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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.

Slightly-to-moderately overqualified workers are more likely to be valuable and to reimagine their duties in ways that advance their institutions. Getty Images

You're a rocket scientist. You've worked for NASA. You won a Nobel Prize. Shouldn't your qualifications give you an edge on a software developer job?

According to typical hiring practice, the answer is no. You might not even get an interview for a job sweeping the floor. That's because, for years, research has warned that hiring applicants with too much experience or too many skills will saddle you with employees who don't appreciate their jobs.

Now there's good news for rocket scientists and others who happen to be overqualified for their work. According to a groundbreaking new study coauthored by Rice Business professor Jing Zhou, workers who are slightly to moderately overqualified are actually more likely to be active and creative contributors to their workplace. As a result, they're more likely to be assets. The study adds to a new body of research about the advantages of an overqualified workforce.

Zhou's findings have widespread implications. Worldwide, almost half of the people who work for a living report that they are overqualified for their jobs. That means Zhou's research, conducted with Bilian Lin and Kenneth Law of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, applies to a vast segment of the labor market.

To reach its conclusions, Zhou's team launched two separate studies in China. The first looked at six different schools with a total of 327 teachers and 85 supervisors. The second analyzed an electronic equipment factory with 297 technicians. Both studies revealed a strong link between perceived slight and moderate overqualification and the frequency of "task crafting," that is, expanding the parameters of the work in more innovative and productive ways.

In the school study, teachers who were slightly to moderately overqualified set up new online networks with students and parents. They also rearranged classrooms in ways that made students more engaged and productive. Meanwhile, in the factory, workers took tests to gauge their abilities in complex tasks designing a ship. The ones who were slightly to moderately overqualified built more complex versions that reflected their superior competencies.

The key to both sets of workers' superiority was their impulse to "job craft." Every worker leaves a personal imprint: meeting the bare minimum of criteria, pushing to exceed expectations, innovating or imagining new or more useful ways of getting the job done. Expert "job crafters" turn this impulse into an art. Some redraw their task boundaries or change the number of tasks they take on. Others reconfigure their work materials or redefine their jobs altogether. Still others rearrange their work spaces and reimagine their work procedures in ways that can catapult their productivity upward.

For overqualified workers, Zhou's team found, task crafting is a psychological coping mechanism – a welcome one. Workers want to show their superiors the true level of their skills. Doing so fortifies their self-esteem and intensifies their bonds with the company they work for. Far from being dissatisfied, these overqualified workers are more productive, keen to help their organizations and interested in finding ways to be proud of their work.

So how did the outlook on such workers go from shadowy to brilliant? Past research, it turns out, focused rigidly on the fit between worker experience and a task. It didn't consider the nuanced human motivations that go into working, nor the full range of creativity or flexibility possible in getting a job done.

Thus, older studies cautioned that overqualified workers are likely to feel deprived and resentful. Zhou's research shows the opposite: a statistical correlation between worker overqualification and high job performance.

Organizations do need to do their part for this alchemy to work. Above all, Zhou writes, it's crucial to build a strong bond between worker and institution. This is because workers who identify strongly with their workplace feel more confident that their job-crafting efforts will be well received; those who don't feel this strong bond often feel mistreated and give up the project of crafting their work.

Similarly, companies also need to grant workers flexibility to expand the scope or improve the process of their jobs. The outcome can be the evolution of the entire business in unexpected and often creative ways.

Not all super-qualified workers will be inspired to re-craft their tasks. When the gulf between skills and task is extreme, Zhou writes, workers are bored and job crafting loses its juice as an incentive. For more moderately overqualified employees, however, their expertise should rocket their CVs to the top of the stack. For seasoned workers, the evidence shows, a job is not just a job. It's an adventure in finding ways to be excellent.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Jing Zhou is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.