Almost 80% of 21st century employees work in virtual teams. These virtual teams can cross hundreds or even thousands of miles, encompassing members from different cultures and backgrounds. Working in such a team obviously has many advantages. A team of experts can easily be strung together regardless of location, or an organisation can maximise staffing flexibility and save on travel costs.
But amidst the excitement of the advantages lays a number of pitfalls we are yet to collectively overcome. Many struggle to keep their virtual teams on-task, motivated and efficient. Is this a small hiccup as the world adapts to an online workforce, or something more sinister?
A new way to work needs a new approach to leadership. Little attention has been paid to HOW we manage virtual teams and so, over the coming weeks, we will explore recent research that points to where we might be going wrong and what we can do to rectify it.
Hierarchical leadership: A No Go for virtual teams?
Particularly common management techniques for face to face employees are hierarchical. By this we mean that the management occurs top down, with the superiors maintaining complete control. You might, for instance, be a transformative manager who motivates and pushes your employees to standards they were not aware they could work to. But with virtual teams, many of these traditional structures run adrift. As a motivator, much of your influence doesn’t come from what you say. The communication expert Dr. Lund argues that as little as 8% of communication comes from the actual words. Body language, tone of voice and facial expression account for the vast majority of communication.
This suggests that hierarchical managers might struggle in virtual teams. A recent study by Julia Hoch and Steve Kozlowski at Michigan State University confirms this. They surveyed over 500 team members working in 101 research and developments teams from global manufacturing companies to test the impact of hierarchical leadership on team performance. By their measurements, teams with high Hierarchical leadership had increased team performance when working face to face. This result in itself is nothing special, we know that highly hierarchical leadership improves teams already. What is fascinating about this study is that when they performed the same survey on highly virtual teams, increasing hierarchical leadership had almost no effect on team performance.
Therefore that face-to-face, unsaid communication we discussed earlier is desperately important to managing a team. So how can we combat this? What must we change to get our virtual teams working as efficiently as those sat next to each other?
In part 2 we look at how developing structural supports and humanity in a team can eliminate and overcome losses in team productivity.
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Hoch, J. and Kozlowski, S. (2014). Leading virtual teams: Hierarchical leadership, structural supports, and shared team leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), pp.390-403.