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‘Virtual teams’ can overcome barriers to thrive, study finds

Media release

Employees working in ‘virtual teams’ can overcome performance difficulties to work effectively if they have positive feedback, social support and job autonomy in their tasks and jobs, new research involving Curtin University has found.

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The research, published in the annual review of the journal Small Group Research, investigated the mutual impact of virtual teamwork, which includes using virtual tools such as email or video conferencing from different countries and locations, and work design on the functioning of teams.

Co-author Dr Florian Klonek, from the Centre for Transformative Work Design based in Curtin’s Future of Work Institute, said modern work environments were constantly evolving and ‘virtual teams’ were a common trend as employees are embedded in increasingly flexible work arrangements.

“There are many benefits of virtual communication and collaboration including being able to draw experts from all over the globe, lower maintenance costs for office spaces, working in different time zones, increased flexibility, less time spent communicating and better work-life balance,” Dr Klonek said.

“Despite the obvious benefits, there is evidence to suggest that virtual teams can lead to team performance decline. Our research aimed to examine whether a potential negative impact of working virtually on overall team functioning can be mitigated, or even reversed, by the team’s work design.

“We identified that virtuality does not always harm team functioning and in some cases virtual teams may even outperform traditional teams, but it depends on how we design their work. We found that job resources, such as feedback, social support and job autonomy, were especially helpful for teams who operate under increased levels of virtuality.”

The findings suggest that feedback helps to reduce the negative consequences of lacking interactivity in virtual environments, team autonomy enables team members to switch between different communication channels, and social support compensates for the lack of warmth, trust and cohesion, which is often experienced in virtual collaborations.

Task interdependence, which is when co-workers depend upon one another for access to critical resources such as information, materials or expertise, appeared to increase virtual team members’ motivation, team learning, and creativity.

Co-author ARC Laureate Fellow Professor Sharon Parker, Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design based at Curtin University, said the research also identified key work design features that are likely to be detrimental for virtual team functioning.

“We found that when teams have more complex, ambiguous, non-routine, and pressured tasks, it is quite challenging to achieve high levels of performance as a virtual team,” Professor Parker said.

“It is especially important in these more difficult situations to provide support and autonomy to virtual teams so they can work together well as a team.”

The paper was led by Lisa Handke from Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany.

The paper titled, ‘Interactive effects on team virtuality and work design on team functioning,’ can be found online here.