by Andrew Mawson — This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of FMJ
Since March, around half of the global workforce has worked from home. For many people, the government-mandated lockdown is their first taste of working away from the office for an extended period.
This sudden but profound change will transform the role of work and how it functions in ways that are not yet fully understood. However, there is clear evidence that leadership methods have to evolve as individuals and organizations adapt to these new conditions.
New research from global workplace management body the Advanced Workplace Institute (AWI), warns that the organizations rapidly embracing the practice of virtual working in response to COVID-19 will risk damaging employee wellbeing and performance if they do not implement dynamic management changes.
Setting the scene
Virtual working had been growing in popularity before the pandemic hit. The International Labour Organization estimates that 260 million people worked from home permanently before the pandemic. Another study by Global Workplace Analytics found that regular home work had increased by 173% between 2005 and 2018. Data from Advanced Workplace Associates’ (the company that leads the AWI) projects prior to the pandemic showed that 50-60% employees were interested in working from home for at least 2-3 days a week.
Yet a great deal of suspicion and skepticism still surrounded the practice. In recent years, Yahoo and IBM hit the headlines when their respective leaders put a stop to remote working. In 2013, Marissa Mayer, then CEO of Yahoo, ordered hundreds of the tech company’s remote staffers to return to the office. A memo from Yahoo’s HR department while under Mayer’s stewardship read: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side by side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations’ hands. To survive the crisis, they’ve had no choice but to implement home working. Yet something remarkable has happened. For thousands of knowledge-based businesses, home working has worked. Anecdotal evidence from the AWI suggests that most large organizations have adapted well despite early fears about how their teams and systems would deal with the change.
The positive reaction is also evident in just how many organizations have committed to home working in the long term regardless of government guidance. In May, Twitter told its employees that they had permission to stay home forever. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that the “past few months have proven that we can make that work.” Away from tech, Groupe PSA, a French car manufacturer, announced a new “era of agility” in which all non-production staff could work remotely from now on.
Groupe PSA said the move would allow the company to reduce its real estate footprint while providing employees with a better work-life balance and easier commutes. A similar sentiment is likely to be now shaping business leaders’ decisions all over the world. Organizations aimed to reduce costly real estate, particularly in major Western cities like New York and London, even before the pandemic hit. As a report from the Financial Times last year points out, demand for total office space in the U.K. capital had shrunk in the three years leading up to 2020.[i] The only thing stopping them is a deep-seated fear that shifting the emphasis from traditional workplaces to virtual working will not just erode trusted command-and-control methods but damage the organizational fabric itself. The Yahoo memo continues: “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”
Much of that fear is justified. The best offices provide occupants with a supportive, rich and always-on environment. They produce a constant flow of social information about the people and organizations that occupy them. Employees and leaders don’t have to work hard to learn from others, share knowledge, understand the business’s culture and expectations, and buy into the broader vision.
In contrast, virtual working limits people to viewing and interacting with one another for short periods through video or, worse yet, phone calls. This leaves people to make inferences from the little information they have – the tones of emails, facial expressions, and second-hand information passed on from colleagues – which increases the likelihood of misunderstandings and unintended outcomes.
AWI’s ‘Managing the Virtual Workforce’ research uncovered six key findings:
- Working apart impacts team dynamics, the frequency and quality of communications, levels of consensus and conflict, and the amount and quality of social interaction. All of these elements impact the performance of teams and the outcomes they generate.
- Successful virtual working requires an understanding of the differences that people experience compared with being co-located. To avoid damage to team and community performance, people need to respond to the differences and find alternative ways to operate.
- Effective virtual teams are determined by the strength of their social and cognitive states – i.e., the degree to which they are socially cohesive, trust one another, operate within a psychologically safe climate and share skills, experience and knowledge freely.
- While all factors interconnect, trust and communication lie at the foundation of cohesion, supervision, communication, the sharing of skills and knowledge, work relationships and the performance of virtual teams.
- Trust, social cohesion and information sharing seem to be the most potentially vulnerable to damage when people work virtually and must be consciously understood and actively managed – they can’t be left to chance.
- In virtual teams there is potential for everyone to be a leader – home-based employees respond well to more transformational management styles. This involves creating a strong team structure, empowering and guiding the team, involving them in the development of group goals and supporting them in actively reflecting on decision-making and outcomes.
The science behind virtual teams
With home working so high up on the corporate agenda, the AWI undertook a study this year to build a clearer picture of the factors that impact virtual working and the leadership traits and techniques necessary to manage remote teams. AWI carried out the initial research, ‘Managing the Agile Workforce,’ in 2015 in partnership with the Center for Evidence-Based Management. The study was what academics refer to as a ‘rapid evidence assessment’ (REA). By finding the world’s best research on the topic, the study was able to identify the factors that make the most significant difference to the performance of people, teams, and communities that operate in a virtual model. The REA approach examines research on chosen search terms, filters it for relevance, rates it for robustness and bias, and finally produces answers to the researchers’ questions. The study was re-run in the spring of 2020, just weeks into the global lockdown, to update the research and capture the latest findings.
The REA revealed that the same factors influence the productivity of office-based workers’ productivity and virtual knowledge teams but impact the latter group to a sharper degree. Less face time and immersion in a single physical environment mean that three of these factors – social cohesion, trust and information sharing – are more challenging to maintain on an ongoing basis if team and community performance are to be maintained in a virtualised model.
