How productive is virtual working?

remote-workA few years ago I looked at some research from the University of Minnesota into the merits of remote working.

The findings should not perhaps come as that big a surprise.  Employees given this sense of control over their working lives were generally less conflicted about their work-life balance, especially for those who were working parents.

“We see a variety of changes that come together in the same direction—employees feeling more control over when and where they work, employees feeling more supported by their managers, employees more likely to say they have enough time with their family and less likely to say work is interfering with family,” the researchers say.

But what is the impact on productivity?  Are people that log in remotely more productive than their peers who travel in to an office each day?

Virtual productivity

A recent study set out to explore how productive we are when we work remotely, and especially in team environments that require strong collaboration skills.  The analysis reveals that the answer very much depends on the makeup of the group.

The researchers examined around 140 different team projects to determine the roles each individual took on, and how productive they were in those teams.  The aim was not only to look at the impact of virtual working on productivity, but also to better understand what kinds of people work effectively together.  They were particularly keen to see what circumstances would reduce instances of slacking off by individuals that were ‘out of sight’.

“Under the conditions of higher virtuality, you need people to hold you accountable, to prevent the virtuality from letting you stray or ‘loaf,'” the authors say.

The analysis revealed four distinct types of team:

  1. Busy teams that consist of individuals with a lot of outside commitments
  2. Carefree teams that have very few outside commitments
  3. High dissimilarity teams where the bulk are carefree, but with a sprinkling of busy individuals
  4. High dissimilarity teams where the bulk are busy but with a sprinkling of carefree individuals

The importance of being carefree

When the analysis was complete, it emerged that having a high number of carefree individuals was crucial to the success of the team.  The best performing combinations were those with either all participants or the majority of them were carefree.

“‘Carefree’ teams largely comprising individuals with few family responsibilities may actually benefit from increasingly virtual work modes, experiencing higher cohesion and psychological obligation to one another and lower levels of social loafing,” the researchers say.

The authors suggest that in mixed teams, if the majority are in the carefree mould, it prods the others in the team to maintain similar workloads, with their carefree peers leading by example with good use of the virtuality offered to them.

When busy teammates make up the majority however, the analysis suggests that carefree colleagues are disconnected from their busy peers, and the whole team performs worse as a result.

This can result in such ‘busy’ teams reporting high levels of social loafing and generally taking advantage of their virtual status in a negative way.

“These individuals tend to form strong social bonds with each other, probably because they experience similar life circumstances and stress,” the authors say. “But even when those social bonds are strong within the team, family demands seem to often take priority when there’s no face-to-face accountability.”

How to implement virtual teams successfully

The authors conclude with a few suggestions on how you can successfully implement virtual teams:

  • Make it clear who is accountable for what
  • Make it easier for employees to separate work and family lives, such as by providing tips on how to avoid family distractions or creating clear work space at home
  • Take into account the family responsibilities of people when creating virtual teams so that teams aren’t loaded with ‘busy’ employees

What do you think of the findings?  If you’ve worked virtually yourself let me know your experiences in the comments below.

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