Cultivating Virtual Competence

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The first wave of COVID-19 forced businesses big and small to flee traditional working spaces and regroup as best they could as dispersed organizations using whatever digital resources were at hand (e.g., Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Slack, etc.). But with the mad scramble now completed, it is time to ponder the long-term opportunities generated by the great displacement of 2020.

When it comes to virtual working trends, nobody knows what the future holds, especially now that a second wave of coronavirus has plunged the world back into a defensive posture. Plenty of employees dream of pre-virus norms, and some major market players are betting on their return. According to a Bloomberg interview with Brookfield Asset Management CEO Bruce Flatt, for example, Brookfield is looking at investing more in commercial real estate partly because it just doesn’t accept that the virus outbreak will permanently reduce demand for workspace in city skyscrapers.

Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus amongst other major market players (e.g., JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley), not to mention big-name technology companies (e.g., Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Salesforce, and Facebook), that the new normal, whatever it turns out to look like, will include a level of virtual work significantly greater than during pre-pandemic times. And there is a good chance that this will be the case even if a vaccine frees organizations to make use of their office spaces without investing in ventilation upgrades and distancing-related redesigns. Keep in mind that virtual work will become much more attractive to many individuals once they are free to spend personal time with friends and family, not to mention with strangers in gyms, restaurants, theatres, and so on.

Virtual work is not something new. During the pre-pandemic period, empowering employees to function remotely had been an option for decades, but employers were held back by many unwarranted concerns that ensured virtual working remained a not-so-successful challenger to the technology-enabled yet geographically concentrated physical office space. Now, thanks to the speed and scale of what was accomplished during the early days of the pandemic, even previously skeptical organizations realize it is indeed possible to operate with a significant number of remote workers. In other words, the business world has had its eyes opened to the opportunities that virtual work represents.

That said, the mass migration to remote working was driven by necessity and, not surprisingly, it has presented significant challenges as a result. Zoom fatigue. Social isolation. Declines in productivity and personal wellbeing. These are real issues that need to be addressed. In other words, how organizations deploy virtual workforces over the long haul needs to be better managed than the mad rush to move everyone online during the early days of the pandemic.

In some cases, as noted in the MIT Sloan Management Review article “Overcoming Remote Work Challenges,” managers can address some issues created by remote work via simple policy changes. Issues related to impersonal communication can be attacked by encouraging team members to at least meet virtually face-to-face. Meeting fatigue can be reduced by only holding scheduled meetings when absolutely necessary while encouraging teams to have quick ad hoc conversations between scheduled meetings. Virtual gatherings with no formal agenda can also help mitigate the loss of passive knowledge sharing.

But when distancing is no longer required for employee safety, decision making around virtual work needs to be based upon a real understanding of the pros and cons for employees and employers alike, not to mention other stakeholders, such as customers. And to seriously assess what will work best for all concerned over the long haul, our research suggests that cultivating virtual competence must come first.

Over several years and across several settings, we have researched how individuals cope with virtual work and what helps them succeed. After conducting three studies that explored the role of virtual competence in higher education, corporate training, and general work settings, we collected and analyzed a total of 794 survey responses that support investing in the development of virtual competence.

As explained in “Individual Virtual Competence and Its Influence on Work Outcomes,” a 2011 academic paper published by the Journal of Management Information Systems, virtual competence is the ensemble of knowledge, skills, and abilities that employees activate to perform effectively in virtual work environments. It forms through education, training, management support, and experience gained operating virtually for professional and personal reasons.

Actively developing virtual competence—which leads to positive changes in behaviours and performance—can help organizations retain the positive outcomes of the pandemic-driven virtual work experiment while mitigating the negative consequences. Indeed, as noted in the 2015 International Journal of Knowledge Management article “Individual Level Knowledge Transfer in Virtual Settings: A Review and Synthesis,” our findings show that higher virtual competence in employees improves both job performance and satisfaction. It also enhances an employee’s ability to learn in online settings, while strengthening their capacity for valuable knowledge sharing and collaboration. For managers, virtual competence ultimately represents a set of skills and abilities that they can target to provide staff with meaningful development and mentoring opportunities.

