How "Virtual" Has Your Work Become?

How you can improve the performance of your virtual team.

Posted Sep 02, 2019

Gerd Altman/Pixabay
virtual meeting
Source: Gerd Altman/Pixabay

This Post was co-written with Florian Klonek from the Future of Work Institute

How many emails have you received today? Are you already using Slack or Microsoft teams at work? Are you on top of the virtual tools that your organisation is using to coordinate team-related projects?

Over the last decade, most of us have experienced a steady increase in virtual tools that organizations are using to help their employees accomplish tasks, communicate with others, and coordinate large-scale projects.

If you live in Australia (like we do) and work on projects of international scale, you will most likely have experienced coordinating meetings with people who work in totally different time zones.

This is what is called working "virtually".  Virtual teamwork is quickly becoming the new normal in many organizations and industries. This is why it is interesting to ask: Do virtual teams function differently when we compare them to face-to-face teams? Is virtuality bad or good for team performance?

A recent meta-analysis, which consists of statistically summarizing findings from all the research conducted to date on the effects of virtuality on team performance, revealed no difference in performance between virtual and face-to-face teams (Carter et al., 2019). But when looking deeper into these results, you can see that results actually varied quite a bit across the original studies. Such variability usually indicates that results depend on other factors that "switch on" (or "switch off") the effects of virtuality.

A team of researchers from the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany and our Future of Work Institute set out to solve this puzzle by looking at the work design of virtual teams. The work design of teams can be understood around the job resources that teams have (for example, autonomy, feedback, or social support), and the extent that teams are working on tasks that require much knowledge, or that are complex or unpredictable.

Across 48 different studies, the authors looked at how team work design either switched on or switched off the relationship between virtuality and team functioning. They found that four aspects of work design are important:

  • Virtuality in teams seems to impair team functioning (in comparison to face-to-face teamwork) when work involves complex, non-routine tasks, and requires lots of information processing.
  • When work demands are high (such as time pressure or team members lacking clearly assigned roles), virtual teams perform worse than traditional teams.
  • When work provides many job resources (autonomy, feedback and/or social support), virtual teams function better than traditional teams.
  • When team members depend on each other to get a project done, it stimulates learning and helps performance.

So what can you do to improve virtual teamwork? We have three tips for you:

  1. When team members work from different locations (and from different time zones), they will need flexibility in how and when they get their work done to be most effective. So if you are leading a virtual team, give the team enough autonomy in how they get their work done, allow them to choose their own working methods, and allow them to schedule their work.
  2. Give team member clearly defined roles and discuss what is expected of each team member to enhance role clarity.
  3. Make sure that the virtual team receives regular feedback about their performance and create opportunities for social support. For example, create virtual communication channels (using tools like slack or MS teams) where team members can connect and exchange about work-related questions, post useful information, and/or even just inform the team about upcoming social events. This prevents team members feeling isolated within the virtual team context.

References

Gilson, L. L., Maynard, M. T., Jones Young, N. C., Vartiainen, M., & Hakonen, M. (2015). Virtual teams research: 10 years, 10 themes, and 10 opportunities. Journal of management, 41(5), 1313-1337.

Carter, K. M., Mead, B. A., Stewart, G. L., Nielsen, J. D., & Solimeo, S. L. (2018). Reviewing work team design characteristics across industries: Combining meta-analysis and comprehensive synthesis. Small Group Research, 50, 138-188.

Handke, L., Klonek, F.E., Parker, S., & Kauffeld, S. (2019). Interactive effects of team virtuality and work design on team functioning. Small Group Research. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/1046496419863490