One of the research projects we work with in the DigMa-program concerns leadership in virtual teams. Digital tools and virtual teams (i.e. teams where communication mainly is mediated through digital technologies) is, and has been for the last two decades, parts of the everyday practices for many people in the contemporary work place. As a leader, to manage teams and individuals at a geographical distance means other types of questions. How is trust created when people don’t meet physically? How is engagement during meetings created? How do we create cross-talk in the virtual work place? Where is the virtual coffee room?
These questions are not new; they have been on the agenda since virtual work was first initiated and are well researched. However, the questions still need answers. Also today, people experience problems with creating equality in terms of relationships in the virtual meeting room; they experience frustration over the inadequate technical quality of digital tools; and they struggle to handle the possibilities and limitations that digital work practices entail. The use of camera in virtual meetings is one such example where we have seen that digital technology both enables and limits communication and interaction. A functioning camera can be experienced as a way to gain improved presence and an increased engagement in the meeting. On the other hand, some are reluctant to use the camera, which can be understood both as social and technical resistance. A camera that doesn’t work leads to frustration and an irregular flow of interaction. How leadership is done in these contexts is one of the questions that we take an interest in.
One of the observations we have made is that digitalization entails a merging of the material and the social in virtual work, and analyzing one without including the other becomes difficult. Voices, cameras, messages, bodies, intentions, powerpoints, smiles, connections, agendas, languages, announcements, body language – all of this matters for how work and leadership in virtual teams are done. If we consider leadership in its simplest form to be about the creation of direction through interaction, we can observe how laptops, apps, social codes, humans and screens together create this direction. In the virtual meeting where the individual is a photo, a voice and/or a moving image, direction is created, or leadership done, together, in and by the material and the social. The camera, the documents, the humans and everything else that exist in the virtual work place, thus create and limit the space for leadership. We observe these challenges in our empirical material, which means that, despite that the challenges of leadership in virtual teams appear old, it is important to address them with new perspectives.
Anna Uhlin, PhD candidate