Virtual working can be stressful – how to do it right

Research from Gallup suggests that workers were the most pessimistic about their living standards since the company started measuring this in 2009, with around a third experiencing anger, stress, and sadness at work. The company pinpoints loneliness as a factor in these findings, with a growing number of us struggling to connect with people either inside or outside of work.

This was exacerbated by the pandemic, when so many of us worked remotely, with the various video conferencing platforms going some way toward replicating the human contact we so crave but failing in various crucial ways.

"Zoom and these tools were amazing because they kept us connected during the pandemic," Gallup CEO Jon Clifton explains. "But there are still various things associated with these tools that humanity hasn't adapted to."

Making virtual teams work

Research from the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates explores how to effectively make virtual teams work, even when they span geographic backgrounds as well as contain various cultural and linguistic differences.

The researchers identify three key facets to understand why communication can be so difficult in virtual teams and to help ensure that cultural gaps are overcome.

"Living in a multicultural setting necessitates people to adjust their behaviors based on different contexts when communicating with others," the researchers explain. "For example, it depends on whom they are speaking to, reasons for communicating, and timing needed to exchange and share messages."

Adjusting behaviors

The researchers wanted to know whether we adjust our behaviors when we're communicating with colleagues from elsewhere in the world. It's a process the researchers refer to as "cultural code-switching."

They identify three distinct behaviors that underpin cross-cultural code-switching:

  • The directness of our speech
  • The openness with which we share knowledge
  • The task-orientation of our aims

The study suggests that when Global Virtual Teams (GVTs) share knowledge, it's best to be open. The researchers found that the openness and friendliness of foreign team members influenced GVTs to adjust their way of expressing ideas. This, in turn, helped build trust among colleagues.

In the study, participants made a deliberate effort to communicate explicitly in technical discussions and meetings. They believed that using a clear communication style increased the chances of a successful discussion and made decision-making smoother.

The researchers categorized GVTs based on communication into two parts: high-context and low-context communicative cultures. High-context cultures focus on underlying context, meaning, and tone in messages. In contrast, low-context cultures emphasize explicit and straightforward verbal communication. The study linked low and high context with GVTs in highly developed Western countries.

"The tendency for foreign GVT members to be straightforward and precise when communicating via email influenced high-context GVT members to adapt their interaction patterns with both foreign and local team members," the researchers explain. "Our key finding showed that some high-context GVT members put extra effort into overcoming language barriers using simple English."

Structuring teamwork

Research from Deakin University also shows that it's crucially important for virtual teamwork to be structured in the right way so that team members have the right information and resources to thrive.

The researchers argued that virtual teams are at their best when all participants have access to relevant information and resources. They also believe, however, that workflows need to be designed so that team members can work effectively together.

"Virtual teams, which include people who work from varied locations, are a bit different in how they work because a lot of their processes and communication require the use of digital tools," they say.

The right mix

Researchers looked at more than 100 virtual teams and adjusted how much they depend on each other for resources to try and understand the ideal amount. They call this "resource interdependence," which is basically about how team members rely on each other for the right stuff and info. When senior team members have exclusive info, you get high resource interdependence.

Now, there's also "process interdependence," which is about how teams work together. Low process interdependence is when teams can do their own thing before coming together, while high process interdependence is when they need to collaborate.

The study found that virtual teams work best when everyone can get the resources they need on their own (low resource interdependence) and when they work together a lot (high process interdependence).

As teams more often connect either entirely online or through a mix of virtual and in-person interactions, these studies become vital for making sure teams work well. The goal is to have software automatically set up the right way of doing things, easing the burden on managers who are already adjusting to new work styles. This increases the likelihood of successfully managing virtual teams.

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