Houston Voices

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.

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.