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3 impacts of technology on leadership in the virtual world

Studies goes as far back as in the early 2000, methods that deviate from the traditional way of working towards virtual working teams have been advanced because of the rise in teleconferencing and video conferencing technologies (Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003). Due to geographical limitations, virtual teams were formed to reduce costs and time to organizations.

So before we dive into virtual leadership , we need to define what a virtual team is :

Virtual team is group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time, and organizational boundaries using technology (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000).

Virtual teams can also be defined as groups of geographically and/or organizationally dispersed coworkers that are assembled using a combination of telecommunications and information technologies to accomplish an organizational task (Townsend, DeMarie, & Hendrickson, 1998)

In the global context, we can view virtual teams as a group of people who utilises technology to work interdependently without being physically beside one another with a common purpose. The strong shift in the work dynamics mean that the traditional way of working needs to make way to what work actually means. Rather than activities focused, we need to shift to goal + process focused work.

The change in work means that the way leadership used to be has to dramatically shift towards an e-based leadership or virtual leadership.

So how does the use of virtual technology impact leadership?

1) "Always Online" expectation

The expectation that the team member is "always online" leads to misunderstandings that the team member has slacked off or not doing the work. Now, working from home is an entirely different setting from working in the office. In the office, resources such as "previous reports", "quick huddles across the tables", "gathering quick opinions on work" become scarce especially in a virtual setting. This may lead to team members feeling isolated and lonely in their own "work from home" bubble.

This increases the social distance between the leader and the team as the leader may not be able to catch visual cues or non-verbal cues that the team member may be experiencing burnout.

2) "Eye Contact" issue

Eye contact has been regarded as a sign of respect across many cultures and there is even a saying that your eyes are the windows to one's heart. Being in front of camera could lead to people feeling like they are being judged and evaluated upon, this increases the awkwardness to face to camera or even switch the camera on in the first place. So even a virtual leader needs to show the confidence to face the camera and speak to their team members aka practice what you preach. The reduction in eye contact may lead the leader to form a bias that the person is non-cooperative and begin isolating-type behaviours like using the non-compliance as a passing joke or making snipe remarks about the person during a meeting in the hope of "encouraging" the person to comply.

3) Heavy Assumptions

In physical meetings or meetups, team members voice their concerns and questions readily as everyone is on deck with the new/current projects. Even then, teams may still suffer from heavy assumptions of how the project will turn out and roles/responsibilities. As such, in virtual settings. assumptions may not be raised as staring at a screen for long periods of time with little to one interaction may cause people to drift. In the bid to end the misery, people fall prey to the temptation to end the meeting quickly. This increases the amount of assumptions that people may have.

What can you do about it? How can leaders become e-leaders?

Increase personal interactions with every team member through various means (i.e. phone call, meetup if allowed to, video calls, messaging etc). The 1-to-1 allows your team members to feel safe to share their challenges and concerns rather than needing to safeguard themselves in a group setting.

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