The six factors include:
1. Social cohesion
Effective teams depend on camaraderie, bonds of friendship, and the enjoyment of colleagues’ company. The better people know one another, the more generous they are with their knowledge and time. Solid social cohesion allows people to build a much clearer picture of skills and expertise within teams, departments or workplace communities.
However, people who work virtually have fewer opportunities to interact or socialize with their colleagues. They also work asynchronously. So, if managers don’t act, physical distance can soon turn into psychological distance.
To replace those lost opportunities, leaders need to develop more intentional connections with the tools that they have at their disposal, such as Zoom and other virtual communications tools. This will allow people to maintain those all-important friendships and set the right example.
Trust is the foundation of social cohesion. When colleagues trust one another, leaders and the organisation at large, it is easier to build relationships, communicate and exchange information without fear of conflict or self-interest getting in the way.
Just as it is with social cohesion, a lack of visibility and immersion between virtual workers threatens to erode trust, increasing the risk of misunderstandings or disagreements if leaders fail to take the necessary steps.
One study from 2016 found that “team trust is most critical for team performance when team members work in a highly interdependent manner, with other members who possess unique skills and have different levels of authority within the team” (De Jong, 2016). So, leaders should use opportunities for virtual socializing to help teams identify each person’s skills and capabilities.
3. Perceived supervisory support
A manager’s support, including how he or she helps in times of need, offers praise, and recognizes extra effort, can have a huge bearing on an employee’s mood, behavior and performance. People who feel the trust and support of their supervisors will feel psychologically safe to take risks without fear of the consequences should they fail or make mistakes.
In a virtual working model, however, supervisors have a similar lack of information about their team’s needs and challenges readily available to them. To lead virtual teams successfully, managers need to understand how their people are, if they are coping, what support they need, and whether there are any issues between colleagues. This is especially true during crises like a pandemic, when people may have heightened anxiety, health problems and unique obstacles at home.
As a result, leaders need to replace transactional command-and-control approaches with steps that allow colleagues to share these responsibilities gradually. They need to know their people as people not as resources.
4. Information sharing
This factor refers to the extent to which a team utilizes the expertise and knowledge of its individual members for the team’s benefit. Trust and supervisory support will encourage colleagues to share information freely.
But, as another study with the REA reveals, “open information sharing facilitates team processes / outcomes that are arguably more challenging to handle in virtual settings but are nonetheless important to team functioning (e.g., cohesion building, cooperation, trust)” (Mesmer Magnus et al, 2011). The reason for this is that virtual teams tend to dedicate less time to problem-solving and sharing.
To help information sharing travel freely through virtual teams, leaders need to identify the appropriate communication channels. Choosing the right media for a task is essential, while managers should encourage team members to consider the style and frequency of communication that works for them.
5. Vision and goal clarity
Team members need to understand how their efforts contribute to an organization’s broader goals. The best outcomes occur when people buy into a shared vision.
However, key management actions like assigning tasks and monitoring workload are more challenging when people work asynchronously. If managers are not clear about goal-setting and do not regularly update team members, feelings of unfairness, confusion and bias can manifest.
Leaders and team members should clarify roles and responsibilities within the virtual teams. They should also set a consistent line of communication to discuss any actions or changes. This will help virtual teams spot potential areas of conflict early.
6. External communication
Effective teams will seek information and resources from people or groups outside of their circle. Doing this opens people up to different ideas and new ways of thinking. But it requires a few elements to fit into place first, including the right connections, the ability to influence others, securing the information they need, and the coordination of everyone’s efforts towards a successful outcome.
Virtual working simply adds another degree of separation from that external expertise. Traditionally, people and organizations build relationships in person at events or through face-to-face meetings.
To counteract this loss, leaders need to pay close attention to what their virtual teams need and foster an environment in which people can regularly share their networks, tips and knowledge. This begins by providing managerial support for communication with third parties.
In addition to the core six factors, the research identified a number of other elements that affect virtual teams, including availability bias. The employees who are constantly visible to a leader through co-location have greater weight in his or her mind, which can lead to a perception that (all things being equal) they perform better than those working away. Leaders need to recognise this bias and then re-think the information flows and mechanisms that give rise to the understanding of performance.
Personality is another key factor. People who display a high level of agreeableness, conscientiousness and extraversion, as measured by the ‘Big Five personality traits,’ are more likely to be good virtual workers. People who exhibit these traits have a higher propensity to trust others.
Finally, Information richness affects trust. The arrival of good quality, cheap video conferencing applications has played a significant part in enabling trusting relationships. Whereas face-to-face communication provides the ultimate in information richness, a number of studies have found that video to is an effective medium to enable the support of trusting relationships.
COVID-19 has accelerated the notion that the workplace stretches beyond the traditional confines of the physical office. However, if virtual working is here to stay, this brings serious challenges for managing the modern workforce. Leaders and workers will have to up their games to make it work in the long term.
The responsibility will fall on leadership teams to create the conditions for growth and direct the knowledge and energy stored within their organizations beyond the pandemic. The old models of management are dying. Business and departmental leaders need new understandings and practices to deliver success in a virtual world.
About the author
Andrew Mawson is the leader of global workplace change consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates and co-author of the IFMA-adopted Workplace Management Framework. From a general management career in the IT industry, his unrelenting curiosity for the transition to new models of work led to the founding of AWA in 1992. Since then, Mawson has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations on their journey to explore and implement new forms of working and workplace.