Key factors for working effectively online

By Niki Panteli

In the current lockdown due to Covid-19, information  and communication technologies (ICTs) have become our saviour. They are our window to the outside world giving us the opportunity to have frequent online meetings, continue to work on joint projects regardless of where our co-workers and collaborators are, continue to teach and support our students, as well as socialise. Under these conditions, we have been required to test our digital communication skills but also rethink the way we work and interact remotely in the technology-mediated environment.

Drawing on the expertise that I developed over a number of years on the subjects of virtual teams and online collaborations, I present below five key factors for working and leading effectively online: 

Key Factor 1: 

Work-related use of ICTs should be selective; this should be based on the type of communication needed and project requirements. In one of my studies that involved a high-tech multinational organisation (Panteli and Tucker, 2009), many of the interviewees supported the view that face-to-face interaction was critical. However, it was also  recognised that the opportunities to meet face-to-face were severely limited (at that time interviewees mentioned  economic pressures, travel freeze, terrorist attacks). As an interviewee put it: “We have a travel freeze at the moment and I haven’t met any of the global team for more than a year now”.Under these circumstances, it was found that those virtual teams that worked well tended to undertake regular communications via synchronous, ‘live’ communication technologies such as MS Meetings. Participants indicated that synchronous media offered more feedback and therefore facilitated understanding more effectively than asynchronous technologies such as voicemail and email. The use of asynchronous technologies was, however, regularly used for documenting and recording agreements and providing brief, simple updates on work progress. 

Key Factor 2:

It is the use rather that the type of ICTs that matters most: Though ideally synchronous, real-time communications should be used due to their potential for face-to-face, enhanced interactivity and immediate feedback, it is also important to recognise that it is possible to develop and maintain employee engagement in the virtual context with simple communication means such as email (Panteli et al., 2019). That is, despite its text-based and asynchronous nature, email may become an effective means through which employees are informed, updated and motivated. Further, it is important to note that an asynchronous medium, such as email, may actually be preferred as it can protect users from being put on the spot, from feeling that they argued poorly and from having to deal with immediate feedback on the fly (Lee et al., 2018). Thus, it is not the type of medium, but rather, how this is used that matters for effective online collaborations. 

Key Factor 3: 

Leader’s role is important: Leaders represent and influence the employment experience of virtual workers and provide a structure which is important for online collaborations (Chamakiotis and Panteli, 2017). Leadership practices that take account of the technology-mediated nature of work interactions have been found to be significant in fostering employee engagement and sustaining commitment (Panteli et al., 2019). Clear direction, constructive feedback as well as encouragement and empathetic and motivating language help the dispersed employees to become more engaged and to increase their work commitment despite the distance that separates them from their colleagues.

Key Factor 4: 

Social interactions are vital too! Virtual teams that work well are found to include a social and fun element in their interactions and this helps in creating a stronger bond and identity (Panteli and Tucker, 2009). Ideas that have been shared by my research participants over the years include virtual wine tasting, virtual lunches and  coffee breaks, sharing photos of favourite places, talking about hobbies  and online gaming among others. Project leaders have a responsibility to promote social interactions in order to reduce  isolation and improve interpersonal relations among virtual team members. 

Key Factor 5:

Respect boundaries between work and other commitments

Even though boundaries do appear less fixed, more flexible and vulnerable when working online, research has shown that these still continue to feature prominently in virtual interactions. Therefore, when individuals talk about their need to be absent from a work meeting (in the current lockdown, this may mean: “I need to help my child with school work”), there is an implied ‘Do not disturb’ message. The active agency of individuals and their need to remain ‘real’ in mediated as well as non-mediated (offline) environments contribute to the construction of boundaries (Panteli, 2004). These boundaries need to be respected and accepted. Again, the leader plays a key role on this matter.  

Author bio

Dr Niki Panteli is a Professor of Digital Business at Royal Holloway University of London and a visiting professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Her main research interests lie in the area of IT-enabled transformation, virtual teams and virtual collaborations and computer-mediated communication. Within this field, she has studied issues of trust, conflict and collaborations in virtual, geographically-dispersed environments. She led and participated in several research projects and her work appeared in numerous top-ranked academic journals. She served as the Chair of the IFIP WG 9.5 (2006-09). She can be contacted at Niki.Panteli@rhul.ac.uk, on Twitter @niki_panteli or via LinkedIn.

This blogpost has drawn from research that was presented in the following publications: 

Chamakiotis P. and Panteli, N, (2017). Leading the Creative Process: The Case of Virtual Product Design. New Technology, Work and Employment32(1), pp. 28-42

Lee J.Y., Panteli, N., Hsu, C. and Bulow A.-M. (2018). Email Adaptation for Conflict Handling: A Case Study of Cross-border Inter-organisational Partnership in East Asia, Information Systems Journal, 28(2), pp. 318–339

Panteli, N. (2004). Discursive Articulations of Presence in Virtual Organizing, Information and Organization, 14(1), pp. 59-81.

Panteli, N. and Tucker, R. (2009). Power and Trust in Global Virtual Teams, Communications of the ACM, 52(12), pp. 113-115. 

Panteli, N., Yalabik, Z. and Rapti, A. (2019). Fostering Work Engagement in Geographically-Dispersed and Asynchronous Virtual Teams, Information Technology & People, 32(1), pp. 2-17.

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