How to improve collaboration in virtual teams? Members’ avatar style could be key

When a team rarely gets to be in a room together, it misses out on many of the in-person subtle cues that help members make sense of their relationships. The signals that are available become more important: subtext in email messages, tone of voice on a conference call, or seemingly minor visual features. That’s why researchers have become interested in the humble avatar – the image that’s used to represent each person in a virtual interaction.

Sarah van der Land and her colleagues asked 80 three-student teams to solve a crime mystery. Although clues available to all team members pointed to one culprit, the true answer required collaboration to exchange information that was only available to individual participants. To do this, each virtual team had 40 minutes discussion time, using an online chat system where contributions were labelled with the person’s name and an avatar.

In one condition, all team members shared the same avatar (a cartoon bear icon), whereas in another condition, each team member had their own unique avatar (their photo). In a third, critical condition, each team member’s avatar consisted of what they thought was their own photo morphed with elements of their team-mates’ photos – in other words, each person’s avatar was universal but also personalised.

Teams performed better when their avatars
reflected a mix of each member and
their team-mates. Image: Van der Land et al.

After the task, groups in this morphed condition reported feeling more social attraction towards their team-mates, and this was the reason that these groups performed better, reaching the correct solution 70 per cent of the time, compared to a success rate of, at best, 50 per cent in the other conditions.

Van der Land argues that this is because generic and unique/realistic avatars both have a downside. Individualised pictures do little to create a sense of shared group membership, and although common avatars do, their lack of resemblance to us can underline our distance from a real workspace, making us feel more anonymous, likelier to emotionally disengage, and readier to shirk duties. The morphed avatar, meanwhile, gives us both group membership and a sense of presence.

We should be aware the study used an exaggerated format to prove its point. Participants believed each person’s morphed avatar reflected a mix of that person’s face with the faces of the other two team members. In truth, each team member saw the same avatar against their own name and that of their colleagues: one made up of 60 per cent their own face and 40 per cent the face of a student who didn’t actually take part in the study.

Simply put, this set-up gave participants the impression their team-mates were uncannily similar to them (to an extent that would call for an identical twin in the team), which likely played up the levels of social attraction. I would be interested to see the effect of accurate avatar blends in real teams, as well as other ways of exploring this mixed avatar approach, such as whether pairing personalised faces with standardised uniforms also generates these effects.


van der Land, S., Schouten, A., Feldberg, F., Huysman, M., & van den Hooff, B. (2015). Does Avatar Appearance Matter? How Team Visual Similarity and Member-Avatar Similarity Influence Virtual Team Performance Human Communication Research, 41 (1), 128-153 DOI: 10.1111/hcre.12044

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.