Shows How Team Makeup, ‘Virtuality’ Affect Social Loafing
March 15, 2016
people dream of working from home. And with today’s technology –
everything from phone calls and email to texting and videoconferences –
maintaining "virtual" communications with the team seems to be easier
But is virtual teamwork productive? Are managers really getting the most
out of their teams when virtuality is involved?
A new Journal of Management study – "When Does Virtuality Really 'Work'?
Examining the Role of Work-Family and Virtuality in Social Loafing" –
argues that productivity and effectiveness of virtual teamwork centers
heavily on the makeup of the team and how that affects accountability.
Researchers conducted two studies, surveying a total of 455 unique
individuals (a mix of mostly nontraditional MBA students and upper-level
undergraduate students) working on 140 team projects. Teams used varying
levels of virtual communication to complete their projects.
Perry, Ph.D., Baylor
Researchers used the data to
determine which team combinations worked best together and which allowed
for the least amount of social loafing, defined by researchers as “the
tendency of individuals to contribute less in a team setting.”
"Under the conditions of higher virtuality, you need people to hold you
accountable, to prevent the virtuality from letting you stray or
'loaf,'" said study co-author Sara Perry, Ph.D., assistant professor of
management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.
Researchers identified and analyzed four team combinations:
• "Busy teams" – made up of only individuals who have high family
responsibility, or non-work obligations
• "Carefree teams" – composed of only people who have few outside
• "High dissimilarity teams" with a majority of "carefree" individuals –
a mix of "busy" and "carefree" people, with the majority being those who
have fewer outside obligations
• "High dissimilarity teams" with a majority of "busy" individuals – a
mix of "busy" and "carefree" people, with the majority being those with
many outside obligations
The study shows that the two team combinations that best command
accountability and reduce social loafing are: “Carefree teams” and High
dissimilarity teams with a majority of ‘carefree’ individuals
“‘Carefree’ teams largely comprising individuals with few family
responsibilities may actually benefit from increasingly virtual work
modes, experiencing higher cohesion and psychological obligation to one
another and lower levels of social loafing,” researchers said.
For mixed teams, where the majority of teammates are considered
“carefree,” researchers said, “When an employee is ‘busy’ but works with
mostly ‘carefree’ teammates, they may actually 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, such that loafing does not increase as
face-to-face interactions decrease.”
On the flip side, mixed teams with a majority of “busy” teammates and a
minority of “carefree” teammates didn’t fare as well when working
“'Carefree' individuals may not feel socially connected to their ‘busy’
teammates and, in turn, even perceive these ‘busy’ teammates do not
contribute to the team effort as they should,” researchers said.
So what tends to happen in the “busy teams”?
The study showed that “busy teams” – individuals who had high family
responsibility and worked with others who also had high family
responsibility – "reported more social loafing in the team as they
increasingly worked in a virtual capacity."
"These individuals tend to form strong social bonds with each other,
probably because they experience similar life circumstances and stress,"
Perry said. "But even when those social bonds are strong within the
team, family demands seem to often take priority when there’s no
Based on their results, the researchers devoted space in the study to
offer several suggestions for managers who wish to implement virtual
policies. They include:
Establishing clear accountability practices among virtual teammates,
particularly when most members of a team have many family or other
• Providing tools to help employees clearly separate their work and
family lives when working remotely, including learning how to avoid
family distractions (example: time management strategies) and setting
clear boundaries between work spaces and family spaces.
• Considering that employees who have many family responsibilities may
actually work best with dissimilar coworkers when virtuality is high.
In addition to Perry, study coauthors include Emily Hunter, Ph.D.,
associate professor of management, Baylor University’s Hankamer School
of Business; Natalia M. Lorinkova, assistant professor of management,
Georgetown University (formerly of Wayne State University); and Abigail
Hubbard, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor, University of Houston; and
J. Timothy McMahon, Ph.D (deceased), University of Houston.