Virtual leadership and the use of virtual teams has been around for approximately one decade. The advancement of technology, the decline of the business economy, and the urgency to attract and retain knowledgeable human resources with the retirement of the Baby Boomers are reasons multiple organizations now employ a virtual workforce. This paper will look at the competencies and skills necessary to be a successful virtual leader and virtual team member, and state why the future of a virtual workforce is here to stay.
Due to the economic environment in the last five years, and the continuous development of technology, organizations have been forced to develop new ways to incentive their employees to stay with their organization. One of the main recruiting and retention tools developed was the flexible workforce. A flexible workforce can include employees who work from home on a regular basis (telecommuters), employees who work from home occasionally, or employees who work from other locations. Not only is flexible work attractive to many individuals, but it also can save an organization thousands of dollars each year. Some of the benefits of a flexible workforce for the organization include a larger applicant pool, fewer resources spent on building maintenance and office equipment, fewer distractions for the employees during their workday (since some are choosing their schedules), happier employees, and reduced turnover.
With technology developing in ways that allows us to easily connect with one another, and businesses beginning to return from the financial crisis in 2008, organizations are expanding their markets. For the majority of industries and businesses, today’s market is global. Global markets require global businesses to develop global workforce teams. The use of global or virtual teams has been common for more than a decade. Virtual teams are defined as teams of people who work interdependently across space, time, and organizational boundaries through the use of technology to facilitate communication and collaboration (DeRosa, Hantula, Kock, D’Arcy 2004). In addition to the convenient nature and resource saving aspects, virtual teams are poised to develop better-informed and more creative solutions to complex, often global organizational problems, because they give access to specialized expertise across geographical boundaries (Malhotra, Majchrzak & Rosen, 2007). As we know, the baby boomer generation is exiting the workforce by thousands each day. Many of those baby boomers have been committed to one organization their entire life and the thousands of Generation X and Generation Y employees filling their roles are said to desire a career with multiple opportunities and challenges, all while maintaining a work-life balance.
The demands of our current workforce require organizations to change their traditional processes, if they want to stay afloat. It’s estimated that some younger employees will work for at least eight companies in their lifetime (Blanchard & Thacker, 2012). With the mass exodus of the baby boomers and individuals with evolving career goals, industries are or will be in need of knowledgeable and skilled workers, making it even more important to attract and retain employees, which reinforces the idea that a flexible workforce is here to stay. Flexibility of work and virtual teams have been a popular issue for approximately ten years, but few have analyzed the skills of the virtual management, those leading our workforce, to ensure our organizations will succeed despite the large workforce changes. Even despite the need to fill the vacancies left by the baby boomers and globalization of markets, some organizations have recently moved away from flexible workforce and reverted back to the traditional work setting after determining that flexible workforce isn’t appropriate for their industry or organization.
However, as long as our workforce culture and technology is continually evolving, and as long as our employees and leaders are choosing to stay engaged in their careers, virtual leadership and virtual teams are here to stay. According to the Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM), an effective virtual leader needs a strong focus on relationships, emotional intelligence, a track record of results and innovation, a focus on process and outcome, and the ability to give positive and constructive feedback (“Successfully transitioning to,” 2010). Other vital characteristics of a successful leader, in any organization but especially virtual organizations, are the ability to communicate effectively, flexibility in accepted communication and work styles, and the ability to build trust. Simple tasks for a traditional, face-to-face team may become more complex when given to a virtual team. Things such as basic communication may be hindered due to culture or language differences.
Many argue that the lack of physical interaction is the main defeat of virtual teams, insisting that it may even make the use of virtual teams ineffective or unsuccessful (DeRosa, Hantula, Kock, D’Arcy 2004). However, many current employees prefer and are very familiar with the use of e-learning, e-communicating, and e-leadership in their professional and personal lives, demonstrating that physical interaction is not necessary for successful teams (Mohammad, K. 2009). In addition, the most dominate generation, with even more employees in the workforce than the Baby Boomers, is Generation Y. Generation Y employees have grown up in the heart of technological breakthroughs and are very comfortable and geared towards communicating and working in virtual environments (Luther, 2007). Another aspect of effective leadership is the roles a leader must take on within their team.
