When it comes to success at work, everyone understands the importance of IQ, or one’s intelligence quotient or general mental ability. Alongside IQ is EQ, meaning emotional quotient, and equating to emotional intelligence, which is still widely acclaimed as a key ingredient for success in modern workplaces, especially for knowledge workers.
Now, in the “new normal” of hybrid work, I’ve found yet another “Q” to keep in mind. This new metric is VQ—or the “virtual quotient,” meaning virtual intelligence.
I did a deep dive into the research to uncover the most up-to-date, evidence-based guidance on what exactly virtual intelligence entails. Many of us have lived out an experiential crash course on virtual leadership and virtual teaming during the pandemic. Now, a worthwhile decision is to step back and evaluate our opportunities for development by looking closer at our prowess in virtual spaces.
The significance of virtual intelligence
Before examining the four dimensions of virtual intelligence, I will first explain exactly why virtual intelligence is important.
Virtual work presents a paradox in that it makes work more efficient while simultaneously making it more complex. Virtual work is a continuous spectrum versus a rigid framework of “this” or “that.” In some settings, everyone is working 100% virtually. In other settings, only a few employees are completely virtual. And in many cases, there is a mix of colocated and virtual colleagues, working in a hybrid environment. Overall, virtual work is dynamic, so that a group of colleagues might have a different virtual arrangement given the day. Some days, colleagues may need to be on site; while other days, it may make sense to spend time with projects away from the noise of an office environment.
Its evolving nature and variation is what makes virtual work so complex. Virtual work entails using an assortment of tools to facilitate teamwork. With this increase in tools comes more approaches to use each well or not so well. Two virtual-intelligence dimensions address this challenge: establishing guidelines and effective execution.
In some respects, it’s easier to find time to talk when we are working face-to-face in an office. We can stop by anytime to check in, ask a question, or carve out a meeting time with a coworker. But when working virtually, it’s harder to tell if and when colleagues are available. Further, it’s harder to decide which communication medium is ideal, given the circumstances. Along those lines, there are three things you can do to establish communication guidelines with your colleagues:
- Frequency and cadence: Proactively discuss how frequently and the exact times you’ll communicate with colleagues. In many cases, impromptu conversations are enough. In other circumstances, a regular check-in is preferred.
- Information-sharing: Proactively determine what medium will be used to share information, what format you will use for sharing, and where the shared information will be located for future access. We spend far too much time searching for information created together with our colleagues.
- Fitting a medium: Proactively discuss with colleagues what medium you’ll agree to use for different types of tasks. Here’s a quick guide: Instant message for confirmations or getting set up for more elaborate communication; email for clarifying information and distributing in-depth information; phone calls for complex information where visuals don’t add value; video for complex information where visuals add value; and face-to-face for synchronous activities.
Working successfully in a virtual world
When working virtually with colleagues, several behaviors are essential to ensuring a high-quality experience.
- Virtual experience: Face-to-face communication is the most stable. All others have opportunities for glitches. It’s important to speak up about your virtual experience, also to inquire about the virtual experience of others. Confirming audio and video quality or the ability to view on-screen material, etc., can go a long way in maintaining a high-quality experience.
- Virtual medium adjustment: Sometimes, conversations with colleagues don’t go as expected—we need more time, information, or clarity. Speak up, and make adjustments in the moment. Don’t wait and let the experience get watered down.
- Virtual information-recording: Speak up at the beginning of sessions with colleagues to determine, as a group, how information created during the session will be recorded and where it will be stored. A great deal of information is lost during virtual sessions, primarily because there is no cohesive plan in place.
Another challenge in virtual work is that it’s harder to build trust. Decades of virtual research illustrate that this is the case. Importantly, this obstacle is not insurmountable. When done right, virtual interaction acts as an efficient substitute for face-to-face encounters. This challenge sets the stage for the other two virtual intelligence dimensions—building relational trust and building competence-based trust.
How to build relational trust
Building relational trust, whereby you look out for each other’s best interest, is a challenge in virtual settings. This is primarily because there are fewer opportunities for informal, impromptu conversations. Virtual conversations tend to be highly structured, typically in increments of 30 or 60 minutes. Further, there’s never enough time to fit it in the professional conversations, let alone the personal conversations that facilitate relational trust.
Why is this relational trust so important? It’s a critical team attribute that guides the way for many team processes including psychological safety, information exchange, and constructive controversy. Simply put, teams will fail without relational trust.
- Allocate time: Building relationships takes time. The process is an investment. Although it might seem supplemental to the “real work,” it’s actually the foundation that allows the real work to be done, well.
- Share more candid information: Be thoughtful and strategic about the information you share with others. When given the opportunity, use it wisely to get just personal enough.
- Create opportunities for others to share personal information: Never put others on the spot. Not everyone wants to share. Instead, consistently “create opportunities” for colleagues to share as much as they are comfortable sharing.
How to build competence-based trust
It’s also important to build competence-based trust, which entails trusting that each other is capable and reliable. When working remotely, it’s more challenging to get a clear view of where and how colleagues add value to the organization. It’s also easier to “drop the ball” when communication is scattered across virtual mediums.
- Clarify your competence: Don’t hesitate to explain to colleagues what you believe to be your key skills or abilities. This ensures that others understand how you will best contribute to team efforts. Share your experiences, but do so without ego. There’s nothing worse than the colleague who introduces themselves to new team members with a laundry list of accomplishments.
- Timely responses: The easiest way to degrade competence-based trust is to be slow to respond. Set expectations upfront on turnaround times. Worst-case scenario, always acknowledge receipt and then articulate existing priorities.
- Keep others up-to-date: Another common challenge with virtual interaction is the lack of closure on specific conversations. Did they see my message? Are they ignoring me? Are they still working through the next steps? Giving regular updates is paramount.
Virtual interaction at work has become ubiquitous. Although many of us are already quite comfortable interacting with colleagues through Slack or Microsoft Teams, most of us have not taken stock of the skills necessary for the future of work. It’s time to develop the skills that matter—and VQ, or virtual intelligence, will soon be at the top of the list. Those companies and individuals that hone their virtual skills will rise to the top in tomorrow’s work environment.
Scott Dust, PhD, is a management professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University, and the chief research officer at Cloverleaf, a technology platform facilitating coaching for everyone.