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Type fast if you want to be a virtual team leader

Staff Writer | July 6, 2017
A new study from the University of Iowa finds that to the fast typist go the leadership spoils.
Working together   A collaborative work setting
The study suggests that the fleet-fingered are more likely to emerge as the leaders of virtual work teams that have members scattered in multiple offices.

"Individuals who can type faster are able to more quickly communicate their thoughts and drive the direction of a team in a collaborative work setting, whereas individuals with lower abilities lag behind their counterparts," says Greg Stewart, professor of management and organizations in the UI's Tippie College of Business and co-author of the study.

More and more American businesses are using virtual teams, where employees from different geographic locations use technology to work together on a project.

While many dispersed work teams use video streaming or talk on the phone, much of their communication still relies on text-based tools, such as email, texting, or instant messaging services.

Past studies have shown leaders emerge differently from virtual teams than they do when team members sit around a conference room table, so that working in a virtual conference room can play an important role in a project's direction and final results.

In the recent study, the research team conducted an experiment that divided 344 participants into four-member teams. Some teams separated all four members into different rooms; some had two in one room, two in another; while some had three in one room and one in another, etc.

Each member then played the role of the leadership team of a Hollywood studio deciding which of several scripts to produce, based on various marketing studies they read. Unless they were in the same room together, the team members communicated only by texting with a computer.

After the experiment, the participants completed a questionnaire, at which time they were asked to rate the leadership ability of their colleagues, among other things.

The survey found that typing ability was positively related to leadership perceptions. Individuals who could type well - taking into account both speed and accuracy -- were more likely to emerge as leaders within the experiment.

"One explanation is that individuals who can type fast are simply able to communicate more information within a given period of time," says Steve Charlier, who led the study as part of his doctoral thesis at the Tippie College and is now an associate professor at Georgia Southern University.

"In turn, adept users of electronic communication are more likely to set strategy, drive conversations, and influence work teams as a whole."

The study also found that physical presence played a role in leadership scores, as team members tended to give higher scores to members who were in a room with them than members in other locations.

The exception was on teams where members were fully dispersed in separate locations, in which case location had no effect on a person's leadership score.

Stewart says this dynamic could make it difficult for team members who are in a location by themselves to emerge as the leader of a team when other members are in the same place.