The Three Tensions of Virtual Collaboration

Getting things done in today’s world means getting things done virtually.

virtual collaboration

You may be part of a not-for-profit that needs to manage volunteers with their own day jobs. You might work in a traditional co-located office but partner with companies in other locations. Perhaps, like me, you’re part of an international team working across distance and timezones. Many of us, in different ways, now need to be able to get people to work together to achieve outcomes, but can’t just pull them into a conference room whenever we need them to hash out a problem or plan.

I have a bit of a working theory that there are often three tensions at play when we do this, and that being deliberate about our priorities and expectations as we manage those tensions can help us choose the best approach for a given situation.

Venn diagram of collaborating virtually


Three Elements

Agile: We’re all supposed to be agile now, right? We’re supposed to be able to pivot fast and seize opportunities and adjust to rapidly changing environmental factors.

Consultative: Everyone knows that control-and-command style leadership is out, and consultative leadership is in. Many workplace studies tell us that the emerging generations that are about to hit 70% of the global workforce respond more positively to consultative styles of leadership and decision-making, and that there are many benefits to be found in this for, again, a rapidly changing environment.

Dispersed: Yahoo notwithstanding, dispersed teams continue to grow. There are many benefits both for companies and workers, and with global talent shortages predicted in key skill areas, it will only become more prevalent.


The confluence of each of these dynamics is where we must be mindful about the trade-offs we want to make. In my experience, you can typically prioritise two of these areas in any given situation or project.


Three Scenarios

Scenario 1 – Agile and Dispersed

You can move quickly and decisively with a dispersed team if you take a high direction approach. It is ‘I need you to do A, then B, then C, and here is the process I need you to follow to do it’. This approach is by nature not very consultative.


Scenario 2 – Agile and Consultative

You can move fast and still include everyone in the brainstorming and decision-making, so long as you have the proximity and access to operate in a high contact manner – to pull them all in together on the spot to hash it out at once and settle the plan there and then, or have access to them all for a decent chunk of time to really allow for meaningful discussion. There are some ways around this with particular subsets of virtual teams, but it it very difficult in many dispersed team situations that grapple with different timezones (global), schedules (flexible working) and availabilities (volunteers or freelancers).


Scenario 3 – Dispersed and Consultative

You can have a team dotted all across the globe and truly engage in consultative decision-making and planning – it’s just going to take longer. Things will not happen as fast. Managing timezones takes time. You won’t be able to move as fast as the person who can pull everyone into the conference room around the whiteboard at the drop of a hat.


Prioritising for your needs

Need to manage a crisis or a high-value urgent project virtually? You’r probably going to want to reach for Scenario 1 and choose a high direction approach.

Have an opportunity you need to respond to quickly, but that also requires high level of creativity and diverse input? Embracing the high contact of Scenario 2 should give you the best shot of including cognitive diversity whilst allowing for quick turnaround.

Need to develop the long term results of strategic buy-in or developing leaders in a virtual context? Planning for the high duration of Scenario 3 will give you the best chance of ensuring it’s not just another vision statement that gets filed and forgotten about as everyone goes back to what they were already doing.



A mismatch in the situation and the elements we prioritise can impact on both task and relationship. None of these tensions are inherently bad, and there are ways around different limitations, but recognising how they impact on our ability to get things done virtually can help us manage expectations – our own and others’ – and deliberately choose the approach that is most suitable for the needs of a given situation.