Managing virtual teams comes with unique, and largely underexplored, challenges, such as dynamic membership and its impact on onboarding and leadership. In this article, Petros Chamakiotis of ESCP Business School explains how these challenges can generate opportunities for effective virtual team management as a standard everyday practice.
Traditionally, organisations would select specific workers on occasion to work in a globally distributed virtual team project as organisations became more global. It would be primarily those with the required skills – such as being technology-savvy, proficient in English, and comfortable working in multicultural environments – that would qualify to work in this fashion.
In March 2020, many organisations around the globe switched to virtual working overnight due to the COVID-19 lockdowns. This time, most workers were unprepared to work virtually. And yet, despite ongoing debate, there is strong evidence suggesting that, for many, productivity remained high and even exceeded expectations1. However, this was often found to be at the expense of workers’ well-being, generating new types of challenges we had not seen before, such as technology fatigue, isolation, and burnout. Today, three years on, virtual working is a standard everyday practice for many of us. So, what have we learnt from the last few years and what can we do to manage virtual working as a standard everyday practice in the best-possible way?
The Current Business Landscape of Virtual Working
At present, we are in the midst of a return to office (RTO) wars2. Although virtual working continues to be the preferred way of working, with 87 per cent of workers in the US seizing opportunities to work virtually when possible3, we see leading organisations, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, mandate a complete five-day-week RTO. Some business leaders, such as Tesla’s Elon Musk, go further, to propose the end of virtual working4. Despite this incongruence in the business arena, the reality is that hybrid working is the most accepted way of working. For example, the vast majority of Fortune 100 companies seem to be adopting some form of hybrid working5, involving working from home one or more days per week. Hybrid working allows workers to work partly from home and partly in the office. Inevitably, part of this work is virtual; that is, workers use an array of (synchronous and asynchronous) digital technologies to accomplish their work and collaborate with colleagues at a distance.
Fresh Research To Guide Leaders When Virtual Working
Virtual working has been around for a long time and the research literature on virtual working pre-pandemic – mainly on the management and the challenges of (mostly global) virtual teams – is rich and largely relevant. Leaders of earlier virtual teams pre-pandemic would be responsible for strengthening the forces that glue the team together (for example, shared objectives, feelings of identity and a sense of belonging), while minimising the negative effects of the forces that pull the team apart (for example, geographical dispersion, cultural differences). Such practices are still useful, but new research highlights that leaders in the new landscape are expected to take on additional responsibilities6, discussed below.
Virtual working as a standard everyday practice means that the nature of working has become much more dynamic. Therefore, there are changes in structure, changes in leadership, and changes in working practices that leaders should be aware of.
Virtual working is not work from home; it can also refer to work from the office while using digital technologies to work with colleagues in different locations (including their homes).
Managing dynamic membership (a change in structure)
Dynamic membership shows that the new virtual working environments are structurally different from earlier ones (for example, in comparison to a global virtual team that was set up for a specific project with predefined start and end dates). On-demand team creation and dynamic membership, whereby workers may come and go frequently during a team’s lifecycle, are more common nowadays and create additional onboarding needs. So how should leaders onboard new members?
Colleagues and I conducted a study with 26 global virtual team participants at a leading global organisation in the financial services industry to understand this. We found that traditional onboarding practices, such as welcoming new members and offering a landing period and opportunities for shadowing, are still relevant in the virtual working environment. But there are also additional onboarding practices unique to the virtual environment. For example, synchronous technologies (such as Zoom) offer opportunities for real-time communication and socialisation for new team members to get to know their colleagues and form social relationships. At the same time, asynchronous technologies (for example, cloud technologies) provide a space to make relevant documentation available to everyone with ease. Onboarding a new member is not a one-person job, but rather a shared team effort when virtual working:
“It’s not always that one person is assigned trainer in the team who will train the new joiner, it is a shared responsibility of existing team members to onboard the new colleague.” (quote from a research participant)
Dynamic membership creating new leadership opportunities
(a change in leadership)
Alternative leadership styles, for example having more than one leader on a team, is not a completely new suggestion, as earlier virtual team literature speaks about shared and emergent leadership, allowing different workers to emerge as leaders and share responsibility with others over specific tasks. However, in the context of increasingly fluid and dynamic membership, there are additional opportunities for leadership. In a recent study, colleagues and I studied 16 globally distributed virtual teams involving a total of 204 participants, 28 of whom had to unexpectedly switch teams halfway through the virtual project. Switching teams caused significant disruption to team activities, but it allowed us, as researchers, to capture dynamic membership as it happened. We found that, although those that had to switch teams were sometimes seen as a disruption, some of them were instead seen by the receiving teams as a valuable addition. This was the case when the new members brought new knowledge and willingness to take on leadership roles, often in collaboration with existing leaders, in a shared-leadership format:
“One new team member showed great involvement […] by immediately asking to take on the task of negotiating with other teams to stay on top of our raw material stock.” (quote from a research participant)
This was not up to the new member alone; existing leaders and members should be open to new leadership configurations:
“We did not view [new members] in a negative light, but instead took this as an opportunity to use their skills to improve our team. It was evident that the two new members were very much [engaged] and wanted to contribute, thus improving our performance.” (quote from a research participant)
Looking after workers’ work-life boundaries and well-being (a change in working practices)
Virtual workers during the pandemic sometimes ended up “living in the office7“, as their homes essentially turned unexpectedly into offices. Recently, a study found that impromptu meetings increased by 60 per cent per employee in 20228. Additionally, the virtual environment, due to the flexibility it affords, allows workers to email their colleagues after hours, creating unspoken expectations to respond promptly.
