Engaging Virtual Teams: Do Leadership & Trust Matter?

AuthorMutha, Prapti


The workplace of 21st century is quite different from that it was a few years ago. The long-held beliefs about work patterns of how, where and when work gets done are challenged in the new organizational structure. Leaders today have to manage their teams from a distance. The workplace has transformed from cubicles to open office spaces and now employees logging in to company's network from home or different office locations to work together on the same project. The transition of an office as a physical location to employees working from anywhere and anytime has enabled organizations to hire the best talent regardless of their location. This has helped organizations to enhance their efficiencies to work across time zones and thus be productive round the clock. In today's global market, technology advances have made it easier to organize and manage dispersed groups of people, however, engaging the virtual team and leading them effectively is a challenge.

Employees' working in virtual teams is not a trend but an evolution in the workplace. This transformation in the workplace is generally cross-functional, crosscultural and cross-generational. It has dramatically altered the way most organizations function. With the emergence of virtual teams, a paradigm shift at workplace has occurred.

  1. From work as a physical place to, "doesn't matter from where you work"

  2. From work between 9 am to 6 pm to, it happens when it's assigned and due

  3. From employees to be monitored, to employees being responsible for results

  4. From increase in productivity due to presence in office to, "telecommuters are productive too"

  5. From micromanagement to employees being high on accountability and ownership

  6. From focus on process to focus on outcomes and results

  7. From work life balance to work life integration

    With these changes at the workplace, it is imperative for leaders to understand what works well while engaging virtual teams. Historical definition of leadership is the ability to influence a group towards the achievement of goals, (Robbins, 2013). Various contemporary studies on leadership styles ranging from Hersey and Blanchard's situational theory to charismatic, transactional and transformational leadership style researcher rigorously reviewed the literature in the context of geographically dispersed team and chose to focus on Transformational Leadership (influence and motivation) and trust. A vast body of research has considered these variables as interplay between leadership and engagement, performance, success under the backdrop of virtual settings. (Joshi, Lazarova, & Liao, 2009; Dirks & Ferrin, 2002). This paper aims at examining the role of leadership influence and motivation in engaging the employees in virtual teams. It is proposed to assess the impact of idealized influence and inspirational motivation, a sub factor of transformational leadership with a mediating role of trust between the team members on employee engagement.

    Purpose of This Study

    It is a known fact through various researches, awards and best practices discussed, that an engaged employee in an organization significantly increases the chances of organizational success. The leader has to play different roles to engage the employees in virtual teams. In the absence of face to face interaction, the role of influencing, motivating and fostering an environment of trust dramatically changes as against in the collocated teams. Given the significance of these variables, this study aims to offer a comprehensive view of employee engagement in virtual scenario. The research concern is to understand the relationship between leader's influence, motivation and trust on engagement of virtual teams. Following research questions were raised:

  8. Does leadership influence impact employee engagement?

  9. Does leadership motivation impact employee engagement?

  10. Does trust enhance the employee engagement?

    Understanding Virtual Teams

    According to Day, Zaccaro & Halpin (2004), the working definition of a team is: "a set of two or more people who interact dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively toward a common and valued goal, in specific roles or functions." Duarte & Synder (1999) defined virtual teams as "a team that operates without the physical limitations of distance, time and organizational boundaries." Cascio (2000) mentioned virtual teams as all about employees working using technology from different locations possessing unique skill sets. In the view of Leidner & Jarvenpaa (1999) a virtual team is, "temporary, culturally diverse, geographically dispersed and uses technology to communicate". For the purpose of this research, virtual team is being construed as a group of people who work interdependently using technology to achieve organizational goals across space, time and organization boundaries D'Souza & Colarelli (2010)

    Understanding Employee engagement:

    According to Kahn (1990) engaged people harness their work roles and during work performance, they express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Maslach & Leiter (2008) in their study on burnout, conceptualized engagement as the opposite of burnout. According to them, if burnout is feeling exhausted, cynical and ineffective, engagement is feeling energetic, involved and effective. They also suggest building engagement through promoting sustainable workloads, empowerment, effective recognition and rewards, providing just and fair treatment, and ensuring an overlap of personal and organization values. Schaufeli, Martinez, Pinto, Salanova, and Bakker (2002) defined work engagement as a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is expressed in the form of vigor, dedication and absorption. Engagement is also seen as a combination of job satisfaction and organizational commitment (Schmidt, Harter & Hayes, 2004). Vance (2008) cited Towers Perrin's definition of employee engagement as the employee's willingness and ability to go that extra mile to contribute to an organization success. A range of definitions have emerged around the concept of employee engagement. However, the researchers could not find any specific literature on engagement in virtual teams. Based on the common themes that emerged from literature review and researchers' focused group discussions with various organizations, the operational definition of employee engagement is as: "an employee who has role clarity, understands business context, works cohesively with the team members and feels rewarded and valued."

    Leadership in Virtual Teams

    The relationship between leadership and employee engagement has received considerable scholarly attention. Working in a virtual team has been exponentially growing over the years. According to SHRM's Employee Benefit Report (2019), 69% of the companies offer their employees to work virtually. Leading individuals and teams have always been a challenge. Srivastava & Sinha (2009), in their study of effective teams, found that team effectiveness depends upon the leaders' ability to assign specific duties to individual team members, and reward them for their efforts. In virtual set up this challenge is multi-fold as compared to traditional face to face settings Bell & Kozlowski (2002). As per Yukl & Taber (2002), virtual leadership is a combination of increasing influence and commitment not only for routine work but also going beyond the work role. It is found that, leadership and managerial effectiveness also depends upon facilitative climate of work unit, motivation management, participative structured organization norms and values, and technologically conducive work conditions (Srivastava & Sinha, 2009). Majority of the leaders agree that today virtual leadership is a necessary skill for leaders in their organizations. The research conducted by Centre for Creative Leadership (2007) reflects that virtual leadership requires a different set of skills from face-to-face leadership. Researchers considered various leadership theories and found Transformational Leadership appropriate for virtual teams. The crux of transformational leadership style is explained in 5 components:

    * Idealized Influence--emphasizes a leader to be a role model

    * Inspirational Motivation--An ability to motivate and inspire.


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