ARE YOU GETTING the most out of your virtual teams? It depends on what kinds of people are on each team and how inclined they are to indulge in “social loafing.”
Researchers surveyed 455 individuals—mostly nontraditional MBA students and upper-level undergrads—who were using some level of virtual community to work on 140 team projects. They wanted to determine which team combinations worked best together and allowed the least amount of social loafing, or “the tendency of individuals to contribute less in a team setting.”
On virtual teams, "you need people to hold you accountable, to prevent the virtuality from letting you stray or ‘loaf,’” says Sara Perry, assistant professor of management at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business in Waco, Texas. She co-authored the study with Emily Hunter, associate professor of management at Baylor; Natalia M. Lorinkova, assistant professor of management at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University (formerly of Wayne State University); Abigail Hubbard, clinical assistant professor at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston; and the late J. Timothy McMahon of the University of Houston.
The researchers identified four team combinations:
1. Busy teams made up of individuals with high family responsibility or non-work obligations
2. Carefree teams made up of people with few outside obligations;
3. Teams made up of both carefree and busy individuals, a majority of whom are carefree;
4. Teams made up of both carefree and busy individuals, a majority of whom are busy.
They found that the two types of teams with the least amount of social loafing are carefree teams and mixed teams with a majority of carefree individuals.
The researchers speculate that carefree teams benefit from virtual work modes because they experience “higher cohesion and psychological obligation to one another and lower levels of social loafing.” Mixed teams with many carefree teammates work well because busy teammates may "feel more socially connected as virtuality increases. The ‘busy’ teammates learn from their ‘carefree’ teammates in making effective use of the flexibility afforded by virtuality.”
But when teams include many busy teammates, the carefree individuals might not feel socially connected to the busy ones and even feel that the busy ones don’t contribute as much as they should. And when busy individuals make up the entire team, they tend to form close social bonds—but often give family demands more priority than work.
The researchers suggest that managers overseeing virtual teams should establish clear accountability practices among teammates; provide tools to help employees separate their work and family lives; and pair busy individuals with teammates that are more carefree.
“When Does Virtuality Really ‘Work’? Examining the Role of Work-Family and Virtuality in Social Loafing” appeared in the February 2016 Journal of Management.