Is it easier for virtual workers to relate to their computers than to each other?
For decades, “the office” has been as central to the white-collar economy as factories are to industry. But today’s Internet communication technologies enable employees to communicate effortlessly across space and in real time, while project-management software allows their bosses to coordinate and monitor that work remotely. This technological shift has only been accelerated by the economic recession, as internal restructuring aimed at cutting costs, and the Darwinian survival of companies with the lowest overhead, have replaced physical workplaces with distributed workforces.
As brick-and-mortar buildings and square-feet of physical space are increasingly seen as inefficiencies from an earlier age, there’s a question all businesses should be asking: are we eliminating certain kinds of employee interaction that, directly or otherwise, contribute to productivity? Or put another way, are human connections important to corporate health?
In a study commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of BBC’s breakout comedy “The Office,” Virgin Media Business recently surveyed 1000 U.K. Workers. When asked whether the offices of today will exist in ten years, 50 percent of respondents responded in the negative.
Giving credence to this point of view is an MIT study on the rise of the virtual office, which forecasts increased adoption despite privacy and security issues associated with technology. Rather pointedly, though, the study concludes that “snazzy digital tools” are no substitute for able employees, and that “the office of the future might have fewer people in it, but the ones who are there will matter more than ever.”
Who can argue with the appeal of interactive media tools that offer convenience, speed and efficiency? Does anybody think there are real gains to be had by returning to electric typewriters? And yet, when deliverables are the products of teams, human connection is undeniably central to bottom-line success. Automatic processes and enterprise-wide systems strip the workday of human contact. Fortunately, we humans are hardwired to adapt. Staying competitive required businesses to create appropriate “people systems”; one could even say that, after product development, that’s what management does.
Based on my company’s research with global organizations, here are the four core principles of virtual-team success:
1. Effective communication processes
2. Mechanisms to ensure accountability and trust
3. Procedures to manage conflict
4. Work systems to get deliverables out the door
Smart organizations don’t just pay lip service to these imperatives; appropriate systems are put in place by virtual managers. We have found that the earlier in the virtual team’s ‘life’ the four principles are addressed, the greater the chance for success. If you don’t address them early, you’ll end up dealing with them later, wasting energy and time addressing issues that have either grown in severity or steadily diminished returns.
Individuals may spark innovation, lone geniuses may generate breakthrough insights. But it is teams that bring ideas to life. The managers who effectively facilitate their application and adoption are often the ones who become most closely associated with them. Here we might note that Thomas Edison did not actually invent the lightbulb.
We are social animals. If you are a virtual manager, your energy and direction are needed to keep team members connected to you and to each other. If you are a member of a virtual team, seize the opportunity to fully engage the kinds of work relationships that your grandparents couldn’t have dreamed about. The future is an open road, and these days it’s a global highway that goes clear across the world.
What do you think about virtualization and its affects on human relationships?
Is Working Virtually Making Us More Disconnected? - AMA Shift