This article aims to help organizations invest wisely in virtual competence by first explaining how it requires developing at least three capabilities in tandem: virtual self-efficacy, virtual social skill, and virtual media skill. We then highlight some concrete actions that managers can take to help ensure that virtual work meets its potential in their organizations.

Virtual Self-Efficacy

For many, virtual work is new and exciting. But sometimes (if not often) it is intimidating and isolating. Fear and panic can take hold, especially when non-technologically adept employees are required to learn and manage the technologies that enable virtual work on their own. This is where virtual self-efficacy comes into play. Virtual self-efficacy reflects the degree of confidence an employee has in their ability to engage in virtual work. As a result, it plays a significant role in determining how people react to and go about virtual work, and how they will develop and sustain motivation, especially when coping with uncertainty and ambiguity.

People who have high virtual self-efficacy tend to view virtual work and the challenges that come with it in a positive light. This supports the self-motivation and initiative often required to overcome difficulties, making them more likely to be successful at working remotely. Conversely, employees who have low virtual self-efficacy are likely to second-guess their ability to work virtually, especially when the inevitable difficulties emerge. This results in diminished motivation and persistence. When challenged, employees with low virtual self-efficacy do not have the confidence or motivation required to figure out how to cope—they feel even more helpless and can require support just to function.

“Despite holding valuable experience and knowledge that typically enhances the performance of office-based teams, older employees with low virtual efficacy can feel vulnerable and less confident in their ability to perform when working virtually.”

As Forbes contributor Nathan Peart noted earlier this year, the Millennials and digital natives who make up Gen Z crave flexibility and embraced the opportunity to work virtually when the pandemic hit more than Baby Boomers. But while COVID-19 provided an opportunity to give these workers something they consider positive, it also exposed just how divergent levels of virtual self-efficacy are across organizations. This presents significant challenges because older employees—the ones with less confidence in their virtual abilities—tend to hold more senior and supervisory roles.

Despite holding valuable experience and knowledge that typically enhances the performance of office-based teams, older employees with low virtual efficacy can feel vulnerable and less confident in their ability to perform when working virtually. And having team leaders working outside their comfort zones can have a seriously negative influence on direct reports and other co-workers.

Virtual Media Skill

Modern IT provides powerful tools for communication and collaboration, but they are only as good as an individual’s capability to leverage them.

In addition to being able to master these tools, employees with high levels of virtual media skill are comfortable exploring new technology-enabled approaches to workplace tasks. And because they understand the potential and limitations of the various IT tools at their disposal, they are adept at maximizing efficiency by orchestrating the deployment of the right tools for specific tasks. An employee with high virtual media skill, for example, knows how and when to use emojis to add richness and personalize communication with others. In addition to being able to effectively deploy IT tools to support working remotely, these employees are more likely to be able to easily navigate the ocean of shared documents, recorded meetings, and conversation threads that virtual work creates.

Conversely, employees with low virtual media skill have difficulty mastering the tools that can help them accomplish work via collaboration, knowledge sharing, and experimentation with technology. This not only impacts what they can do virtually. It can also influence their virtual self-efficacy and exacerbate their lack of confidence.

Established virtual media skill is instrumental in climbing the learning curve of new media, which supports success in remote working. Employees who have already climbed this curve are able to strategically translate some of their existing know-how to support virtual work, which results in greater exploration and quicker adoption of new productivity-enhancing technologies. But synchronous collaborative tools, though not entirely new, were just in the process of gaining a foothold in organizations when COVID-19 hit. Microsoft Teams, one of the most popular video-conferencing applications used during the pandemic, was only released in 2017. As a result, individual levels of virtual media skill—like levels of virtual self-efficacy—differ greatly across organizations. As things stand, it is hardly a surprise that a seasoned teleconference organizer could easily become a master of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other similar applications, while a seasoned CEO struggles to set up virtual meetings.

