What virtual working means for teams

22nd June by Lee Robertson

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What virtual working means for teams

Is remote working having any impact on the effectiveness of our teams and what challenges does virtual working mean for managing or coaching teams in the modern workplace?

New research just published by the Advanced Workplace Institute (AWI) has revealed that many of the factors influencing the productivity of virtual knowledge workers are the same as those based in an office environment, but because of reduced ‘face time’, can be harder to maintain and require more focus to enable effective performance.

Run in association with the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa), The Managing the Virtual Workforce survey builds on earlier research programmes including the 2014’s ‘Managing the agile workforce’ study.

Given the mass, sudden shift to virtual working because of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers looked at over 40 academic studies and metanalyses to establish the effects of flexible working on areas such as team dynamics and identified several key findings.

Working remotely was found to have a bearing on team dynamics, the quality of communication, amount and quality of social interaction and levels of consensus and conflict within teams, with each of these playing a role in influencing the team’s performance and outcomes.

Managers and team leaders will be required to demonstrate an understanding of the differences people experience compared to being co-located. For virtual working to be successful, team leaders need to respond to these individual differences and find alternative ways to operate to avoid any potential damage to the team’s performance.

Effective virtual teams are largely controlled by the strength of their social and cognitive states. Trust levels between team members and with the team leader, feeling of psychological safety, working relationships, quality of communication, supervision, and the willingness to share knowledge and skills are all central to how the team performs in a remote setting.

Researchers learned that trust, social cohesion, and information sharing appear to be the most susceptible to damage when teams work virtually and must be actively managed and understood and never be left to chance.

In distributed teams, as they are also known, there is the potential for everyone to be a leader and virtual teams respond well to more transformational management styles. This involves creating a strong team structure and empowering and guiding the team. Team members should also be involved in developing group goals to ensure clarity and be supported in actively reflecting on decision making and outcomes.

Filip Fiers, consultant coach with the AoEC commented: “I am seeing effective management teams switching successfully to virtual working with weekly meetings, but when a team is already dysfunctional, it will also be like that working virtually. Also, if there are issues that team members have not addressed, whether the team is functional or not, the elephant in the room needs to be dealt with face-to-face as quickly as possible.”

With virtual working here to stay, workforces will continue to evolve with hybrid and fully distributed teams becoming more commonplace.

Organisations cannot be complacent on this with the AWI report arguing that businesses ‘need to harness their knowledge resources as opposed to controlling and managing them. The role of leadership is about creating the conditions for growth and directing the energy. When people work in a more virtualised model, old models become more difficult and we need new understandings and practices to deliver success in a virtualised world’.