Peaks and Perils of Long Term Virtual Working: Leadership lessons from the front line.

Digital technologies introduced the concept of virtual working to the business world decades ago. Equipped with laptops, smartphones and wi-fi, organisations started slowly adopting virtual teams in business practices to connect geographically dispersed organisational stakeholders in virtual space. Although the shift to virtual teams was driven by the need to improve collaboration and productivity, the digital transformation of business practices was incremental across the globe. Companies had the privilege of not radically changing their business practices, but experimenting with technologies, testing the impacts and abandoning them if they proved not to be practical.  In today’s reality, though, virtual teams have become a necessity. Companies are left with no option but compliantly shifting to virtual working. While seen as a solution at the time of the pandemic, remote working enabled by digital technologies poses benefits and challenges that need to be explored further. That is what motivated the June round-table discussion conducted within the frame of Digital Thursday events.

Delivered in partnership with the Sphere Network, the Institute of Coding, Newcastle University Business School and Digital Growth Hub, the Digital Thursday round table was aimed at receiving insights into the peaks and perils of virtual teams from industry pioneers. The online roundtable discussion involved Susan Bell (CEO of Waterstons), Carly Richards (Psychologist) and Alison Nicholl (Head of Constructing Excellence, UK). Susan Bell talked through her experience of managing digital transformation and leading virtual teams. Carly Richards shared her insight into psychological dynamics while working in a virtual environment. Alison Nicholl referred to her experience in the construction sector in the UK by delving into the changes, challenges and innovations the industry faced over the years. The panel and group discussions resulted in outlining key success factors, dark-sides and managerial practices for navigating companies, while adapting their business models to virtual working. Whilst technology was commonly agreed to be the key to enabling virtual teams, the discussions identified other key inhibiting/facilitating factors, namely culture, trust, personality, adaptability to virtual working, leadership style and practices, diverse/inclusive staff policies and networking.

Culture

Culture is a very broad concept, embracing organisational practices and assets, lying at the foundation of the successful implementation of virtual teams. It is manifested through people’s behaviour and beliefs within the physical office environment and beyond it, as well as through informal and formal interactions. Culture has become more imperative for inter-organisational relations during Lockdown, when employees started experiencing growing anxiety and stress caused by pandemic uncertainty, and the change in physical environment. With the transition to remote working, culture helps foster caring behaviour and relationships driven by mutual trust, understanding and support. Susan Bell recalled a few managerial practices that can help build organisational culture promoting employees’ wellbeing. Among those are weekly meetings helping to track people’s engagement, keeping up the same rituals as before the lockdown, developing/maintaining social interactions through formal and informal chats, calls and conversations. Such practices enable organisations to sense the ups and downs of their workers through two-way communication, show empathy and help in overcoming the challenges of remote working.

Trust

Trust is an important asset in hybrid workplaces. For the implementation of virtual teams, organisations need to develop trust in enabling technology and staff. In the past, it was a common practice to avoid using unfamiliar IT systems, which were believed to decrease productivity and have a disruptive effect on business practices due to associated costs – i.e. time invested in tech skill development, adaptation to new systems and changing work rituals. As a result, tasks were often delegated to subordinate team members. However, today’s reality forces managers to step out of their comfort zone and start trusting new technologies that offer a multitude of ways to improve productivity. Firms/industries who traditionally shied away from technology are now beginning to see how they (Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc.) may resolve the difficulties of doing business in restrained working conditions.

Personality

Personality is an aspect of human capital that opens both opportunities and challenges in implementing virtual workplaces. There is a greater need for companies to start learning and understanding who their employees are, and to ‘audit’ personality in terms of psychological capital (resilience, positivity, optimism), stress management and traits. It helps build up virtual teams and allocate people in terms of individual differences.

One of the tools that gives insight into the potential of an individual in terms of adapting to the work-from-home concept is the Big 5 Personality Trait assessment. By using this tool, companies can score employees on 5 dimensions, illustrating the degree of Openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious), Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless), Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved), Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/callous), Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident). From the psychological perspective, Carly Richards suggested that, probably, people who scored high on openness are more likely to develop well in virtual working.

In the foreseeable future, it is more likely that virtual teams will be a necessity and people freely developing virtual working skills will be most in demand. Also, although the business world until recently has been commonly considered as an extraverts’ playground, the shift to virtual working will give an opportunity for introverts to shine. Given that, employers need to know where their employees are in terms of personality traits, coping capabilities and psychological capital.

Adaptability to virtual working

The success of virtual working depends on personal adaptability and the conditions people live in. Some employees might enjoy the benefits of remote working, such as convenience, the environmental impact (i.e. reduced carbon emissions), time efficiency saved on commuting and engagement. Other workers might find it difficult to adapt to virtual working due to personal preferences and the lack of facilities to set up a comfortable workplace in a house.

On the one hand, a challenge with adapting to a new working environment and style can be a constant personal incapability. On the other hand, it might be a subconscious reluctance, which will decrease over time. Hence, there is a need to explore all the conditions of virtual team implementation – benefits, pitfalls, personal capabilities– and find solutions with consideration to those conditions.

Leadership style and practices

Managing virtual teams is a struggle for some leaders, as they are limited in control, and may lack a full understanding of the efficiency/outcome of their leadership decisions, strategies and practices in relation to clients and customers. The traditional way of leadership is not working in such realities any more. Business leaders need to reflect on their style of leading teams and adjust it in view of employees’ personality differences, needs for mental/physical support and help in meeting productivity targets.

Senior Leaders and Line Managers need to direct their actions and behaviour in building trust and showing empathy through quality check-in discussions with employees about their wellbeing. Business leaders need to explore different ways of working, reconsider training and recruitment requirements/strategies, and invest time and money in human capital, which is crucial for getting people through the period of disruption.

Diversity and inclusion

The transition to virtual teams can be especially challenging for companies working in industries with less flexible or inclusive cultures, like the construction industry, as Alison Nicholl stated. Inclusion and diversity in the workplace are manifested by acknowledging and welcoming individual differences, without compromising on work quality and performance. For example, it is important to recognise that people may work at times of the day which are more productive for them.

With the growing adoption of the virtual working approach, inclusion and diversity can be achieved by changing recruitment and training processes. When recruiting, there will no longer be a need to be so specific with the location of potential candidates. That, in turn, will offer more opportunities and a level playing field across the regions. When it comes to training, many regions will be able to access a wider pool of executive training experiences due to virtual capabilities.   

Networking

Virtual working decreases the opportunities for networking, which is crucial for monitoring employees’ wellbeing. How do we know that people are managing well while working in isolation? The solution could be to transfer the behaviour people have had in physical offices (such as having an informal chat with colleagues during comfort breaks) to the home environment. In a similar vein, leaders and colleagues can practise spontaneous calls to team members to enquire about wellbeing, accomplishments, challenges and concerns. However, there is a fine line between caring and micromanaging. Regular contacts in line with employees’ preferences would be a solution.

Conclusion – success factors for long term virtual working:

  • Flexibility and adaptability to changing employee needs and preferences for ways and places of working;
  • Inclusivity and diversity – are even more crucial and must be proactively accounted for in leadership approach;
  • Recognise that productivity rates will vary, at different times of the day, for different people;
  • Empathy – being able to create a safe environment where people can share how they are truly feeling, without judgement;
  • Trust between managers and teams is more crucial than ever, this is demonstrated by true, active listening.
  • Personality traits should be evaluated in some way, and used sensitively to highlight how best to engage with, motivate and support different individuals.

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