Did your (traditional) team have to “go virtual” due to Covid-19? Are you an experienced team leader who had to transition into an e-leader because of that? Or did you already have experience (e-)leading virtual teams before Covid-19? In an era of a truly steep rise in virtual working, we have all had to reimagine how we work, lead, collaborate and socialise, oftentimes whilst mixing traditionally distinct environments: Our work and our home. While the press presents this as a completely new form of work, there is a lot we can learn from two decades of studies on virtual teams and e-leadership.
Understanding ‘reconfigured’ (virtual) teams
Traditionally, virtual teams have been presented as a unique team configuration that differs from traditional, physically collocated teams mainly because members of virtual teams are (geographically) dispersed and communicate and collaborate online using a number of different tools. Consequently, researchers and practitioners have studied a wide array of topics relative to virtual team performance and leadership. For example, how virtual teams are successfully led, how do we ensure virtual teammates trust one another, and how is creativity enhanced in this context.
While earlier, pre-Covid19 virtual teams were mostly global and virtual team members chose to work virtually, in this new context, numerous traditional, locally based workers were forced to work virtually due to the sudden lockdowns that sent them home. Contrary to earlier virtual teams that were more temporary and project-based, these new virtual teams were essentially the continuation of office-based traditional teams that had to ‘go virtual’ due to the circumstances.
What we see therefore is that although both earlier and current (due to Covid-19) virtual teams share similar characteristics (e.g., with members working remotely from different locations and through technology), they are configured differently: The former were global, more temporary, and involved members that not always had the chance to meet face-to-face; the latter are local, more permanent, and their members know one another well from the office. Additionally, members of new virtual teams during and post-Covid-19 work primarily from home, which raises unprecedented challenges such as having to juggle work and home-related commitments (including housework as well as caring and home-schooling responsibilities).
So how should these new types of virtual teams be led?
What (newly transitioned) e-leaders can do
Leadership in pre-Covid-19 virtual teams was about fostering a spirit of cohesion despite the factors that may pull the team apart, such as geographical distance and cultural differences between globally dispersed members. As part of this, developing alternative, more shared leadership styles, cultivating trust, and creating a social context so that virtual team members can connect and develop personal relationships, is essential. A question therefore arises as to whether these should still be the e-leader’s responsibilities in the new virtual teams that emerged due to Covid-19, and are likely to continue to exist after the pandemic.
While some of these leadership responsibilities are still relevant (e.g., developing trust), there are also new responsibilities for the new e-leader
In our review of the existing literature in this area, professors Niki Panteli, Robert M. Davison and I conclude that while some of these leadership responsibilities are still relevant (e.g., developing trust), there are also new responsibilities for the new e-leader, primarily related to three areas:
- Relationships: The development of relationships that exceed the narrow view of a good relationship with your teammates to something like the Chinese concept of Guanxi (关系), indicating a great appreciation and sense of care about the team itself and others in the team. Stronger interpersonal relationships should then act as a basis for long-lasting and high-performing virtual teams in times of uncertainty.
- Work-life boundaries: Working from home is a common feature of current virtual teams where virtual team members work and live together alone, with parents, housemates, and/or children, having to juggle multiple (often conflicting) commitments at the same time. e-Leaders should therefore show an appreciation of these additional challenges and ensure that their members can recreate some work-life boundaries in their homes.
- Well-being: We have seen virtual team members experience increasing demands (e.g., after-hours emails, longer online meetings) without always having the required resources (e.g., time, equipment). Professors Almudena Cañibano, Emma Russell and I explain that the imbalance may have implications for their sense of well-being, leading to new phenomena such as burnout and “Zoom fatigue”. In order to avoid unpleasant situations, e-leaders should thus keep an eye on their members to ensure that their work demands do not exceed their work resources.
In this illustration from the theoretical framework of our review, we present all these areas together. It is only when e-leadership is exercised appropriately that we can have sustainable and high-performing virtual teams leading to some truly creative and innovative outcomes.