Traditionally, hierarchies have helped formalize the power structures embedded in different roles within an organization. In a virtual context, the formal hierarchical structure is often less visible than it is in face-to-face environments. In the absence of physical markers of rank and hierarchy, such as office locations, parking spaces, desk labels, badges worn, and so on, managers need to rely on other bases of power to continue to influence and manage employees in technology-mediated settings.
Although studies have examined virtual work practices through video-based applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, less attention has been paid to text-based platforms such as Slack, Huddle, Ryver, and Flock, among others. Forecasts predict that the market for these collaborative platforms will reach $50.7 billion by 2025. As a result, manager-employee interactions over such platforms are expected to become even more prevalent.
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We conducted a conceptual study to establish the nature of team relationships in a virtual setting. To empirically ground our findings in how manager-employee relationships are sustained, we analyzed interviews with 64 managers as well as the interactions of nearly 1,200 members of a Fortune 500 multinational firm on the Google+ for Business platform.
We found that relational needs play a key role in sustaining manager-employee relationships in virtual environments. The term relational needs refers to the drivers of social exchange between managers and employees. These drivers may include information, task-specific resources, recognition, leadership, and many other factors. Meeting these needs between managers and employees is not necessarily dependent on hierarchical power. Our research revealed that to be successful in the new world of work, managers cannot depend only on hierarchical position as the basis for providing leadership. They must also recognize the role of relational power in hybrid work.
But First, What Is Relational Power?
Relational power is derived from the ability of an individual to wield influence on others without necessarily being in a formal hierarchical role. For example, a junior sales executive with relational power could successfully influence senior colleagues in various departments to volunteer to participate in a steering group for a new initiative, even if that would require additional time and resources for colleagues. Similarly, within a team setting, an individual who is not the team leader may be able to successfully motivate other team members to exceed an income target.