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Managing the Virtual Workforce: Six Key Findings

When we all worked in the office everyday life was easy. The rich social soup provided an ‘always on’ flow of subliminal information, a single physical and psychological context and a support network that made life easy and simple. Relationships were easy to develop, networks strong and things got done at pace and with quality. Cross functional working was easy. That was the somewhat inaccurate romantic vision which persists in the minds of many. Conventional wisdom held that it was impossible to develop relationships and grapple with difficult challenges unless everyone turned up in the same office everyday of their working lives.

But 20 years ago, this vision began to dissolve as knowledge workers were equipped with laptops, mobile devices and networks that allowed them to work in a variety of locations with a variety of people at different times. Globalization meant working with people in different geographies, cultures, and time zones – and people realized that it was possible to work productively despite being physically remote from colleagues.

The fact is that even people working in the same physical building who work together electronically do not know each other and sometimes have never met in person. The whole world of work is virtual and getting more so, and we are not going back. Moore’s Law means we are only going forward with richer collaborative technologies and more ways to work. Covid-19 has accelerated the notion that the workplace is where you work from, not where you go to. Virtual working is here to stay, and this brings serious challenges for managing the modern workforce.

Best available evidence with the CEBMa

In 2013 the Advanced Workplace Institute (AWI) formed a rich research partnership with the Centre for Evidence Based Management (CEBMa), a global network of top-flight academics that teach, preach and practice evidence-based management and decision making. The quest was simple, to establish the truth about productivity in the world of knowledge work. CEBMa’s role was to identify and rigorously review all the peer-reviewed academic research on the topic, using their ‘Rapid Evidence Assessment’ methodology – designed to establish the best available evidence. The role of the AWI was to contribute real world organizational experience and translate the academic research into business language – creating guidelines and tools for its application within organizations.

In 2014, AWI and CEBMa undertook a research program on ‘Managing the Agile Workforce,’ to identify the best strategies for working and managing when people are not physically together in different geographies, time zones, shift patterns, or simply when they work asynchronously, despite being based in the same location.

In 2020, given the increasingly virtual nature of work, the virtual working program was re-run and combined with the earlier research which had been re-run in 2019. This has resulted in the most up to date, comprehensive review of peer reviewed academic research on the subject anywhere on the planet.

The model shows the six core factors together with additional elements that help build, sustain and grow them – all drawn from the research base. For example, getting to know people, understanding how to work with different personalities and building a strong team based on sound relationships helps to develop a socially cohesive team.

The Research: Six Key Findings

1. Working apart impacts team dynamics, the frequency and quality of communications, levels of consensus and conflict, and the amount and quality of social interaction. These impact the performance of teams and the outcomes they generate.

2. Successful virtual working requires an understanding of the differences that people experience, compared to being co-located. To avoid damage to team performance, people need to respond to the differences and find alternative ways to operate.

3. Effective virtual teams are determined by the strength of their social and cognitive states – i.e. the degree to which they are socially cohesive, trust each other, operate within a psychologically safe climate and share skills, experience, and knowledge freely.

4. While all factors interconnect, trust and communication lie at the foundation of cohesion, supervision, communication, the sharing of skills and knowledge, work relationships and the performance of virtual teams.

5. Trust, social cohesion and information sharing seem to be the most potentially vulnerable to damage when people work virtually and must be consciously understood and actively managed – they can’t be left to chance.

6. In virtual teams there is potential for everyone to be a leader – people respond well to more transformational management styles. This involves creating a strong team structure, empowering and guiding the team, involving them in the development of group goals, and supporting them in actively reflecting on decision making and outcomes.

Managing the Virtual Workforce

The factors that influence virtual team and community performance include Social Cohesion, Trust, Perceived Supervisory Support, Information Sharing, Vision & Goal Clarity, External Communications.

To learn more about the research and shared educational opportunities that the Advanced Workplace Institute offers, submit an enquiry here, and check-off your current workplace challenges including:

  • Work From Home Strategy
  • Workplace Strategy
  • Designing a Workplace Experience
  • Agile Working / Activity Based Working
  • Change Management Services
  • Workplace Utilization Study
  • Upcoming Lease break
  • Business Growth / Merger / Acquisition
  • Cost Reduction
  • Office Relocation, or Other.