Virtual work requires creative management

From now on, we will need to reinvent ourselves in the workplace by meeting, laughing, drinking coffee and socialising through our computer screens via Zoom, Skype or Teams. And with a little creativity, not least from management, this is possible, according to Aarhus BSS researchers behind a new study on virtual work.

07.01.2021 | SANNE OPSTRUP WEDEL

PHOTO: Chris Montgomery/Unsplash

There was a time – not very long ago – when working from home was considered a perk.

However, due to coronavirus, the perk of working from home has snowballed into an avalanche. It has become part of everyday life, and managers have to run an organisation efficiently while their employees work from home.

“Beyond the usual technical challenges, such as sound glitches, frozen screens or accidentally muting yourself, working from home during the corona crisis has involuntarily isolated us from each other and challenged many people’s daily lives, for example by making it difficult to separate work and private life or to maintain relationships with colleagues and managers. It’s therefore all the more important to explore the increased time we spend working in digital environments and to look at how this affects employees," says Marta Jackowska.

Marta is a PhD student at the Department of Management at Aarhus BSS (Aarhus University) and, together with Professor Jakob Lauring, she has studied the effect of two types of virtual work on employee perceptions of their team’s ability to share knowledge. The results of the study have been compiled in a scientific article titled "What are the effects of working away from the workplace compared to using technology while being at the workplace?". The article will be published in the esteemed Journal of International Management.

"Even though virtual work has become increasingly common in recent years, and was pushed forward a decade by an unparalleled digital transformation due to the corona crisis, it covers many different variants that have not been adequately scientifically examined,” explains Marta Jackowska.

The farther away, the worse

Through a questionnaire survey of 676 people from five Danish multinational organisations before the corona lockdown in March, the researchers discovered how employees perceived the ability of their colleagues to use and share their knowledge when working remotely and when working virtually from the office.

The first situation is called "workplace mobility" and means that employees are not physically at the office, but are working elsewhere; from home, from a hotel or from one of the company's other locations.

The second situation is called "distributed work" and means that employees are working from the office but doing so virtually, for example because they have to hold meetings with other colleagues who are spread over different geographical locations and/or time zones.

The study shows that when you are away from your everyday colleagues, you have a more negative perception of your team's ability to share knowledge, but you have a much more positive perception when you are at the office.

"Technology is often highlighted as the problem of virtual work, but our study shows that it’s not the technology itself that’s the problem, but the isolation. Or in other words: Zoom isn’t bad in itself, but it is bad if you are simultaneously isolated from your colleagues. However, if you make time to talk with your colleagues and close connections, then there’s no problem with using the technology," summarises Jakob Lauring.

"What we have are statistics, and there are therefore no explanations in our data, but theoretically, we can imagine several perspectives on virtual management in the future," he adds.

Photo: Melissa B.K. Yildrim, AU Foto

“There’s no doubt that something is lost when we don’t meet in person across the organisation. Our study doesn’t answer all of the questions because it doesn’t provide specific tools. But it’s a good starting point to show that managers must approach employees in different ways - not just in relation to their personality, but also in relation to organising how they work."

Ph.D. student Marta Jackowska, Department of Management, Aarhus BSS 

Rethink the use of technology

Because when we know that physical distance has a negative impact on our perception of our colleagues, and that working virtually at a distance is here to stay, then there are two ways to go: sigh deeply and become overwhelmed by Zoom-fatigue, or find new ways of being together virtually, which can mitigate some of the negative consequences of being apart.

"No one can predict how Covid-19 will impact working life in the next few years. However, one guess is that we’ll experience even more digital meetings and a number of knowledge companies will continue the trend of cutting back on office floorspace and all other things connected to physical workplaces, which was already underway before corona. That's why it's crucial that we rethink the way we use digital technologies," says Marta Jackowska, and she elaborates:

"For example, how do we use digital tools in the best way possible, how do we create new habits that connect us across screens, and how can we have a constructive dialogue on how and where we work with technologies. All of this requires new managerial skills," she says.

