cannot take place physically or some team
members cannot be physically present the celebrations
should be hosted online. (2) Virtual coffee breaks
should be introduced, to give room for informal
spontaneous conversations. (3) The virtual team
leaders should make “care calls” to get to know the
team members on a personal level.
4.3. Leadership Style
The leadership style of the team leader is the key to
minimize motivation and coordination losses and
sustain the effectiveness of virtual teams (Hoch &
Existing literature suggests that the transformative
leadership style is particularly suitable for virtual
teams using computer-mediated communication
(Purvanova & Bono, 2009; Ruggieri, 2009).
Researchers proposed that transformational leadership
is based on four principal factors: Inspirational
motivation, idealized influence, individualized
consideration, and intellectual stimulation (Kark et al.,
2003). To this end, transformation leaders put the
interests of their team first, respect the commitments
and mission, show qualities that inspire respect and
pride, become role models and explore new
perspectives for solving problems and achieving goals
(Ruggieri, 2009). Purvanova and Bono (2009) suggest
that transformational leadership in virtual teams has a
stronger impact and that leaders who increase their
transformational leadership behavior in such teams
achieve a higher level of team performance. Ruggieri
(2009) also revealed that a transformational style is
more suitable for virtual teamwork than a transactional
style, and that a transformational leader is better
judged by the team than a transactional leader. The
author found that a leader with a transformational style
of leadership is associated with more positive
adjectives and is perceived as more intelligent,
creative and original.
Another research stream shows that in virtual teams
the leadership is shared between several team
members, i.e. virtual teams usually have not only one
but several leaders. (Hoegl & Muethel, 2016; Robert
& You, 2018; Ziek & Smulowitz, 2014). The shared
leadership style is defined as “a collective leadership
process, whereby multiple team members step up to
take the lead or to participate in team leadership
functions” (Hoch & Dulebohn, 2017). Shared
leadership includes every team member in team
decisions, promising more inclusion and better team
experiences (Marissa L. et al., 2010). Hoch and
Dulebohn (2017) have identified from existing
literature that shared leadership is advocated as
beneficial for virtual teams because it is associated
with (1) collaborative decision making (e.g. Conger &
Pearce, 2010), (2) collaborative behavior that
increases trust and knowledge sharing among other
team members (e.g. Hill, 2005), and (3) positive team
and organizational outcomes such as performance
(e.g. Hoch & Dulebohn, 2013).
4.4. Leadership Behavior
4.4.1. Presence in Virtual Worlds
The physical, operational as well as the cultural
distance inherent in virtual teams confronts leaders of
such teams with unique challenges such as
successfully influencing team members despite
computer-mediated communication (Purvanova &
To ensure that virtual team leaders are perceived as
such by their team, they need to create a sense of
"presence" among their team members (Hoegl &
Muethel, 2016). However, the focus should not just be
on creating presence in the sense of "being there" but
rather "being there together" (Altschuller &
Benbunan-Fich, 2010). This creates for one thing a
feeling of connection and at the same time strengthens
the ties and interpersonal relationships in the team.
(Altschuller & Benbunan-Fich, 2010).
Literature reveals various ways in which leaders of
virtual teams can create a sense of presence among
their team members. First and foremost, it is crucial
that the leader also in a virtual environment is always
available to the team, i.e. he or she should try to
communicate regularly and promptly. (Kayworth &
Leidner, 2002; Morgan et al., 2014; Roy, 2012). This
is especially important for global teams, since the
leadership must be available for all team members
regardless of time zones (Lilian, 2014). Thereby, the
virtual team leaders should be sensitive to the
schedules of the different team members (Kayworth &
Leidner, 2002). In addition, the virtual team leader can
create presence by providing continuous and timely
feedback as well as suggestions for improving team
activities. (Kayworth & Leidner, 2002; Mukherjee et
al., 2012; Petrucci & Rivera, 2018). Furthermore, the
leader should be empathetic, e.g. by being
understanding and sensitive to the problems of the
team members and expressing personal interest in the
individual team members (Kayworth & Leidner, 2002;
4.4.2. Establishing a Culture of Trust
Sarker et al. (2003) describe trust as the “glue” that
propels a team to the successful completion of the
project. Trust within a team has a positive effect on the
efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction levels of
global virtual teams (Edwards & Sridhar, 2005).
Wilson et al. (2006) defined trust as “confident
positive expectations about the conduct of another”. In
addition, trust also includes the freedom to test
assumptions, to experiment, to make and talk about
mistakes (Dixon, 2017).
Since virtual teams are often composed of individuals
who have never worked together before, a trusting
environment within the team is required (Altschuller
& Benbunan-Fich, 2010). Trust is seen more critical in
virtual environments than in traditional team settings
(Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003) being the necessary
condition for cohesiveness and successful work in
virtual teams (Child, 2001; Sarker et al., 2003). Trust
is based on the belief that team members are
dependable meeting the team expectations by
delivering what they promise (Cascio & Shurygailo,
2003; Malhotra et al., 2007).
