Building resilient globally distributed IT teams

A cautionary note about the challenge of managing increasing tensions in globally distributed IT teams during major work role transitions.
Rennie Naidoo
By Rennie Naidoo, Professor in Information Systems (IS) at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Johannesburg, 25 Feb 2022

Digitally-enabled global business models are disrupting established IT work roles. The rich diversity of digitally-enabled and globally distributed organisational arrangements is changing the nature of IT work.

Advancements in global connectivity and digitisation capabilities are offering better affordances for new forms of global IT work arrangements. At the same time, these technologies and the new business models they enable are disrupting traditional work arrangements and are redefining established IT work roles.

Unhindered by geographical barriers, real-time digital platforms provide organisations in a few emerging countries with new business opportunities in the rapidly-growing IT sector.

However, digital technologies also exacerbate global inequalities in many emerging countries. For example, outsourcing IT enables both large and small or medium companies in advanced and emerging countries to take advantage of lower personnel, software and infrastructure costs.

Many of these organisations are downsizing their IT units by outsourcing parts or all of their IT services and software development needs to specialised providers. They are migrating and eliminating many IT jobs from their own countries.

Meanwhile, some IT providers have become large multinational conglomerates, made up of many subsidiaries and joint venture companies, operating in different distributed modes, from working onsite at the client, to offshore and nearshore locations. Similarly, existing multinational corporations in other industry sectors also operate with multi-unit IT organisations in different locations.

Managing global IT teams requires cultural intelligence to bridge cultural differences

The inter-site coordination, communication and synchronisation of IT work activities in internationally distributed environments are being enabled by sophisticated collaboration technologies.

Globally distributed teams operate using a different mix of virtual and face-to-face contact with local and remote counterparts to foster collaboration across locations and time zones. These distributed modes of IT work are supported by virtual communication and collaboration technologies. For example, enterprise social network sites dramatically alter workplaces and workspaces familiar to IT workers, especially for those who have worked in collocated teams.

A dialogic and collaborative approach is suggested to reconcile the contradictory implications of changing global work arrangements on worker roles.

While technologies have certainly created new IT careers and career paths, technologies also eliminate traditional careers and careers paths. New careers such as cloud engineers at cloud-based IT vendors can eliminate in-house IT workers at client organisations.

Working in globally distributed teams and performing global IT work has also led to the emergence of new work roles and work role expectations of IT workers. For example, new coordination roles such as coordinating experts and multicultural brokers have emerged.

Given the knowledge-intensive nature of most IT work, the role of coordinating experts emerged to address the complexity in knowledge-sharing across geographically dispersed sites. Distributed IT teams also deploy multicultural brokers who are expected to use their cultural intelligence to 'bridge' cultural differences between co-workers and sub-groups separated by geographical distance and other barriers. Managers in onsite-offshore organisations also expect IT workers to adapt quickly. They need to work at a home site in collocated teams and client sites in other countries.

Work role transitions can create a crisis of meaning, identity for global IT workers

These expectations can be very challenging for the typical IT developer working offshore, who has to contend with culture and language barriers and the marked differences in values, norms and behaviour of clients and IT counterparts.

As already alluded to, these differences in shifting global IT work arrangements entail both the material assemblages (eg, physical offices, virtual communication and collaboration technologies) and embodied experiences (eg, collocated teams, virtual teams). These disruptive changes to global IT work arrangements and contradictory work role demands and expectations can intensify work role tensions and create a crisis of meaning for IT workers.

Roles connect status and socially defined expectations with the patterned conduct and relationships that make up a social structure. For example, the chief information officer's role generally includes the chief technology officer, chief security officer, head of DevOps, the software development team, executive team members, end-users and IT vendors.

The psychological contract concept posits that both workers and the organisation have reciprocal obligations. Since a psychological contract is an informal and subjective phenomenon, workers and employers may understand their mutual obligations differently. Another important concept is work role transitions, which refer to changes in a worker's 'status passage' and job content. Rapid work role transitions in global teams can explain why workers struggle to adjust to their new work roles.

Workers in global IT teams may struggle to adjust to their new work role

In many IT environments, role expectations and enactments can be problematic when there is a lack of consensus and incompatibilities among or within work roles. These role incompatibilities can create dissatisfaction as workers desire stable role expectations and compatible role behaviours.

IT workers in global teams arguably experience higher levels of role‐related work stress. Studies have linked role stressors such as role conflict, role novelty, role ambiguity and role overload to high turnover among global IT workers.

We refer to the associated tensions they face, such as technology change (eg, new platform, ownership) and their embodied experiences (eg, work from home, work away from home) as work role tensions.

Work role tensions are influencing the work lives of IT workers in globally distributed digital workplaces in indeterminate, contradictory and dramatic ways. Understanding how workers adapt to disruptive work environments and cope with emerging work role tensions has important practical applications.

Our recent research at the University of Pretoria's School of IT at the Department of Informatics shows that role changes sometimes manifest in a crisis in meaning for IT workers. These workers will resort to resilience strategies to recover or grow from the change. Some workers will bounce back and return to normal. Some will grow stronger. Some will remain unaffected by the disruption, some will engage in persistent resistance, while others will find new work opportunities.

IT leaders should experiment with different resilience strategies

A dialogic and collaborative approach is suggested to reconcile the contradictory implications of changing global work arrangements on worker roles. This should also minimise or alleviate the negative influence of work role tensions on worker experiences and consequently improve IT unit performance.

IT leaders who nurture IT employee relations through a dialogic and collaborative approach can significantly minimise or dampen the negative effects of work role tensions, such as unwanted or undesirable staff turnover, and promote psychological contract fulfilment.

Intense communicative interactions should lead to co-creating a shared understanding which can address the tensions in changing global IT work role transitions. For example, local teams empowered by local IT leaders to participate in some critical decisions seem to show marked improvements in global team and co-worker relationships.

However, one of the downsides of over-emphasising collaboration as a resilience strategy is that it may eventually become a vicious cycle by increasing groupthink among local team members. We need more research to provide insights into how IT leaders can work through work role tensions and strengthen the resilience of their teams in seemingly antagonistic and increasingly complex global IT work arrangements.

However, IT leaders that produce a shared and mutual understanding of the change through richer forms of participation in global IT work are more likely to foster greater team resilience.

* Based on a paper presented with co-author Jean-Pierre van der Merwe at the Forty-Second International Conference on Information Systems, Austin 2021.