Virtual Social Skill

Building and maintaining social relationships is crucial to job performance and satisfaction. Unfortunately, it is one of the most difficult (and most frequently overlooked) tasks when working remotely. As noted in the Harvard Business Review article “A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers,” social isolation is one of the top complaints about virtual work, and it doesn’t just impact extraverts because it attacks the feeling of being connected to others that comes with the daily maintenance of relationships. The authors write: “extraverts may suffer from isolation more in the short run, particularly if they do not have opportunities to connect with others in their remote-work environment. However, over a longer period of time, isolation can cause any employee to feel less ‘belonging’ to their organization and can even result in increased intention to leave the company.”

How isolated employees feel when working remotely, of course, depends a lot on their level of virtual social skill, which supports the ability to form and maintain new relationships online. Here, once again, younger workers have an advantage since they are often very well versed in both this type of relationship building and online etiquette. Familiar with the language and conventions of the virtual world, workers with high virtual social skill do not require face-to-face interactions or traditional social cues to develop rapport within virtual teams. They can, for instance, break the ice fairly quickly using customized avatars to strengthen their own online presence while comfortably reading the virtual room through the avatars and screen names chosen by others.

Employees with low virtual social skill, on the other hand, struggle to connect online. Lacking insight and experience with the conventions of online communication, while also being unfamiliar with the available tools and techniques that can improve virtual connections and relationships, these workers are much like first-time travellers. They can show up in a new country, but since they do not speak the language or understand the culture, they remain silent and unconnected to everything around them.

Simply put, virtual social skill makes up for the loss of face-to-face interaction when working in virtual environments, smoothing pathways for online collaboration while making virtual teamwork enjoyable—and sustainable. And because virtual social skill can attenuate the perceived shortcomings of virtual work, this capability must be nurtured across the organization before any remote workforce can achieve its full potential. Unfortunately, and ironically, many corporate policies actively work against building this capability. For example, bans on social media and rules that discourage the use of company technology to share informal communications—such as jokes—work against the development of this critical skill.

As discussed above, virtual competence is an ensemble set of three things: self-efficacy, media skill, and social skill. Each plays a key role in determining how well an employee functions in virtual environments, which reflect both an organization’s technology and its work practices. Figure 1 illustrates a conceptual roadmap to developing virtual competence. While the roadmap is simple, it is important to appreciate the reciprocal interactions of each of the map’s three elements, which influence and are influenced by one another.

Figure 1: The Role of Virtual Competence in Virtual Work

Figure 1: The Role of Virtual Competence in Virtual Work

Virtual environments and virtual competence have a reciprocal, two-way relationship. On one hand, virtual environments demand that an individual engages their virtual competence to do work while offering opportunities for virtual competence to develop (for instance, social media enables a marketer to reach customers on a personal level and to learn how to make them stay engaged with the company’s products and services). On the other hand, an individual’s competence in dealing with virtual environments constrains or unleashes the potential of such environments (if no one can think beyond banners or traditional targeted ad placement in social media, then innovative ways to interact with customers—such as aligning with social influencers and streamers—are not likely to be developed).

In relation to behaviour and performance, virtual competence affects how well employees can perform, while actual performance and feedback about how an employee performs support the development of virtual competence. A brand marketer’s success on Instagram, for example, comes with direct performance feedback in the form of likes and follows, which reinforce the development of virtual self-efficacy, virtual social skill, and virtual media skill. Finally, while virtual environments expect or proscribe certain behaviours and outcomes, employees’ past behaviours at the same time become part of the environments and may change them (social media platforms adjust their practices, ad platforms, and feature availability based on marketers’ behaviours and actual performance results).