Drawing on literature, Sarker et al. (2003) identified
three different bases of trust applicable to virtual
teams. Since, trust is significantly evoked, enhanced,
developed, and influenced by one’s personality, one
basis of trust in virtual teams is the innate personality
of their members. The second basis of trust in a virtual
team is the institutionally based trust. The institutional
trust approach, which is grounded in institutional
theory, assumes that norms and rules of institutions
surrounding individuals guide their behavior. A third
base of trust that occur during interactions between
remote members of virtual teams is associated with
three cognitive processes (unit grouping, reputation
categorization, and stereotyping).
Leaders can foster trust by setting clear and mutual
expectations, improving coherence, and inspiring and
motivating team members to improve the team’s
performance and the organization’s value creation
(Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003; Jarvenpaa et al., 1998).
Germain (2011) emphasizes that the leadership of
virtual teams should encourage continuous
communication to increase trust in the team.
Encouraging continuous communication provides the
reassurance that others are involved in the task,
thereby increasing a member’s early confidence in the
team. If there is a low level of trust, continuous
communication helps to constantly confirm that other
team members are present and also working on the
4.4.3. Embracing Diversity
A natural consequence of global virtual teams is that
individuals increasingly interact with others who are
different from themselves (Martins & Shalley, 2011).
Virtual teams are composed of individuals with a
diverse range of stakeholders, experiences, functions,
organizations, decision-making styles and interests
(Malhotra et al., 2007). The leaders of virtual teams
face the challenge of acknowledging this diversity
(Cordery & Soo, 2008). All team members should be
aware of the diversity within the team and be
encouraged to engage with the diversity of the
different team members (Barnwell et al., 2014).
The team’s ability to succeed depends strongly on how
well diversity is being understood, appreciated and
leveraged (Malhotra et al., 2007). A pivotal task of
team leadership is to transform existing challenges
into opportunities in order to improve team success
and organizational value creation (Mukherjee et al.,
2012; Nunamaker et al., 2009). Literature highlights
the need to promote specific team-building activities
addressing the individual needs of different team
members and promote a sense of belonging
(Nunamaker et al., 2009). Moreover, communication
within virtual teams can be complicated by dimensions
such as different time zones, nationalities and cultures,
working styles, and languages. It is up to the virtual
leader to address these difficulties. Ford et al. (2017)
propose the following approaches to address these
difficulties: (1) Provide and organize language lessons
for those not speaking the predominant language and,
if necessary, provide translation assistance for team
meetings. (2) Team members should be reminded of
possible communication problems when using slang
or regionalized terms. (3) Meeting times should be
varied and deadlines as well as turnaround times
should be adjusted to take into account the different
time zones and working hours of the different team
4.5. Competencies of a Virtual Leader
Literature highlights that leaders should be
competitive, self-confident, visionary and supportive
at first (Raisiene et al., 2018). However, leaders of
virtual teams are confronted with complex and unique
environments where change is constant and group
challenges, process complications, and project
setbacks might be more commonplace than for
traditional co-located teams. Therefore, they often
need different or additional skills to effectively lead
and guide virtual teams. (K. Johnson, 2010; Ziek &
First and foremost, existing literature emphasizes the
ability to communicate (Berry, 2011; Kayworth &
Leidner, 2002; Roy, 2012; Ziek & Smulowitz, 2014).
Through communication, virtual leaders take their
position and status within the team (Ziek &
Smulowitz, 2014). They must ensure that all
communication is clear, concise, and is
understandable by members of different cultures (Roy,
Furthermore, virtual team leaders should be able to
defuse frustrations and be involved in conflict
management (Brake, 2006; Roy, 2012). Since there
are many sources of frustration in virtual teams due to
national, cultural and linguistic heterogeneity,
defusing frustration and conflict management skills
are essential for the success of the head of a virtual
team leader (Roy, 2012). Examples of sources of
frustration are: Lack of non-verbal communication,
technological breakdowns and cultural differences
(Brake, 2006; Cleary & Marcus-Quinn, 2008; Roy,
In addition, virtual team leaders need emotional
intelligent skills. Emotional intelligence, includes (1)
self-awareness, i.e. the ability to understand the effects
of the leader’s behavior on team members, (2) self-
regulation, i.e. the ability to think prior to action, and
(3) the ability to motivate team members, empathize
with them and communicate with them in a skillful
way and build relationships (Roy, 2012). Emotional
intelligent skills promote the exchange of knowledge
and information, create an environment where honest
communication can thrive, and can even support
Our literature review on leading virtual teams has
shown the significant importance of leadership in the
virtual world. It underlines how important it is,
especially, but not exclusively, in times of the corona
pandemic. It is the strong leader who show their
employees how to switch from working on site to a
digital workplace. The changeover is more likely to
succeed if they act as role models and always try to
support the team members as good as possible, e.g. by
communicating transparently and by caring for
Our overview shows which behavior and which traits
a good virtual guide should have. Among other things,
she or he should build trust, be empathetic and be open
to diverse groups (starting with the tolerance for
several time zones). At the same time, it is her or his
responsibility to create a culture of “belonging” and
“being there for one another”, “caring”, “listening”
and empathy. What is required here is the ability to
communicate and to have emotional intelligence. A
virtual leader is always available, approachable,
addressable, and open. She or he demands by
promoting an open mindset, because she or he is a
good example herself or himself.