Focus on advantages

For example, it is important that employees are able to use digital tools to their full extent, so it feels as natural to draw something in Zoom as it does to draw something on a whiteboard in a meeting room. Some people might also feel insecure about asking questions during a virtual meeting with many participants, so it is important to utilise the tools available to make your voice heard - for example by using a chat function to submit questions or give feedback.

"Chairing a meeting properly becomes even more important because the manager has to look at and include those who are physically at the office and those who are participating from other locations. And both groups have to be able to speak. Having the camera turned on can help ensure this, for example," says Marta Jackowska.

It can be difficult to navigate the virtual world, which is so different from meeting in person but, since we have no choice at the moment, perhaps a good place to start is to stop focusing on what a drag it all is and instead be aware of the positives we have experienced over the past nine months.

"You can quickly set up a virtual meeting, you’re spending fewer resources on travel, and you can see people who it would otherwise be impossible to see. And we can make an effort to change our habits, so we don't just turn on the microphone for a virtual meeting, but actually make an effort to elevate the social element in order to remedy any distorted perception we may have of our colleagues that may prevent good collaboration," says Marta Jackowska.    

Schedule virtual coffee meetings

She has met teams that have cooked for each other virtually and presented food from their respective native countries. She has seen companies that begin all meetings with a small tour de chambre, so others can get an idea of where they are. And she has seen what a big difference it makes to schedule virtual coffee meetings, to make sure that employees talk to each other about work tasks and plans for the weekend – in brief, everything that you would usually talk about across desks.

"We all miss the lunch break, the coffee machine and the small breaks, but we have to embrace the new reality by converting our normal habits into virtual habits,” she says.    

Good dialogue is crucial

This applies to informal meetings with colleagues, but also to the way we begin and end the day, so we do what we usually would if we were at the office. And then we can spend the time we save by not having to commute on other things that make us happy, such as working out.

"In this way, you distinguish between work and free time – perhaps not physically, but at least mentally," says Marta Jackowska, who also emphasises that it is absolutely crucial that managers help employees connect and provide a clear basis for where and how we work with the technologies.

Too many people are negatively affected by being forced to work from home, while others cope well. It is therefore important that managers talk with individual employees about how they would prefer working if they could decide for themselves – how much do they need to be present in person, how do they get the most out of working with colleagues virtually, how often do they need a coffee chat with their boss, etc. In other words, aligning expectations and securing an open dialogue to ensure that the manager does not lose touch with the individual employee.

"It requires a lot more effort and the manager needs to be a bit creative and help out when things are difficult. Both in practical terms, for example, by organising virtual walks and coffee breaks, but also by adding a new layer to their management skills, so that the workplace culture can be transposed online in a valuable way, "says Marta Jackowska.

A creative approach is necessary

Whereas managers have been accustomed to virtual meetings primarily focused on task communication – who solves which tasks, and how far along are we – they now need to add a social layer to meetings that includes the topic of well-being. This requires a creative approach to virtual meetings that previously focused mostly on task performance.

"The key is communication and well-developed emotional intelligence, where empathy and compassion are just as important as managerial competencies such as a flair for classic strategy and business development. It will otherwise be impossible to support employees working remotely and provide them with the respite required to offset the losses from meeting virtually," she says.

Body language and tone are swallowed up by the screen and we lose all the visual clues that we layer onto the words spoken by others to help us understand their intended meaning.

“There’s no doubt that something is lost when we don’t meet in person across the organisation. Our study doesn’t answer all of the questions because it doesn’t provide specific tools. But it’s a good starting point to show that managers must approach employees in different ways - not just in relation to their personality, but also in relation to organising how they work. The future will probably be a hybrid model, where we actively consider which tasks and meetings are better done in person and which can be more efficiently completed virtually,” she says.    

Source:

Jackowska, M., Lauring, J.: What are the effects of working away from the workplace compared to using technology while being at the workplace? Assessing work context and personal context in a global virtual setting. (2020) Journal of International Management (Accepted in press).