Remote team or virtual team: what's the difference?


Do you lead a remote team? Or is it a virtual team? Is it both? The words get used interchangeably, but they are different animals. In our continuing quest to make work life easier (or at least less soul-crushingly confusing), let's define the terms and why they matter.

First, it's important to remember that not all remote teams are virtual (although they often are) nor are all virtual teams managed remotely (although they usually are). Does that help? Didn't think so.

Here are some simple definitions:

A remote team is a group of people brought together for a unified purpose or project. While they all answer to the same organization and usually the same boss, they may physically be in different offices, cities, or even countries. 80% of managers have at least one report who sits somewhere other than in the same location as the rest of the group.

A virtual team is a group of people brought together for a project or purpose but answer to different managers. If you've ever been on a task force or committee you've been part of a virtual team. Most managers belong to one of these groups.

What does this distinction mean to those of us trying to get our work done? Put simply it's about reporting structure. In a remote team, the team works together under a single manager. They answer to the person who does their performance reviews and has some (nominal, at least on paper) authority over them. The challenge is that you're not co-located, and much of your work together is mediated by technology.

A virtual team has all the same struggles, challenges and opportunities for greatness as a remote team with one major exception: the team members might answer to different bosses. This means that the manager of a project has no "hire and fire" power or authority. You have all the responsibilities of a normal project or functional manager and little real authority to make it happen through brute force.

In her book, Leading the Virtual Workforce-How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century, Dr Karen Sobel Lojeski talks about the difference between "physical distance" (you're not all in the same place at the same time and often communicate primarily through email, phone, webmeeting and the like) and "virtual distance", where you are separated by function, culture (think accounting versus sales) and reporting structure. (You can hear an entire conversation with her on The Cranky Middle Manager Show podcast)

So what this really means is that the leader of a virtual team has a unique challenge. Your ability to praise, cajole, urge and monitor your team's work is done through influence rather than the ability to instill fear for their jobs. One term for this is "discretionary mindshare". That sounds so much more impressive than "making sure they do the work you ask for them and not just what their real boss wants them to do".

Of course, if you're reading this there's another option. You can treat even your co-located teams as though your work together depends on teamwork, great communication and as if people have a choice in how well they do their work and how much effort they give.

When it comes to working remotely or virtually, the terms are different, but the object of both is the same in the end.

What's your experience been with remote vs. virtual teams? Please comment, post and keep the conversation going.

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments for more than 20 years. In 2016, he merged with The Kevin Eikenberry Group, to create The Remote Leadership Institute, and now serves as Master Trainer and Coach to the Kevin Eikenberry Group. Wayne is also is the author of more than 15 books, including The Long-Distance Teammate and The Long-Distance Team.

Older Comments

Hi Wayne - Great post. You nailed it about needing strong influence to effectively lead virtual teams. I work in a highly-matrixed, virtual team environment in the software industry. Positive influence with virtual team members, especially their managers, is a critical leadership competency for getting things done. A shared perspective of the business must be achieved up front to drive alignment. Clarity of accountability must also be stressed over artificial synergy. My experience has been that business in matrixed environment is a (virtual) team sport. Best, Josh.

Josh Lowry