Finally, social factors are also of central importance.
If team socialization does not work, there is no trust
and no culture of cooperation and support. In this case,
one will miss motivation, because the employees will
not feel addressed, included, and thus, responsible. If
leaders lead in a transformational manner instead,
possibly even together with other leaders at the same
time, the leadership of virtual teams can be successful.
This also includes managing conflicts and recognizing
frustration in a team at an early stage. Common
successes can be celebrated together and there are
regular appointments, professional or casual, where
team members can meet and get to know each other as
6.1. Implications for Theory
Our work has opened the door for a structured
inventory of knowledge about leading virtual teams. It
is a first step to get a theoretical overview and an
impression about the state of research, but it became
obvious that a structured review is needed to continue.
An initial idea for further theoretical work is a detailed
examination of the characteristics and personality
traits of the leaders. For instance, our work indicated
how important emotional intelligence is. This can be
further explored to determine the context in which this
skill is particularly relevant and how it may be better
learned and used.
Another direction can be to look closer at the networks
within the team and at the role of trust, commitment,
and ‘presence’. How to recognize and address
conflicts and how to prevent frustration of individual
team members would be another question.
An additional route is to consider literature from the
communication sciences to get to the bottom of how to
communicate effectively in virtual teams and in a way
that is pleasant for everyone. In the digital world, new
rules of conversation and innovative communication
channels are applied. We see potential in answering
how one can use this to strengthen team satisfaction
and closeness, or how to prevent misunderstandings. It
might be worth to take a closer look on this topic,
especially when communicating in different languages
and mostly asynchronously.
6.2. Implications for Practice
Our research is also beneficial from a practical
perspective. From the perspective of effective leaders
of virtual teams, our review reveals that an extensive
application of management-related social skills (e.g.
being empathetic and open towards employees) can be
advantageous. By creating a team atmosphere that is
characterized by trust, leaders of virtual teams may
increase the projects’ successful completion rates
(Edwards & Sridhar, 2005; Sarker et al., 2003). This
can especially be achieved by performing classic team
building measures, such as celebrations, virtual coffee
breaks, or ‘care calls’. These measures could also lead
to stress mitigation as well as an increased
communication between team members. With the help
of our research, practitioners might be able to increase
their knowledge about the effects of information and
communication technology on teamwork.
Where possible, virtual and physical collaboration
should ideally be alternated and combined. Lots of
measures described by literature to increase the
success of virtual teams essentially comprise a return
to a face-to-face work environment. Virtual team
leaders are thus compelled to introduce opportunities
that enable most of the team members to be physically
present. A measure to compensate the missing aspects
of a face-to-face work environment might be a team
meeting on a non-regular basis.
As a member of a virtual team, one might benefit from
this research by realizing that work unrelated
communication is not considered as a bad habit. Due
to missing encounters in the coffee kitchen as well as
office grapevines, teambuilding is usually only
supported within measures arranged by the team
leader. Thus, employees should schedule regular
virtual lunches or coffee breaks to keep in touch with
their co-workers and exchange work unrelated
7. Limitations and Future Work
As with all research, our study has several limitations
that provide promising avenues for future research.
Our chosen literature review method does not offer a
comprehensive overview across the virtual teams’
research, as the considered literature expands across
multiple lines of research including thousands of
articles. Future studies could therefore use a different
procedure (e.g. structured literature review) to
examine a more specialized part of literature.
Although we presented an extensive range of measures
that can be applied by virtual team leaders to improve
their virtual team’s success, we did not present a
specific way to achieve the given mindset. This is a
vital issue for further studies, as characteristics like
empathy or trustworthiness are usually considered as
traits and thus cannot easily be adopted by leaders that
are not acquainted with the necessary skills.
This research focuses on leadership of virtual teams,
however we did not concentrate on the main medium
used by virtual teams: Communication. As
communication technology usually defines an enabler
of geographically divided workforces, it is important
for researchers to investigate new methods of
communication aside from video-telephony, online
chat or teleconferencing. To address this issue, our
future work will concentrate on collaboration using
Virtual Reality (VR). Compared to current ways of
internet-communication, VR can provide a diverging
interaction where the software might be able to
transfer more or different information, depending on
the use case. We plan on using innovative VR
hardware and software solutions to examine constructs
such as social presence or trust.
We would like to acknowledge that this research is
part of the aSTAR research project. The project was
funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and
Research of the Federal Republic of Germany (BMBF,
funding code 02L18B010), the European Social Fund
and the European Union.
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