Working virtually is just as effective at developing interpersonal skills as face-to-face methods, according to a new study released this week by top US business school academics.
Disruptive technology has opened up new channels of communicating and working – but critics say that by connecting with teams virtually, people miss out on the interpersonal skills and non-verbal communications that are essential in business.
The new research, published in scientific journal PLOS ONE, focused on “collective intelligence” – the theory that people usually achieve more by working effectively together in teams than on their own.
The study researched into whether social perceptiveness could be gleaned through purely electronic communication by testing groups of people that communicated both face-to-face and entirely online.
Participants in the face-to-face group used methods including one called “reading the mind in the eyes”, in which participants looked at pictures of other people’s faces and tried to guess their emotions. The online group was limited to communicating through text chat and was prevented from seeing or speaking to group members during the tests.
While the face-to-face group could use the visual cues, those in the online only team were able to successfully judge teammates by reading between the lines of what they were typing.
The researchers found that there was no significant difference between both groups in developing interpersonal skills and reading the emotions of their teammates.
This is a battle won for advocates of online learning and remote working – both of which are gaining traction in business and education.
Michael O’Leary, teaching professor of leadership, management, and innovation at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, said: “The vast majority of firms and large NGOs rely on virtual teams for at least some of their work.”
Interpersonal skills in particular are viewed as essential to work successfully in groups within organisations, both on and offline.
Marc Wells, principal learning technologist at Imperial College Business School, said that students are able to work together virtually as effectively as they can in person.
But he added that they need to think about what software best meet their needs and their preferences, as well as when they can meet, how often, how long meetings should be as well as how they’ll contact and communicate with each other outside set meetings.
“They also need to think about how they’ll monitor progress on their work and ensure that they are on target to deliver what they need to deliver,” he said.
Previous studies have found that collective intelligence was closely correlated to the average social perceptiveness of group members, the degree to which people participated equally in conversation, and the number of women in a group. The academic community is split on virtual team working.
Milton Sousa, director of MBA programs at Rotterdam School of Management, said: “Some of the main challenges of virtual work concerns its limitations in enabling relations to solidify. Another limitation is the inability to capture non-verbal communication forms, which might limit shared understanding.”
But these new findings suggest that Interpersonal skills might be even more important in a technologically connected future.
The study’s authors include David Engel from MIT Sloan School of Management and Anita Williams Woolley from Carnegie's Tepper School of Business.