Leadership and virtual teams - Revived challanges

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The challenge associated with leading virtual teams is one of the key research areas we study as part of the DigMa programme. Virtual teams (i.e. teams where communication is mainly mediated through digital technologies) have become an increasingly common part of working life over the last two decades, and there can be few who work in an office environment who are unfamiliar with the concept both in principle and practice.

 For those in leadership positions, managing teams and individuals at a geographical distance raises a number of challenges and questions. How, for example, 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? As human beings, ‘face to face’ group communication and leadership conventions are well understood. The virtual world however brings new dynamics to the fore.

For virtual team members, several problems persist. The virtual meeting environment remains a difficult arena in which to achieve equality. The digital ‘tools of the trade’ rely on infrastructure (e.g. broadband performance) over which team members have little influence. Similarly, the technical quality of some digital tools is inadequate. Such factors put those with a virtual presence at a distinct disadvantage suggesting that whilst digital tools facilitate a number of new remote-working possibilities, there are limitations that can be difficult to come to terms with. The use of cameras in virtual meetings is one such example where digital technology both enables and limits communication and interaction. A team member with a high quality, functioning camera can create improved presence and greater engagement in a virtual meeting scenario. Others are at a disadvantage either because of the quality of their hardware, local infrastructure unable to deliver sufficient bandwidth or even because they may feel uncomfortable performing ‘on-camera’. If the will is present, but the equipment falters, frustration will follow and the interaction fails. How direction is created in these contexts is becoming an increasingly important question to answer given the pace at which virtual teams are becoming the new normal.

One of the most important observations we have made in researching the evolving world of work is that digitalisation and virtual work entails a merging of both the material and the social. There is a complex interaction between the two and analysing one without including the other becomes difficult. Any virtual meeting involves a myriad of variables, together creating a ‘dynamic-entanglement’ that clearly influences direction. Voices, cameras, messages, intentions, connections, agendas, languages, announcements, facial expressions, bodies and body-language all contribute to the shape and direction of outcomes, impacting how subsequent work is designed, allocated and executed.

If we consider that leadership is essentially about the creation of direction through interaction, we must as a priority observe how direction is created via laptops, apps, social codes, people and screens. The camera, the documents, the humans and everything else that exist in the virtual work place both create and limit the space for leadership.

We see these familiar challenges every day in our research and are strongly of the opinion that if we are to fully understand them, they must be approached and addressed from a new perspective.