Interview with Dr. Toshio Murase, an associate professor at Waseda University, about how to create a team that produces results under telework

The number of companies that have started to implement telework is increasing due to the impact of the new coronavirus, and some people may be struggling with an unfamiliar work process. In particular, leaders that manage the progress of projects may be concerned about how to motivate and achieve results when team members cannot meet in-person.

Given these concerns, we decided to consult an expert. In this article, we interviewed Dr. Toshio Murase—an associate professor at Waseda University who has been involved in teamwork research for over 10 years in Japan and the United States—about team formation under telework.

What kind of problems will occur under telework and what can be done to solve them? We asked Dr. Murase using video chat.


A problem that often occurs in telework is that common goals go out of sight
Creating a “common understanding” through three actions
“Psychological safety” is required to encourage communication
Key Points

Toshio Murase
Associate Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University. After graduating from high school in 1997, he moved to the United States. In 2011, he received a PhD from the University of Central Florida (industrial and organizational psychology). After working as a postdoctoral fellow (postdoc) at Northwestern University and Georgia Institute of Technology, he taught at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He has been in his current position since September 2017. He specializes in leadership and teamwork research.

A problem that often occurs in telework is that common goals go out of sight

Even if you say telework in a word, the level required will be different depending on the project. There will be various situations such as whether it is only necessary that the work be carried out smoothly, whether different departments and companies will collaborate, and whether innovation will be created aiming for a higher level.

Here, I would like to proceed on the premise of a level at which collaboration and innovation can be created. What kind of problems will arise in addition to that?

Murase: In an environment where people cannot see each other, such as telework, it is difficult to form a “common understanding.” A common understanding in business is the information that a team needs to function, such as the goals and objectives of the project and who is doing what.

In office work, we receive a lot of information from sight and hearing. In the office, we can chat and have a coffee break, and we can always see the members in one corner of our field of vision. Who, where, and what—a common understanding is born from this information.

Having a common understanding is very useful when working. Even if there are no explicit instructions, individual members can act based on the surrounding information such as “Mr. A will go to visit a client so let’s create some sales materials” or “the manager will make a presentation next week, so let’s gather information in advance.

However, in telework, the methods of interaction are limited to video and text, and the total amount of communication is reduced. We cannot get the information that we were unconsciously receiving previously, so various interpretations will be made among the individual members regarding the goals and objectives of the project, and there may be discrepancies in the prerequisites. It will be difficult to move forward with the project in this situation.”

Creating a “common understanding” through three actions

As an issue in telework, Dr. Murase pointed out that it is difficult to form a common understanding. How can this be solved? Dr. Murase says that three actions are important.

Murase: This is common to both office work and telework. Leaders are required to take the following actions:
・ Clarifying the goals of the project
・ Organizing the stages of the plan and clarifying who will do what
・ Visualizing the work of members

These three actions are required to build a team that can work autonomously. Particularly under telework, the total amount of communication is reduced, which makes it difficult to understand the situation of members. In other words, top-down managerial supervision becomes difficult. In a situation where we cannot confirm each person’s situation individually, it is necessary to create an environment where each member can work autonomously.

People with different backgrounds need to have a common goal to produce results. It is also necessary to decide the division of roles to reach the goal. Then, we have to visualize it to see if the whole team is heading towards this goal.

A concrete method is to write the goal and division of roles in a place that can be easily seen by everyone, such as a corner of the chat tool, or having weekly video calls to communicate on an individual basis. For visualization of work, not only daily and weekly reports, but also task management tools help visualization. I think there are many people who usually take these measures, but in a teleworking environment, exchange opportunities are limited, so it is important to communicate more patiently and repeatedly than in the case of office work.

Clarifying goals, deciding the division of roles, and visualizing the work. These are basic managerial methods, but a higher level is required for telework. Here, Dr. Murase gave some advice on the “common understanding” that he previously mentioned in the paragraph on this subject. He says that “psychological safety” is necessary to smoothly form this.

“Psychological safety” is required to encourage communication

Murase: I already talked about the effect that a common understanding has on work, but to form this, we must encourage the exchange of information among members. Therefore, “psychological safety” is important. If you create a situation in which people can easily ask, “can I talk to you for a minute?,” exchanges will naturally become more active and it will be easier to understand the situation.

Trust is what shapes psychological security. “Trust” can be divided into “trust in abilities,” and “trust as a person” in terms of being able show weakness and discuss private matters. The latter is the foundation of psychological safety.

Communication under telework tends to be work-centric due to time and equipment constraints. I think it is hard to form “trust as a person” because there are fewer opportunities to talk about private things. That’s why communication at work must be valued.

It is daunting to start talking to someone you think may be busy, and if you use video chat only for important meetings, it is hard to use it in a casual manner. To increase interaction, it is important for leaders to show the direction. It should be OK to use video chat to have an informal conversation or to take time to discuss one’s concerns.

Telework, which is a situation different from usual office work, requires several creative means. It will be necessary to have a mindset different to that of office work.

Murase: Communication should be “clear and precise.” Once again, in telework, the total amount of communication is small and the opportunities for follow-up are limited.

For example, if a subordinate asks me to check a document, as feedback I would say “I think the problem is XX, so please correct it” instead of saying “Do you think this is OK?” Indirectly, we could say that this works because we have “trust as people.” However, it is difficult to build trust under telework, and the circumstances of communication may reduce the motivation of subordinates.

Similarly, constantly communicating by chat can become a hassle, and you may end up sending just likes and emojis, which is not advisable. Since this is a valuable opportunity for exchanges, it is necessary to give polite and prompt feedback; it is also necessary that the leader asks “do you have any questions?”

As Dr. Murase says, in such a time, it is desirable to try to communicate politely. We have no idea when this situation will be resolved, and people feel more and more stressed every day. I am sure many subordinates are worried. That’s why it is possible to build a relationship of trust just by asking “do you have any concerns?”

What Dr. Murase talked about this time are the basics and practical applications of management. Even in telework, there is no single approach that can be called a “magic wand.” A team is formed only by acting steadily, accumulating know-how, and following the PDCA. The difficult situation is likely to continue for some time, and that is why the true value of the team may be questioned.

Key Points

・ In ordinary office work, there is a “common understanding” such as the goals and objectives of the project and who is doing what.
・ In telework, there may be various interpretations among individual members regarding the goals and objectives of the project, and the prerequisites tend to differ.
・ “Clarifying the goals of the project,” “organizing the stages of the plan, clarifying who will do what, and division of roles,” and “visualizing the work of members” are important.
・ “Psychological safety” is required to smoothly form a “common understanding.”
・ Psychological safety is built by the “trust as a person” in terms of being able to show weakness and talking about private matters.
・ Leaders need to provide appropriate feedback.