Motivating the Virtual Team

How committed are isolated workers?

Posted May 20, 2020

By now, everyone can name at least some of the benefits of working virtually: no commute, no dress code, and no need for companies to provide workspaces, breakrooms, or parking lots. But also by now, most people can recognize some significant downsides to working in isolation. For leaders, one challenge is keeping isolated team members motivated. Unfortunately, we don’t have much research on how moving a significant percentage of Americans to working in isolation, in a two-month period, affects their motivation

Today many are participating in a massive natural experiment regarding virtual teams. We won’t know much about the outcome for a while, but we do know a few of the difficulties that come with leading team members who work in isolation.

Austin Distel/unsplash
Source: Austin Distel/unsplash

For one thing, we know that high-performing employees sometimes perform at lower levels when forced to work virtually (Larson, Vroman, & Makarius, 2020). It’s possible that performance declines because of unfamiliarity and impatience with new technology. Virtual employees often get less training than in-house employees, and getting virtual answers to technological questions is usually more difficult than simply asking the coworker in the next office, “Hey, do you know how to . . . ?”

Not having immediate access to coworkers and the team leader can create another problem, namely feeling a lack of support or appreciation for an individual’s contributions. Feeling unappreciated, combined with a lack of interpersonal interaction, might lead to lower feelings of loyalty to the team, the leader, and the organization in general, and maybe greater turnover as well.  

However, in an interesting study of isolated workers, Golden, Veiga and Dino (2008) found no relationship between virtual work and intention to quit. These researchers suggested a possible interaction among working in isolation, motivation, and organizational commitment. Golden and his associates hypothesized that remote workers could be more motivated by continuance, rather than affective, commitment. Continuance commitment refers to worker loyalty based on the fear of loss relating to leaving a job (Meyer & Allen, 1991). Affective commitment refers to staying on because of an emotional attachment to the organization. In other words, some isolated workers don’t care so much about their organization, manager, or coworkers; they stay because it would be too costly to quit.  

This has important implications for a team leader. Part of the leader’s job is to motivate, and effective motivation requires knowing what team members value. At a simple level, this can be a question of motivating those with continuance commitment through bonuses, interesting assignments, or time off. Or it can be a matter of motivating effectively through online team meetings, face-to-face manager-employee interactions, or creating opportunities for teamwork. The approach needs to be tailored to what motivates the individual worker, something the leader has to figure out.  

Of course, figuring out motivation is hard enough through face-to-face interactions. Doing it online is much more complex. We probably don’t have research on this topic yet, but managers need to be paying attention to the motivational levels of their isolated employees and think about ways to keep them involved.


Golden, T. D., Veiga, J. F., & Dino, R. N.  (2008).  The impact of professional isolation on teleworker job performance and turnover intentions:  Does time spent teleworking, interacting face-to-face, or having access to communication-enhancing technology matter?    Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1412-1421.

Larson, B. Z., Vroman, S. R., & Makarius, E. E.  (March 18, 2020).  A guide to managing your (newly) remote workers.  Harvard Business Review,

  Source: Austen Distel/unsplash

Meyer J. P. , Allen N. J. (1991 ). A three-component conceptualization of organizational commitment . Human Resource Management Review , 1 , 61 -89 

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