A look into three critical HR topics: organizational behavior, culture, and virtual teams

Ravi Gajendran has a PhD in organizational behavior, and his work has been published in the likes of the Harvard Business Review, the Journal of Applied Psychology, and Personnel Psychology. His area of expertise? Telecommuting. 

We interviewed Gajendran and asked him about some of the most critical HR topics today - organizational culture and the virtual work-from-home environment. 

What is organizational behavior, and how does it differ from organizational culture? How can organizational behavior help leaders and impact personal success?

Organizational behavior consists of topics that deal with understanding the behavior of individuals, groups and department units within organizations. When we say "behavior," this is of different forms: when we come to our office, talk to our colleagues, send emails, interact with others in meetings, but also when we are doing our jobs. All these things are considered to be behaviors.

Organizational behavior is the behavior of your employees in the organization. You want that behavior to be directed toward the success of the organization. You want to study behaviors, such as teamwork, leadership and communication that help the organization succeed. At the same time, you want to study behaviors that hurt the organization, which could be gossip, sabotage, stealing office supplies or other counterproductive work behaviors.

Anything that people do in organizations–when and how employees act, talk and communicate–all falls under the topic of behavior. This is what organizational behavior studies as a discipline: the typical and important behaviors for you personally, as well as an organization, such as leadership, motivation and understanding performance.

In addition to being able to access and evaluate performance, you need to be able to set goals, work in a team, manage a project and manage a team in a way that team members are successful. These are all aspects of organizational behavior that are typically covered in an academic course on the topic. What is taught in a class about organizational behavior are things like,

  • How do you negotiate effectively in the workplace?
  • How do you build professional networks?
  • How do you get things done in an organization?
  • How do you create psychological safety in teams? (so that people feel comfortable speaking up).

This is what organizational behavior is about: how people behave within organizations when they interact with one another, communicate with one another, work together and how they care about the culture of the organization.

Culture is something that emerges out of people's behavior and organizations. Culture is not something that you can take and put in a bottle. You can't physically hold on to it. Culture is something that you see when people are going about their daily lives within organizations and interacting with one another.

Culture is a part and emerges from organizational behavior – people behaving and interacting within an organization.

To be effective in organizations, you can be effective as an employee, a leader or a manager. To do that, you need to think, "What are you trying to achieve in organizations?" All organizations want their employees to have good performance and be good citizens, such as being courteous, helpful, and going above and beyond. To understand how you can get employees to be effective, you need to teach them what they are supposed to deliver, which would be a personal success for the employee in addition to organizational success for the organization.

When employees do their job well, this is the key criteria for success in an organization. Hence, organizational behavior allows us to understand what drives people to work effectively. A part of this is motivation: Do people have the drive to work hard, persist and deliver on their jobs? Another part is the opportunity: Are you giving employees the opportunity to display their talents and channel their hard work toward something? Ability is also a factor in this: Are you training employees well and providing them with the required resources and tools?

If you put all this together, in totality, leadership involves understanding these parts. Leadership is all about understanding how you can energize the employees and set goals. How can you give structure by providing direction and vision? In addition to giving a sense of purpose and meaning for their job, their end goal should be for them to not only understand their work, but want to do it. 

All of these elements are directed toward organizational behavior. If you understand this, whether you are an employee or a leader, it will allow you to be more effective in your job. It permits one to understand one's behavior within an organization and better understand why you are doing what you are doing. This also allows you to manage others better. These are pathways to personal effectiveness.

What are the key elements to success with virtual teams? How do you create a great culture when a team is remote?

The key idea to recognize in virtual teams is that you don't have the elements that are available in a face-to-face setting. Your team members are in a different location, and you don't see them very often. You are communicating using video calls and telephone calls. With this, it's then harder to build trust, reports and connections with workers.

Often to accomplish a task, share information, insights, and background context, you need to trust other people and feel comfortable sharing information. It's harder to do this when working with virtual teams because of the lack of human connection. You're not going out for coffees, lunch or dinner; you don't know that other person that well. Virtual communication works as a primary means to discuss work, and there isn't time to socialize. By doing this, one cannot see the culture of different individuals and how they socialize in face-to-face situations.

