The coronavirus lockdown, and the start of what Bloomberg first termed the world's largest experiment in remote working, has been a wake-up call for many organisations.
While there may have been some teething problems for some, for many the successful transition has put to the bed the long held misconception that working from home means slacking off, and as a result it’s likely we’ll see more companies introducing greater levels of flexibility into their business models in the long term.
That could change the relationships within teams and present a significant challenge for the managers leading them, according to new analysis by The Advanced Workplace Institute.
Working in partnership with the Centre for Evidence Based Management, researchers analysed over 40 academic studies and metanalyses to try and understand the impact of flexible working on the dynamics of teams practising it.
The study came to five broad conclusions:
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. All of these impact the performance of teams and the outcomes they generate.
2. Successful virtual working requires a greater understanding of the differences that people experience, compared to being co-located. To avoid damage to team and community performance, individuals will need to respond to the differences and find alternative ways to operate.
3. Effective virtual teams are determined by the extent to which they are socially cohesive, trust each other, feel psychologically safe and share skills, experience and knowledge freely. While all factors interconnect, trust and communication are the foundation for the others and, ultimately, the performance of virtual teams.
4. Trust, social cohesion and information sharing seem to be the most vulnerable to damage when people work virtually and must be consciously understood and actively managed – they can’t be left to chance.
5. In virtual teams there is potential for everyone to be a leader – home-based employees respond well to more transformational management styles. This will require the creation of a strong team structure that empowers individuals and involves them in the development of group goals.
Researchers insist that it is still early days in our understanding of the long-term impacts of a more hybrid system, and while many organisations have successfully adapted to virtual working over the short term, firms will need to change their management strategies if they expect teams to perform well over a longer period.
“Organisations increasingly need to harness their knowledge resources as opposed to controlling and ‘managing’ them,” says Andrew Mawson, founder of Advanced Workplace Associates, the consultancy which established the Advanced Workplace Institute.
“The role of leadership is about creating the conditions for growth and directing the energy. When we are working in a more virtualised model, old [approaches] become more difficult and we need new understanding and practices to deliver success.”
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