Supported autonomy : exploring New Zealand employee leadership needs in the virtual workplace : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Psychology at Massey University, Aotearoa New Zealand

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The Covid-19 pandemic continues to persist around the world. An increasing number of workers in Aotearoa New Zealand live with two chronic stressors: that of the pandemic and the pressure of carrying out their jobs online, in virtual working environments. At the same time, organisations and leadership teams must deal with the challenge of providing virtual leadership. Much existing research tends to focus on the Full Range Leadership Model, which has traditionally identified separate Transactional and Transformational leadership styles and is relatively context-free. The changing nature of work suggests a need for a more nuanced and context-based approach. Virtual leadership is a relatively new phenomenon; leaders must now be competent at interacting with their employees across a range of digital platforms. Research is beginning to suggest that a subtle and complex ability to blend traditional and virtual communication methods to develop an inclusive style, promote employee interaction, consider cultural differences, and provide feedback for employees is vital for the wellbeing of employees and the functioning of the organisation. The aim of this study was to explore the experiences of employees in relation to virtual leadership and to provide recommendations to managers and organisations who have employees working in a virtual environment. Semi-structured interviews were carried out with seven NZ-based employees who had been working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, but who had previously been working in a face-to-face environment. The interviews explored participants’ lived experience, as employees, of virtual leadership. The Critical Incident Technique was used to structure interviews. Semi-structured interviews explored positive and negative experiences, allowing participants to focus on what was successful and unsuccessful about the way their manager operated in a specific situation within a virtual work environment. The data collection phase of this research coincided with another wave of the Covid-19 virus within the community, so all interviews were carried out via Zoom. Participants were all white-collar professionals, four male and three female, and in the 40-69 age range. Thematic analysis was used to analyse the data. The analysis did not rely solely on the prevalence of a particular theme but also aimed to identify those themes which were seemingly of most importance to participants. Thematic analysis identified differences in employee needs between traditional face-to-face workplace environments and virtual or remote working environments. During the initial analysis, it became apparent that themes fell into one of two categories. The first category is described as “business as usual”, in that these employee needs are apparent in both virtual and face-to-face work environments. For example, the need for a leader to reward good or hard work. The second category is described as “supported autonomy”, describing the tensions in the ways that employees require their leader both to provide support and to enable a sense of autonomy relating to their job. Supported autonomy had two fundamental aspects. First, leaders needed to be engaged and active in understanding the intricacies of the employee’s job and in setting up the employee to successfully work in an autonomous manner. The second aspect centred around the need for leaders to clear the way for their employees by removing bureaucratic and practical obstacles to work performance. The findings indicate the potential need for organisations to support and train leaders working virtually, and to introduce new guidelines relating to this new work environment to ensure the wellbeing, productivity and retention of their employees.