Work remotely? You might be making it harder for yourself to lead.
A study in The Leadership Quarterly journal discovered that problems such as power struggles, confusion and communication issues, emerge when those in charge aren't physically located with the majority of their teams.
"People who are working remotely on a team can be at a disadvantage when it comes to being seen as a leader," Cody Reeves, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, said in a statement. "We found that people are biased toward the people they are physically located with."
For the study, researchers divided college students into 84 four-person teams that were randomly assigned to one of three team configurations: all team members physically located with each other, all working remotely, or split with some located together and others working remotely.
The teams were then asked to complete a decision-making activity, then answer a survey about the experience and rate their team members. [See Related Story: The Best Kinds of Teams for Remote Work]
The study's authors found that a clear leader is more likely to emerge when teams are either all located together or all working remotely.
"It's when you start mixing and matching — some on-site, some virtual — that's when the real confusion comes into play," Reeves said.
The study's authors discovered that when a majority of team members are located together, it severely hampers the ability for a remote worker within that group to be seen as a leader.
But as a team becomes more dispersed — in effect, 'leveling the playing ﬁeld' among team members — the advantage for co-located individuals is greatly reduced," the study's authors wrote. "It is possible that having some team members co-located and others not is an underlying factor in the recent publicized struggles and associated reductions in use of virtual teams within some prominent organizations (e.g., Yahoo)."
The study's authors said they were surprised that remote workers had an easier time emerging as leaders when everyone in the group was also working outside the office. The researchers said that one possible explanation for this ﬁnding relates to the "level playing ﬁeld" notion.
"In these highly dispersed team conﬁgurations, the lack of mutual knowledge of other team members' individual work contexts is perhaps less important in the short term, while the opportunity for a larger proportion of team members to share in leadership responsibilities seems to increase," the study's authors wrote.
Based on the research, the study's authors said they believe that employers who want effective leaders in charge of telecommuting employees should make sure the leader is physically located with at least the majority of the group, or that everyone is working remotely.
Reeves said he thinks the study's results should also make companies think through their plans for offering telecommuting before jumping right into it.
"They were so concerned about whether or not they could do it, they never stopped to think if they should," Reeves said on the approach many employers have taken over the past decade as telecommuting has grown in popularity. "Fortunately, many companies now appear to be taking a more deliberate approach when deciding whether and when telecommuting makes sense for their operation."
The study's lead author was Steven Charlier, an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University. It was also co-authored by Greg Stewart, a professor at the University of Iowa, and Lindsey Greco, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University.