Collectively, these pressures led to a common blunder: overworking, which then led to technology fatigue and burnout. What is more, virtual workers feel lonelier than ever before9. Leaders should take their workers’ work-life boundaries and well-being seriously. On the one hand, our colleagues’ personal preferences as to when they work should not have a negative impact on our own work-life boundaries. On the other hand, the hybrid working context offers opportunities for feelings of isolation and loneliness to be managed. This can be achieved by having members of the same team work physically together in the office on the same day, so that they can socialise and interact face to face.
What Can Leaders Take Away From This?
The changes in structure, leadership, and working practices discussed above should be explicitly recognised by organisations, and leaders should work collaboratively together with their team members to co-construct a sustainable working environment that works well for all involved. There are actionable recommendations for leaders to achieve this:
- Overall, a move away from a leader-centric management approach to a culture of shared responsibility can be key in managing virtual working as an everyday practice.
- Onboarding when virtual working should be seen as an ongoing team activity.
- Synchronous and asynchronous digital technologies provide excellent opportunities to support onboarding new members when needed.
- Emergent leadership should not be seen as a threat, but as a valuable addition to a team’s leadership configuration. Organisational and team culture must be supportive, too.
- To avoid violating people’s work-life boundaries and negatively impacting their well-being, leaders and their teams should establish ground rules so that everyone is on the same page with regard to email/communication etiquette and expectations.
- Organisations should make sure that members of the same team can work physically together in the office when possible.
Future Research to Address New Challenges
While the discussion above may be useful now, our working environments change rapidly and, as researchers, we should constantly study how management should be practised in response to what is happening on the ground. New research is currently being carried out that further examines these new phenomena in the workplace and is likely to provide answers to the unprecedented problems the contemporary worker is facing. These include (a) ensuring that higher productivity while working virtually is not at the expense of individual well-being, and (b) solutions to the new types of challenges virtual leaders and members might be facing.
This article was originally published on 22 March 2023.
About the Author
Petros Chamakiotis is an Associate Professor of Management at ESCP Business School in Madrid, Spain. He is also affiliated with the ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work Research Centre in the UK. His research focuses on the management of technology–mediated environments such as virtual teams, online communities, digital platforms, and hybrid working.
- 1Are We Really More Productive Working from Home? 18 August 2021. Chicago Booth Review. https://www.chicagobooth.edu/review/are-we-really-more-productive-working-home
- Return-to-work wars: Execs at Citi, Manpower, and McKinsey on why they’re embracing remote and hybrid work. 23 August 2022. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/return-to-work-wars-hybrid-remote-permanent-work-2022-6
- Americans are embracing flexible work—and they want more of it. 23 June 2022. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/real-estate/our-insights/americans-are-embracing-flexible-work-and-they-want-more-of-it
- Key Words: ‘Pretend to work somewhere else’: Elon Musk reportedly tells Tesla staff working remotely is no longer an option. 1 June 2022. Insider. https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/key-words–%E2%80%98pretend-to-work-somewhere-else–elon-musk-reportedly-tells-tesla-staff-working-remotely-is-no-longer-an-option-11407013
- Return To Office Plans For Every Fortune 100. 1 March 2023. Build Remote. https://buildremote.co/companies/return-to-office/
- Guiding principles for leaders of newly formed virtual teams. 27 April 2022. Digital Futures at Work Research Centre. https://digit-research.org/blog_article/guiding-principles-for-leaders-of-newly-formed-virtual-teams/
- The Future of Work: Productive Anywhere. 2021 May. Accenture. https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-155/Accenture-Future-Of-Work-Global-Report.pdf
- No, Remote Employees Aren’t Becoming Less Engaged. 06 December 2022. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/12/no-remote-employees-arent-becoming-less-engaged
- Four Ways Today’s Teams Are Making Us Lonely. 01 July 2021. Business Today. https://www.businesstoday.com.my/2021/07/01/four-ways-todays-teams-are-making-us-lonely/