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What’s Virtual Intelligence (VQ)? Why Do Students & Employees Need It?

One less discussed benefit of online education programs is how they help students develop virtual work skills. As increasing numbers of companies adopt work-from-home and work-from-anywhere policies, these skills have become increasingly important to career success among managers and professionals in today’s economy. And they’re increasingly relevant to all individuals engaged in virtual work because these days, many coworkers interact virtually, even within their physical offices.

A curious pattern has emerged on business-related social media platforms like LinkedIn. Nowadays, almost all professionals assume that they already understand the specific core competencies that such virtual work skills entail, and so do most college and graduate students. A large proportion of this group assumes that they must be good at these skills simply because they’ve grown up with computers. Others among them assume they possess these capabilities because they’ve logged thousands of hours using communication services like electronic mail, chat platforms like Apple Messages, WhatsApp, and Google Chat, and most recently, some of the newer collaboration platforms like Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams.

That’s a fallacy, and it’s not true at all. Merely because someone might have managed 100 Zoom video calls since March 2020 might ostensibly convey an impression that they might have mastered effective virtual work skills. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve ever learned the real core competencies that boost group performance or productivity online in a virtual work environment.

So what are the virtual work skills that really matter most, anyway? It turns out that some of these capabilities are surprising because they have nothing to do with technical proficiency or experience. Instead, the latest research suggests that these skills amount to an intuitive “sixth sense” based on a set of learned best practices not everyone understands.

Understanding Virtual Intelligence

In 2017, two researchers recognized that a worker needs a distinctive set of capabilities that determines their ability to succeed in a virtual work environment. These investigators were Dr. Barbara Larson, a professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business in Boston, and Dr. Erin Makarius, a management professor at the University of Akron’s College of Business Administration.

Because their analysis of three decades of virtual work research showed that the success of an individual’s adaptation to virtual work depends upon these prerequisite factors, the researchers argued that such strategies and behaviors make up a cognitive mechanism that’s really a new form of intelligence. But it’s also unlike any form of intelligence most of us had ever heard about.

This new mechanism which they called virtual intelligence or VQ differs from other kinds of competencies, which continue to be broadly accepted as determinants of success in today’s universities and workplaces. These abilities include the general mental aptitude we think of as one’s IQ. But VQ also differs from the set of social and interpersonal skills and behaviors commonly associated with success in face-to-face workplace interactions, which we commonly think of as one’s EQ that represents their emotional intelligence quotient.

Even though some folks might more naturally adapt to virtual work than others, Dr. Larson and Dr. Makarius say that all of us can improve our virtual intelligence. Summarized in their pioneering 2018 Harvard Business Review article, the professors identified two particular skill sets contributing to virtual intelligence. The first set of skills involves establishing rules for virtual interactions, and the second set involves building and maintaining trust within online relationships.

Virtual Interaction Rules

In certain industries like creative services, companies like advertising or design firms typically present “How We Work Together” essays as the last few pages in their sales portfolios that they send to potential clients.

However, during regular interactions with colleagues in person who work together within the same company, things are less structured. Most of us give little thought to preferences or rules that might naturally evolve from our work together with our colleagues, or even that such rules might even exist.

Nevertheless, Dr. Larson and Dr. Makarius say that whenever recurrent virtual work might be involved, these rules usually deserve their own, dedicated conversation. They recommend three topics focused on technology selection, scheduling, and the sharing of online resources.

Technology Selection

If you’ll be regularly working together with someone virtually, the professors recommend a brief conversation around two questions:

  1. What software do we have available?
  2. What are our best options to communicate?

The objective of this conversation is to build a consensus around which platforms to use in different circumstances. Here’s the professors’ example language of an agreement based on such an exchange:

We’ll e-mail for simple, non-urgent matters, but get on Skype when there is something complex that might require us to share screens. Texting is fine if we need to get in touch urgently, but shouldn’t be used day-to-day.


Dr. Larson and Dr. Makarius recommend discussing the best times to text or call, or any particular times or days to avoid. This rule can save time by preventing contact attempts that fail. A rule developed from such a conversation also establishes respect for a colleague’s time.

Resource Sharing

Asking about straightforward procedures that will prevent the inadvertent deletion of updates, or the creation of revisions that conflict, can kick off an extraordinarily valuable conversation because it can prevent duplicated or lost work. File sharing platforms like Dropbox and Google Drive also offer version control services that monitor updates in documents with joint ownership, but the authors believe that version control preferences are no substitute for conversations about resource sharing.

