A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Is Telecommuting Here To Stay?,” claims that virtual leadership and management is becoming a permanent fixture of the business world. In our previous readings, Hackman and Johnson claim that “we increase our leadership competence as we increase our communication skills” (429). Virtual business can be ideal for companies trying to reduce costs and employees in areas with limited work opportunities. However, it could also highly impair our leadership and teamwork skills. With this in mind, how do you lead people who are physically separated from you and with whom your interactions are reduced to written digital and virtual communication?
With roughly 5 million U.S. employees telecommuting on a regular basis, this question seems particularly relevant and important in our leadership studies as organizations and leaders increasingly depend on digital communication. Obvious examples include managers overseeing virtual projects or teams, and executives who regularly use e-mail to communicate with their staff. Indeed, several major companies, including Cisco, Apple, & IBM, have recently shifted their training program from a face-to-face format to a “virtual training program.” Moreover, many entrepreneurs and startups are trading the brick-and-mortar office for a virtual one. In tight economic times, new technologies are making digital and virtual communication a less expensive alternative to physical meetings.
Such new technologies include “virtual meeting” software programs that allow virtual employees to “enter” a building that resembles a typical convention center or meeting place. With the simple click of a button, employees can attend digital meetings and conferences, network, learn about new products and market trends, or negotiate a new business deal. These digital meetings and business interactions are very convenient and undoubtedly save companies money. But how should leaders best navigate these digital interactions?
In face-to-face communications, harsh words can be softened by nonverbal communication. For example, an embracing gesture or smile can reduce the blow behind strong words like “disappointing,” “inadequate,” or “insufficient.” But this nonverbal element doesn’t exist in digital interactions. The structure of words in digital communication also can encourage or discourage the receiver. For instance, a message composed of phrases rather than full sentences might be received as abrupt and threatening. A leader who sends a message in all caps and short phrases may be interpreted very differently than if they had sent that same message in full sentences using both uppercase and lowercase letters. The effective virtual leader, then, must acknowledge that they have choices in the words, structure, tone and style of their digital communications and plan accordingly.
If leadership is important for inspiring and mobilizing employees, it’s important that we consider how leadership might function in this digital context and what skills are necessary for effective online leadership. Due to a dependence on digital communication channels, such as e-mail, virtual leaders must expend extra effort on building strong team relationships. Because email tends to be task-oriented (rather than relationship-oriented), the social elements needed for relationship building may get lost through e-mail. Leaders of traditional face-to-face teams generally do not face this challenge because team members usually have a shared social context and familiarity that fosters communication. The virtual leader, on the other hand, must create a shared team context that allows team members to establish common ground and similarities with one another.
Because “leaders and followers are engaged in a common enterprise” (Burns, 426), virtual leaders must also expend extra effort in creating a structure that facilitates teamwork. Unlike the virtual leader, the traditional leader has numerous opportunities for encouraging teamwork, including casual face-to-face encouragement, conversation, and guidance. Interestingly, psychological research conducted by Hoegl & Proserpio reveals that as proximity among team members decreases, the caliber of teamwork decreases as well. The researchers explain that physical distance may reduce pressure on team members to contribute. In order to counter this effect, virtual leaders must consistently encourage team members to contribute and work together. Ultimately, the virtual leader must proactively build a structure that encourages teamwork and helps the team monitor itself.
All in all, leading a virtual team involves unique challenges and may require more effort than leading a traditional face-to-face team. Ultimately, I think leaders must be highly proactive and visible in both their face-to-face & virtual activities. Leaders able to grasp the unique challenges involved in both face-to-face and virtual leadership will ultimately be the leaders of today and tomorrow.
What unique advantages and disadvantages do you think are involved in virtual leadership?