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The Best Kinds of Teams for Remote Work

The Best Kinds of Teams for Remote Work
Credit: Gaudi Labs/Shutterstock

It takes a certain combination of remote workers to get the most out of your virtual teams, new research suggests.

Virtual teams' productivity and effectiveness are best when the majority of team members have few outside obligations, because these team members help hold people who do have these obligations accountable for their work, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Management.

"Under the conditions of higher virtuality, you need people to hold you accountable, to prevent the virtuality from letting you stray or 'loaf,'" Sara Perry, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business, said in a statement.

For the study, researchers surveyed 455 individuals working on 140 team projects. Teams used varying levels of virtual communication to complete their projects. The surveys were then used to determine which team combinations worked best together and which allowed for the least amount of "social loafing," which the study's authors defined as "the tendency of individuals to contribute less in a team setting." [See Related Story: 4 Ways to Manage Remote Employees ]

The researchers identified and analyzed four specific types of team combinations:

  • Busy teams: Comprisingonly employees who have high family responsibility, or nonwork obligations.
  • Carefree teams: Made up of only workers who have few outside obligations.
  • Mixed teams with a majority of carefree workers: A mix of busy and carefree workers, with the majority being those who don't have many outside obligations.
  • Mixed teams with a majority of busy workers: A mix of busy and carefree workers, with the majority being those with many outside obligations.

The study's authors discovered that the team combinations that have the best accountability and reduce social loafing are the carefree teams and the mixed teams with a majority of carefree workers.

"'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 study's authors wrote.

The researchers said that when remote workers who have lots of family or outside obligations work with those who don't have the same types of responsibilities, they tend to feel more socially connected as the level the virtuality increases.

"The 'busy' teammates learn from their 'carefree' teammates in making effective use of the flexibility afforded by virtuality, such that loafing does not increase as face-to-face interactions decrease," the researchers wrote.

The study found that when remote workers with numerous family responsibilities work with others who have the same obligations, they are more likely to contribute less to the team.

"These individuals tend to form strong social bonds with each other, probably because they experience similar life circumstances and stress," Perry said. "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."

The study was co-authored by Emily Hunter, an associate professor at Baylor University; Natalia Lorinkova, an assistant professor at Georgetown University; Abigail Hubbard, an assistant professor at the University of Houston; and J. Timothy McMahon, a professor at the University of Houston. [McMahon died after this research was completed, but before the results were published.]

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.