Successful in-person leaders may not be a great fit for virtual teams, study finds

PROVO, Utah – The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some drastic changes in how we live and work. Thanks to social distancing, many companies face the difficulty of employees working from home and navigating a virtual office. A new study reveals that transition may be especially tough for your boss. Researchers say some leadership qualities may work face-to-face, but aren’t translating across a computer screen.

According to a team at Brigham Young University, in-person teams value classic leadership qualities such as extraversion and intelligence. The study adds virtual teams are more action-oriented, preferring leaders who monitor timelines, provide feedback, and coordinate teamwork. Overall, virtual teams prefer leaders who take concrete steps to help others.

How leaders stand out online

Researchers observed 220 student teams at two different Midwestern universities. The teams engaged in varying degrees of work, either remote, in-person, or a mix of the two. They asked students about their own characteristics and behaviors as well as their teammates’ and leader’s traits.

“On a virtual team, it’s more important than in a face-to-face meeting to stand out as the one who helps others,” explains co-author Cody Reeves of BYU in a university release. “Those who take the time to pause and assist others with tasks are more likely to be viewed as leaders.”

“In virtual environments, our actions speak loudly,” adds fellow author Steven Charlier from Georgia Southern University. “The ‘soft’ skills that traditional managers rely on might not translate easily to a virtual environment.”

Training for the ‘new normal’

Radostina Purvanova of Drake University says that the coronavirus pandemic may be permanently changing the modern workplace. The researcher suggests that companies need to start training their managers to function in the “new normal” of the virtual office place.

“Now is the time for organizations and employees to gain virtual leadership competencies,” Purvanova says. “These are the skills of the future. Those companies that have already embraced virtuality are now reaping the benefits — and the rest of us must catch up quickly, or else we will simply be left behind.”

The study is published in the Journal of Business and Psychology.

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