These triadic relationships emphasize the dynamic and situated nature of virtual competence, which needs ongoing finetuning. One key finding in our research is that people develop virtual competence through experience gained at home as well as in the workplace. And since this is the digital age, that means most employees already possess virtual competence to some degree. But while talking to family via Skype can help an employee log in to Zoom workplace meetings, our research also indicates that the general level of virtual competence that exists today is not sufficient for the large-scale adoption of virtual work, which we expect to continue to live up to its potential. As a result, instead of leaving employees to their own devices, managers need to intervene and help employees master the capabilities required to improve the performance and wellbeing of remote employees.

Thriving virtually means placing greater emphasis on the thoughtful design of virtual environments and education and training in order to support their use. Leaving people behind is not an option. In order to enrich the experience of employees and retain the responsibility for developing staff, managers need concrete actions that they can take. Our research suggests taking the following several avenues:

First, assess the current state. Start by evaluating each employee’s current level of virtual competence to determine strengths and opportunities for development, including their self-awareness of where they stand. Then create a customized action plan.

Because employees have unique experiences, dispositions, and preferences, virtual competence does not manifest in a one-size-fits-all fashion. Virtual self-efficacy, virtual social skill, and virtual media skill do not have to vary in concert, though sometimes they do. One can be confident in working virtually based on past experiences and familiar tools, and yet lack the technical skill required to tackle a new platform or the social skill needed to create collaborative relationships with new and unfamiliar colleagues. Therefore, the assessment process must tap into all three domains of virtual competence to be useful.

When assessing virtual competence in a specific role or job requirement (e.g., project management in a technology firm as opposed to, say, portfolio management at a major investment bank), it is beneficial to imagine a desired profile of attributes in terms of knowledge and expertise. What skills are essential to virtual work here? Would virtual media skill be critical in this setting if Zoom is the sole platform and has been used for years? Asking questions like this helps contextualize virtual competence and direct development efforts.

Managers should monitor and provide feedback on these various attributes in informal and formal collaboration, communication, and work skills. We have used survey scales in our research for quantitative analysis, but other instruments such as interviews and non-obtrusive observations are all good methods to get a sense of employees’ competence levels.

Notably, virtual competence is not a static trait but is dynamic and responsive to virtual environment changes and actual work experiences. People are constantly learning, so frequent attention to (and feedback on) elements of employees’ virtual competence will enhance their self-awareness, motivation, and perseverance, eventually leading to better learning and performance outcomes.

Second, assess the technology toolkit and media available to employees and make changes to support their work. The tools picked up to meet the urgent needs of continuing to operate may not be the most effective tools to use in the long term. New innovative technologies are launched frequently, including ones that aim to overcome the lack of social presence that exists in technologies like Zoom and Webex, so keep on the lookout for advances. A systematic approach to this that also attends to how employees can develop and use their virtual competence to achieve performance goals is likely to generate more favourable outcomes.

The fit between technology and employees (and their tasks) is a well-recognized factor in successful IT implementations. And this applies to the virtual world just as much as it does to working in an office. So, while it is important to explore cutting-edge tools to support virtual working, it is equally important to ensure that the solutions you implement will actually serve the needs of remote employees.

Virtual social skills and strong virtual self-efficacy can provide the resources employees need to overcome some technology deficiencies. But as the history of failed technology implementations shows, a long learning curve can easily prevent adoption by mistargeted end users. Keep in mind that not everyone needs to take full advantage of all available functions. Since employee success is linked to their overall virtual competence (and not just tools available), offering variety that enables employees to decide which tools to use (and to what extent certain tools are used) can be beneficial. For managers, the key is to make sure that employees have what they need and what they prefer, while at the same time maintaining a clear vision of the technological future of the workplace.

Third, cultivate social interactions. This runs contrary to standard practice, but consider nurturing some non-excessive social interactions during work time to foster social awareness and connection between isolated employees. Giving displaced workers opportunities to virtually mingle is of great value to the development of virtual competence, because it is not just about knowing what to do and how to do certain things. Virtual competence requires being able to relate to colleagues. And providing a “virtual watercooler” environment will help employees forge ties while opening the door to peer-based learning and facilitating the utilization of social learning strategies.

