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Rice University research calls for more ways to measure virtual employee success

As more and more offices have remote workers, managers need to know how to measure virtual employee success. Getty Images

Managers are always hunting for ways to measure performance. They need to know what's succeeding and what's not so they can make adjustments and improve a work team's output. This has led to countless research that looks at ways to measure and boost employee performance. Indeed, one recent study showed there were more than 130 models and frameworks for measuring team performance in the workplace.

But how we do business has been changing in the last two decades. Communication technology and information sharing increasingly has decentralized the workforce. More and more people are working remotely. Consider telecommuters, online messenger services such as Slack and customer service call centers routing their calls across the world. What forces determine how these virtual teams function?

In a recent study, Rice Business professor Utpal Dholakia and colleagues René Algesheimer of the University of Zurich and Călin Gurău of GSCM-Montpellier Business School looked closely at what motivates remote teams and how to measure what they do. They began with a standard input-mediator-output-input model (IMOI) to measure team characteristics such as size, tenure, communication, strategic consensus and intentions. Then they dove further, including expected team performance, actual team performance and past team performance into the equations. Finally, they analyzed the influence of motivational (desire to perform) and rational (shared goals) dimensions.

To conduct the research, Dholakia, Algesheimer and Gurău analyzed professional computer gaming teams, reasoning that such teams work together in highly competitive environments. The gamers' lack of organizational context, meanwhile, eliminated any bias that could be linked to traditional institutional structures such as culture and goals. There was a downside, however: the gaming teams didn't fully replicate the situation of virtual teams in business organizations.

Still, by choosing the European Electronic Sports League (ESL) the researchers were able to pick from more than half a million teams that play in excess of 4 million matches a year. In the end, 606 teams participated in the study by answering a questionnaire in the course of a year. The teams all had stable structures and specific objectives, strategies and training, just like virtual work teams. Data was also collected from the ESL database and included in the model.

The findings: most studies do not consider expected and actual team performance in their calculations. This is important because research shows a strong link between expectation and performance. Including both sets of results can help managers choose the right steps to enhance team strategy and effectiveness. (The study did not analyze issues such as trust, training, conflict resolution or leadership, areas Dholakia recommends for further research).

The framework devised by Dholakia and his colleagues gives researchers a more precise way to analyze remote or international teamwork. It also could help guide managers in examining a team's cultural diversity, and how that might affect output. In a time when the workplace is growing ever less tangible, Dholakia's model is a sturdy tool to measure what's happening out there.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Utpal Dholakia is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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With this new joint effort, Syzygy is one step closer to commercial scale of its decarbonization technology. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

A Houston tech company has joined forces with a nonprofit to test a new sustainable fuel production process.

The project is a joint effort from Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics and nonprofit research institute RTI International and sponsored by Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. Based in the RTI facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, the six-month pilot is testing a way to convert two potent greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) — into low-carbon-intensity fuels, which have the potential to replace petroleum-based jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

"This demonstration will be the first of its kind and represents a disruptive step in carbon utilization. The sustainable fuels produced are expected to quickly achieve cost parity with today's fossil fuels," says Syzygy CEO Trevor Best in a news release. "Integrating our technology with RTI's Fischer-Tropsch synthesis system has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation without requiring major fleet modifications."

According to Syzygy, the pilot is a step toward being able to scale the process to a commercial-ready Syzygy e-fuels plant.

"By making minor adjustments in the process, we also expect to produce sustainable methanol using the same technology," Best continues.

An independent research institute, RTI International's focus is on improving the human condition. The multidisciplinary nonprofit seeks to support science-based solutions like Syzygy's technology, which has already proven its scale-up capabilities in earlier testing.

Through the partnership, RTI will assist Syzygy with process design and systems integration for the pilot-scale demonstration. Once it reaches commercial scale, the technology is expected to turn millions of tons of CO2 per year to produce sustainable fuels.

"We are excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Syzygy to test and assist in the scale-up of this promising technology," says Sameer Parvathikar, Ph.D., the director of the Renewable Energy and Energy Storage program in RTI's Technology Advancement and Commercialization business unit. "This work aligns with our capabilities, our goals of helping de-risk and commercialize novel technologies, and our vision to address the world's most critical problems with science-based solutions."

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