Teaming in the Time of Covid-19: Understanding how technology affordances can enable collaboration during sudden workplace disruption
Organizations have contemplated and – in some cases – experimented with the idea of remote work for several decades. The spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has enlisted the world in an involuntary and instantaneous beta-test of remote work at scale. In the span of a few weeks, shelter-in-place orders have come down from government agencies in the US and elsewhere requiring organizations to transition nearly their entire workforces to remote work arrangements instantaneously. Undoubtedly, these rapid and wholesale shifts to remote work arrangements are leveraging recent advances in the development of digital collaboration platforms that enable teams to communicate via text, audio, and video and to share and edit documents in real-time. However, until now, we have not had the need (or the will) to experimentally – and at scale – assess the ability of digital collaboration platforms to support an all remote workforce. The pandemic offers us an unprecedented opportunity to understand how the sudden switch to remote collaboration presents challenges and opportunities to distributed teams. Thus, this research seeks to answer fundamental questions about how workers organize for remote work before, during, and after a sudden shift to remote collaboration. This includes exploring the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on organizations, even after returning to the new normal.
This project draws insights from studying workers. It leverages surveys (including questions about their social networks), HR data, as well as data from collaboration server logs that have been collected over the past year, prior to the pandemic, from four organizations. These data will be augmented by collecting new data from these same organizations to understand remote work during and post pandemic. These include surveys, HR data, collaboration server logs, as well as qualitative interviews. Taken together these longitudinal data will help us understand how the observed shifts in patterns of teamwork can be explained by the particular ways in which workers utilize technology before, during and after the COVID-19 crisis. It will explore how work-life blending and burnout differentially impact remote workers. Furthermore, to assess changes in how employees collaborate on and around digital platforms before, during, and after COVID-19 disruption, data will be collected that examine when and what workplace policies were put in place by organizations or other local, state or national agencies in response to COVID-19. These include decisions for partial evacuation of offices, total shelter-at-home, lay-offs for certain categories of employees, leave without pay for others, mandatory use of certain technologies, as well as phased re-entry back into the office. As such, the research project will advance our fundamental understanding of the manner in which digital collaboration technologies provide challenges and opportunities to teams collaborating – including the most extreme scenario – remotely. It will also provide an evidentiary base for how workplace related policy interventions impact the use of technology for teamwork. Results from this research will contribute to generating policy recommendations about how technologies should be used to enable collaboration at key transition points during a future crisis of this magnitude.
The Next Normal for Teaming: Transitioning Out of COVID-19
Though remote work has grown in popularity for several decades, it has never been more critical than in the aftermath of COVID-19. Many countries were forced to order shelter-in-place or social distance to slow the spread of the disease forcing organizations to rapidly transition to remote work. While the onset of COVID-19 was disruptive, it has provided a worldwide, if involuntary, quasi experiment. The shift in work was unprecedented in terms of scale (forcing many organizations to operate completely remotely) and scope (affecting organizations across the globe). Individuals were forced to adapt to their new work arrangements, which changed how they go about their day-to-day jobs and other life activities and responsibilities. However, even while we come to terms with the “new normal,” we have the opportunity – and indeed an obligation – to consider what practices and experiences that emerged as part of the ongoing quasi experiment we may want to retain, by virtue of their efficacy, as we transition out of COVID-19. In other words, what can we learn from our experiences in the “new normal” that will help shape the “next normal” as we transition out of COVID-19? To answer this question, this project will use survey and server-side data collected as workers team together using digital technologies at different points through the pandemic.
This project is rooted in a “teaming affordances” perspective. The sudden shift to all-virtual meetings, and use of digital communication technologies, has heightened workers’ awareness of the affordances provided by technologies, for example, to be kept updated on what their colleagues are doing (visibility affordance) or what they know and the nature of their relationships with one another (association affordance). Technology affordances serve as the foundation for teamwork, enabling essential behaviors such as boundary spanning, leading collectively, and motivating. We investigate the extent to which a heightened awareness of the affordances provided by digital collaboration technologies has the ability to nudge workers to engage in teaming behaviors that lead to better team outcomes. Insights from this investigation will make it possible to identify and isolate practices that were triggered by the sudden shift to remote work during COVID-19, but which we must consider retaining as we transition out of COVID-19 and workers have the ability to physically return to the workplace. This project leverages teaming data collected by the project team during and prior to COVID-19, expanding these sources to include a new wave of data collection once in-person work is again possible (“The Next Normal”). Additionally, the project will complement longitudinal field surveys with semi-structured interviews and two waves of a general survey of workers. The project will apply a range of advanced network analytics, including exponential random graph models (ERGMs) and relational event modeling (REM). The interview data will be analyzed using grounded theory methodologies in order to identify practices that help and hinder teaming. This mixed-method longitudinal design makes it possible to explore research questions and test hypotheses about virtual teaming that advance fundamental knowledge on what we can learn from this forced quasi experiment on virtual teaming in a crisis that should inform better teaming practices and outcomes as we transition out of the pandemic.
Contractor, N. (2021, March). Networking Like a Star During a Crisis. Speaker at the Northwestern Master of Science in Communication (MSC) Webinar.
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