In the early months of 2020, the coronavirus crisis created the conditions for what has been dubbed “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment” – a chance for office workers around the world to experience first-hand the benefits and drawbacks of forgoing face-to-face teamwork. Collaborating virtually became something that thousands of teams found themselves forced to master overnight.
Neither distributed teams nor virtual collaboration were completely unchartered territory for most office workers, of course. The evolution of global markets normalized video conferencing, online project trackers, and other digital collaboration tools long ago. For many companies, a globally distributed team aligns better with their external environment – helping them to serve clients in foreign markets, work with suppliers in lower-cost manufacturing countries, or cultivate partnerships with a diverse range of global players. On the other hand, a GVT can also serve internal organizational needs – facilitating a more inclusive organizational culture, a wider network of knowledge, or simply optimized productivity across time zones.
While research studies have shown the innovation potential of virtual teams, bringing the ideas together and managing conflicts within a permanent GVT can be challenging. In this post-corona era, one of the most common requests we receive as executive education providers is (virtual) support for managers in navigating virtual leadership. The difficulties that our faculty are currently facing in their teaching mirrors what executives face daily within their teams: how do I monitor and improve engagement during virtual interactions?
A proven strategy for maximizing engagement both online and offline is gamification. Rob Álvarez Bucholska, host of the podcast Professor Game, defines gamification as “the use of game design, game elements, and play for purposes beyond entertainment.” Back in 2019, our team at ESMT Berlin designed a game to do just that – remotely educate executive clients in the art of virtual collaboration. Christened (rather prophetically) “The Virus,” the escape-room-styled game pits executives against imagined cyber criminals. In just 30 minutes, the players must work together and pool their resources to discover clues, solve puzzles, and accomplish tasks in order to stop the cyber attack. The catch? Not everyone is in the same room. Unlike most classic team building challenges, the game does not grant players the luxury of all looking at the same visual or numerical data. Instead, the executives are split into three teams (or “local offices”), each receiving different parts of the puzzle via the in-game app. To succeed, the players must rise to the challenge of sharing this rich contextual information via conference calls only.
One leadership practice that our game explores is leaders’ capacity to either centralize or decentralize decision-making depending on the nature of the task. Some of the in-game challenges are solved much more efficiently when all relevant data is collected and analyzed by just one of the “local offices.” Executives coming from a HQ background typically default to this type of power distribution, both in the game and in their daily business practice. However, other challenges within the game require context from the players’ analogue environment, or a level of creativity that is difficult to centralize. These tasks demand distributed leadership in which dispersed team members in the “local offices” are trusted to contribute independently. In multinational firms the local contexts that team members are working in are often so highly complex and divergent that centralization efforts either lead to an unmanageable degree of complexity or oversimplification. Both can lead to erroneous decisions and team disharmony in both the game and in real-world settings.
Managing a distributed team is especially difficult for leaders during these desynchronized phases – when team members are working independently, leaders are also distanced from the task. This can cause some level of anxiety for those used to having more direct oversight, prompting one of two extremes: unnecessary meddling in the work of local offices (e.g., excessive HQ report requests) or an overly laissez-faire form of leadership with teams working in divergent directions.
Virtual leadership requires above all a sensitivity to the merits of both desynchronized and synchronized work. Leaders need to invest their time and efforts into building crystal-clear structures and processes around collaborative projects to help manage this balance. These frameworks should answer simple questions such as who is doing what and when; who is supporting; whether any local circumstances will affect delivery; if changes are predicted, and what the potential impact of those changes will be. These conversations about macro-processes can easily fall by the wayside when there are outward pressures on time or resources, but their importance cannot be overestimated.
Our executive participants often fail to complete the challenges set by the game’s cybercriminals within the allotted time. However, losing a fictional battle creates fruitful ground for vivid discussions about real-life leadership practices in a virtual world.