One interesting finding from our research is that people develop virtual competence from daily life activities almost as much as from work-related activities. And even if the virtual employee interactions that you cultivate involve no shop talk, the mere act of interacting itself is helpful because employees are, in a sense, practicing their virtual media and social skills.

Also, keep in mind that formal training cannot anticipate all the nuances of the virtual environment or the challenges employees will face. As highlighted in the Information Systems Journal article “IT-Mediated Social Interactions and Knowledge Sharing: Role of Competence-Based Trust and Background Heterogeneity,” numerous studies have highlighted the benefits of social ties in terms of sharing knowledge and learning valuable work behaviours. As a result, social connections are particularly beneficial to co-workers who have never met in a face-to-face office setting.

Fourth, provide formal opportunities to help employees learn virtual media and social skills. Employee virtual self-efficacy will strengthen with successful experiences, formal IT support, and access to examples of successful virtual work.

As shown by research into how workers cope with the challenges of telecommuting, remote employees gain greater confidence through training when they have more exposure to the new environment, have the opportunity to observe effective colleagues, are able to experiment, and have a way to evaluate themselves.

In addition to covering the basics, formal training with respect to virtual social skill should cover areas that may be overlooked or uncomfortable to discuss in casual interactions. Drinking a beverage with the microphone on can interfere with a Zoom meeting, while leaving the camera off diminishes one’s social presence. However, some may think it impolite to try to correct these behaviours in others or may assume the related consequences are too trivial to correct. Addressing the uncomfortable stuff in formal training allows organizations to maximize the opportunities that virtual work affords.

Attention to details such as these in training can be an element of best practices of virtual etiquette. A well-designed training program equips employees with a comprehensive understanding of what virtual work entails in their immediate environments and how to cope with it. And it would be even better if some of its components were conducted online, taking advantage of the benefits of learning by doing.

Finally, assist employees in noticing and using both personal and social learning strategies. Virtual employees often do things on their own, including learning. Many training programs give employees a lot of control to self-pace their learning and hence rely on self-regulation (ability to be self-motivated and self-controlled) for success. Employees can choose when to start, how fast to go, and whether to seek help from trainers and colleagues. These are desirable attributes of online training, as they allow flexibility and fit the distributed nature of virtual work (e.g., employees cannot always be in a learning session together due to time-zone differences). The drawback with less structure, of course, is that many people will procrastinate or give up on training at the first obstacle. Therefore, managers need to motivate employees to actually complete training programs. Gamification seems promising as an effective and fun way to keep employees engaged in training, but there are other approaches.

As noted in the 2012 Journal of Management Information Systems article “The Effects of Self-Regulated Learning Processes on E-Learning Outcomes in Organizational Settings,” employees typically use one of two sets of strategies in self-regulated online learning environments: personal and social. Those who prefer personal learning strategies try to complete learning tasks on their own, while those who prefer social learning strategies are more likely to seek help from trainers and peers.

Our research indicates that both strategies work for acquiring know-what, or factual knowledge, but they have different effects on skill development and satisfaction. Social self-regulated learning strategies contribute to learner satisfaction, but not skill development; and personal self-regulated learning strategies have the opposite effect. To keep employees happy (which promotes motivation and persistence) while also ensuring learning outcomes, managers should note that online learning needs to provide both modes of activities and they should monitor how employees go about online learning so that they can encourage a healthy balance between personal and social learning strategies.

Since moving online in an emergency, our eyes have been opened to the opportunities that remote workforces represent. But to maximize them, we must re-think how we manage and train virtual employees. The first step is to develop and manage virtual competence across organizations. Virtual competence can raise employee job performance and satisfaction, but management needs to step up and make it happen.

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