Building Relational & Competence-Based Trust

Relational trust involves trust that you and your colleague are watching out for each others’ best interests, says Dr. Scott Dust, a professor of entrepreneurship, management, and organizational behavior at the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business. An expert on workplace relationships, Dr. Dust recently explained how online colleagues can develop and maintain relational trust in virtual interactions. In a 2022 article published by both Fast Company and Psychology Today, Dr. Dust writes:

Why is this relational trust so important? It’s a critical team attribute that guides the way for many team processes, including psychological safety, information exchange, and constructive controversy. Simply put, teams will fail without relational trust.

Dr. Dust goes on to point out that because fewer opportunities exist for the kinds of informal, impromptu conversations that take place within offices, building relational trust is a formidable challenge in online working relationships. In contrast to in-person conversations, virtual conversations typically need to be highly structured and tightly scheduled into 30- or 60-minute increments: “There’s never enough time to fit it in the professional conversations, let alone the personal conversations that facilitate relational trust,” he writes. He implies that with a shortage of time like this, the personal conversations can be downplayed or omitted entirely—and de-emphasizing the personal exchanges in this way can eventually set the team up for failure.

What to do? Dr. Larson and Dr. Makarius recommend that all virtual colleagues introduce socializing into their interactions. They write that “some people do this by starting conversations with non-work-related questions, such as ‘How are things going where you are?’ or ‘How was your weekend?’”

But Dr. Dust takes things to another level through three recommendations. First, he argues that colleagues should invest sufficient time into building their relationships: “Although it might seem supplemental to the ‘real work,’ it’s actually the foundation that allows the real work to be done well,” he writes.

Then he recommends virtual associates not only share personal, candid information but that they also “create opportunities” for colleagues to share as much as they feel comfortable. That might seem like a curious and potentially risky recommendation within a business relationship until one realizes that a 2020 study on the development of trust within teams supports Dr. Dust’s opinion.

Conducted by a team of German university researchers and published by Britain’s Tavistock Institute in their journal Human Relations, the study revealed that candid disclosures built trust among virtual colleagues more rapidly and effectively than most of the other behaviors the team studied. In particular, making oneself vulnerable by imparting personal details in confidence as well as talking about one’s own mistakes and shortcomings were among the behaviors that this team judged to be especially effective at building trust among virtual colleagues.

Competence-based trust entails trusting that a colleague is capable and reliable. Dr. Dust explains that when working remotely, obtaining a clear view of the ways colleagues add value is more challenging, and that it’s much easier to “drop the ball” when communication becomes scattered across different virtual platforms. Some recommendations that build competence-based trust include:

Clarify Competence

Explain relevant skills, abilities, background, and experience to colleagues. That way, they can clearly understand how you will best contribute to achieving the project’s objectives.

Timely File Replies

All the researchers cited for this article emphasize that virtual colleagues must reply to communications swiftly and appropriately.

There’s substantial urgency expressed on this point. For example, Dr. Larson and Dr. Makarius warn:

We risk obviousness in making this point, but many virtual work relationships fail due to inconsistent e-mail communication. Silence works quickly to destroy trust in a virtual colleague.

Likewise, Dr. Dust cautions that “the easiest way to degrade competence-based trust is to be slow to respond.”

He recommends setting turnaround time expectations up front, at the beginning of the collaboration. So what makes for a timely reply? One business day, say Dr. Larson and Dr. Makarius. If that’s not possible, they recommend sending a quick acknowledgement of the email message’s receipt that also gives the sender some idea of when they can expect a reply.

Send Regular Updates

The lack of closure on specific conversations forms yet another challenge with virtual interactions, says Dr. Dust:

Did they see my message? Are they ignoring me? Are they still working through the next steps? Giving regular updates is paramount.

Dr. Larson and Dr. Makarius add that taking initiative by communicating the completion of tasks within regular update email messages demonstrates commitment.

Rising to the Top with VQ

A concerted effort to apply virtual intelligence early in a working relationship can feel uncomfortable, and for some, even embarrassing. That’s especially true to those for whom the concept of virtual work amounts to a new experience. Since March 2020, that’s been the case for the 95 percent of Americans able to work remotely, yet who have never previously engaged in any remote work attempts. According to Stanford University’s Dr. Nicholas Bloom, that’s roughly 95 percent of half the labor force or 75 million Americans.

Nevertheless, Dr. Larson and Dr. Makarius say that “workers with higher virtual intelligence know that these skills are unlikely to develop without explicit attention, and that making a short-term investment in developing the virtual relationship will yield long-term benefits.” And sums up Dr. Dust: “Those companies and individuals that hone their virtual skills will rise to the top in tomorrow’s work environment.”

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.