Also, the medium itself, the communication channel, does not lend itself easily for socializing and building those bonds. Virtual teams take longer to accomplish their work than face-to-face teams because it takes longer to build those connections and relationships.

There is also a greater scope for misunderstanding or conflict because you don't have those social relationships.

In addition to this, the location of the employee is something to note. One may send an email to a coworker, and they take an extensive amount of time to reply and think, "Why is this person so lazy and not answering?" It could be because there is a holiday in their country, a traffic jam or different time zone that doesn’t correlate with other employees.

It's easy if you don't know the other person's context to misunderstand them and misunderstand what it is that they are doing. For all these reasons, it's hard to manage a virtual team. Equally, working in time zones needs to be fair; one who lives in a different country can't work in the same time zone. All these issues come up in virtual teams, and addressing them is how you can successfully build a virtual team.

You can build trust by bringing everyone together face-to-face, and allow them to work together, then allow them to work virtually. In a couple of months, set up a new meeting at the office to have face-to-face interaction, like a meeting or dinner. Another way the virtual world works well is if the virtual team members already had some preexisting relationships. If they have worked together on some of the projects, they have some trust built-in. Once you bring them together virtually, it's easier for them to coordinate, unlike when you put a bunch of strangers together to work.

It does take time to understand, trust and learn how the other person works. You have to recognize whether your virtual team works successfully to build and create a particular project. Try to keep people who work well together virtually for multiple projects or future assignments. By doing this, you don't lose those connections that they have worked so hard to build.

There are certain fields and personalities in which virtual teams may suit the profession or the individual. Whereas, for other professions and individuals, this may be difficult. If you are working in a creative design firm, creativity is formed by talking to others. Having those random conversations is the source of new ideas. Most of the time, when employees get together to talk about their work, others can give a new suggestion. Which can form and trigger a new idea for you. These collaborations and connections are where creative ideas stem from. Hence, the interaction would be the aspect that is missing in virtual settings. Therefore, being in a virtual setting for a creative design job perhaps may not be ideal. It's a combination of virtual and face-to-face that would work best.

One can't know what will occur in the foreseeable future, but we can see a growth of virtual teams and people's ability to work remotely and still be effective.

Before the pandemic, there was virtual work and arrangements, but it was not as widespread. It has become more widespread now that people realize that they don't need to be in their office to do their job.

Organizations realize that perhaps a majority of the staff can do their work from home and get their job done. What will shift around is the mindset of who can and who cannot work virtually. People are going to be receptive to be working together on virtual teams. In addition to a majority of the meetings that can be done virtually, many realize that there are a lot of other things we don't need to be in an office for. People are and will mostly be more open to the idea of connecting and working virtually. This isn't implying that everyone will work from home all the time. It could be that employees could work from home one or two days a week. As more people get used to working remotely, it will become easier to set up virtual teams and get people to get their work done. Telecommuting, virtual teams and remote work - the pandemic will accelerate people's use of these tools to communicate.

The dynamic of promotion is an element that may change due to the virtual setting, as multiple variables are involved.

If the company says that you have the choice to work in the office or at home, those who chose to show up and work in the office may get promoted at a higher rate than those who work virtually. If you are on a video call with the department's higher members, they may see you working hard, but it won't be as visible as if you were to be in the office. There is a small advantage for people who are more visible, who show up at the office location. It depends on the company and the culture, whether virtual teams may be building the company, whereas companies that need face-to-face interaction.

In some contexts, your performance is not the objective. People have seen what you have done, as it can be measured very easily. But in other roles, performance is not easily measured. In those roles especially, Zoom or FaceTime would be important to establish that you work hard. If the manager is showing up to the office, it makes sense for you to show up in the office at least one or two days a week to show that you care about your work and want to build a stronger connection within your organization.

About the Author:

Ravi Gajendran is an associate professor in the Department of Global Leadership and Management at FIU Business. Gajendran's research interests include virtual work arrangements such as telecommuting, virtual teams, distributed teams and computer-mediated communication. He has a broad interest in studying teams, focusing on how teams can leverage communication technologies to capitalize on diversity.

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