Effective managers must not only demonstrate the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities required to lead the team, but also actively play the roles of interpersonal, informational, and decisional leadership. Interpersonal leadership consists of being the figurehead, leader, and liaison of the team, which includes doing such things as maintaining the routine and obligatory duties of the team, motivating the team, and acting as an action of benefit to the team, if necessary. Informational leadership consists of monitoring the work environment and team members, distributing selected information to other units in the organization, and acting as the spokesperson for those team members. The decisional role of the leader consists of acting as an entrepreneur, disturbance handler, resource allocator, and negotiator, which could consist of such duties as encouraging the team members to take advantage of existing opportunities within the team, reacting to meet the demands of the team, and utilizing the team’s resources effectively (Blanchard & Thacker, 2012).
Many of the same characteristics of a successful virtual leader must also be portrayed in employees, to have a successful virtual team. Things such as clear and open communication, acceptance of other’s opinions and beliefs, and trusting relationships are obvious and necessary traits for all team members to possess. In addition to the logical traits, there are other characteristics that a team member must possess to be effective in the virtual environment. According to The Big Five Personality, all virtual team members are defined as ‘leaders’ due to the independence of their roles, even if there is one assigned leader or superior of the group. According to The Big Five Personality theory, all virtual team members must possess a moderate to high level of the following personality traits: emotional stability, conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness, and extraversion (Cogliser, Gardner, Gavin, Broberg, 2012).
The Big Five Personality theory argues that while all five traits may not be essential in traditional team member roles, the personality traits are very important for virtual teams due to the added responsibilities and requirements from lack of face to face interaction, increased chance of miscommunication, and possibility of decreased motivation without traditional leadership. “Individuals low on emotional stability experience negative feelings such as anger, anxiety, guilt, sadness, and vulnerability. This trait has been positively and strongly associated with high self-esteem and general self-efficacy, as well as job performance.” Conscientiousness team members exhibit caution, self-discipline, hard work, and a strong sense of direction. “Conscientiousness may be even more important in virtual environments than in traditional ones.”
Team Members who are open to experience are said to be imaginative, curious, and creative, which are important characteristics for a leader in the virtual environment, as unique challenges are presented more often than in the traditional environment. Agreeableness is necessary in virtual teams, as employees high on agreeableness tend toward affiliation, compassion, and cooperation, rather than conflict. While team members high on agreeableness may be viewed as conformists or weak, agreeableness builds trustworthy relationships, which is imperative in virtual teams. A moderate to high level of extraversion is required in virtual teams, as individuals exhibiting a degree of extraversion are talkative, active and upbeat (Cogliser, Gardner, Gavin, Broberg, 2012). As discussed, successful leaders must fulfill basic roles of the team, such as interpersonal, informational, and decisional leadership roles, while promoting trust, communicating clearly and providing immediate feedback.
The argument that virtual teams and virtual employees cannot be as successful as traditional teams and employees is based on the ideas that employees do not work well in situations without physical interaction, or find it more difficult to stay motivated without constant supervisor. While having a manager that did not put forth any effort to communicate with his or her employees and did not have a trusting relationship, would create a very difficult environment to succeed. However, the managers that exhibit all the characteristics that a good leader, whether virtual or traditional, should exhibit, have a great chance of leading a successful team. The common factors in unsuccessful virtual teams are not the traits that the leader did not poses, but the lack of motivation, extraversion, agreeableness, and effort from the team members.
Leadership is a complex and multi-layer role that can only influence behavior to a certain extend without the desires and goals of the employee also being an influence (DeRosa, Hantula, Kock, D’Arcy 2004). “Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for an employee’s development rests with the employee” (Blanchard & Thacker, 2012). While virtual employees, teams, and leaders may face unique challenges, virtual leadership can be just as effective, if not more effective, than traditional leadership. With the support of Generation Y flooding our workforce now and in the immediate years to come, virtual teams will continue to be an active force in our successful organizations. Our workforce culture is continually evolving, and as long as our employees and leaders are choosing to stay engaged in their careers and dedicated to continued learning opportunities, virtual leadership and teams can be successful.
Blanchard, P., & Thacker, J. (2012). Effective training systems, strategies, and practices. (5th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson. Cogliser, C. C., Gardner, W. L., Gavin, M. B., & Broberg, J. (2012). Big Five Personality Factors and Leader Emergence in Virtual Teams: Relationships With Team Trustworthiness, Member Performance Contributions, and Team Performance. Group & Organization Management, 37(6), 752-784. doi:10.1177/1059601112464266 DeRosa, D. M., Hantula, D. A., Kock, N., & D’Arcy, J. (2004). TRUST AND LEADERSHIP IN
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