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Living in an online world: Virtual Collaboration and Virtual Teams

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South Africa

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Other than a brief period when I was in the Middle East, for the past 13 years I have not had an office out of which I worked. I have however, been part of teams that have worked closely together every day and Living in an online world: Virtual Collaboration and Virtual Teams


One year we held an end of year function for our business and flew everyone into the same city for the first time. I can clearly recall the conversation of two members of my team who worked togethers for hours a day but who had never met in person…. they laughed at how their perceptions of the each other’s height and physique were nothing like the person they encountered in the flesh.

In the modern digital economy the ability to offer, and work in, a geographically dispersed virtual team is an increasingly important consideration for all organisations.

Challenges raised against it

Dehumanising. This challenge is raised in relation to the way in which human relationships are initiated, developed, and maintained. For those who grew up in a world where the absence of digital options meant that it was only possible to build effective relationships and connections with face-to-face contact it seems unlikely that there is the same level of value and connection. As a result they see these connections as transactional and impersonal effectively dehumanising the interactions.

No relationships. How is it possible to build a relationship with a person you have never met? This critique is often illustrated by some description of a group of people sitting down together and pulling out devices and ignoring those in their physical space, be it a dinner table, car journey, or social gathering. What this perspective often misses though is that the device is often used to vicariously connect someone who isn’t able to be physically present into the context. So, rather than eroding human relationship it is often extending it further than was ever possible before.

Self-discipline. If you don’t have to go into an office and work with others in your space will you have the discipline to do your work? This is reflective of a view of work that is time or inputs based. Your office hours are x-y and you are paid for being on call during that period, often regardless of what you deliver. In that context the leader does rely on the self-discipline of their virtual colleagues, and this concern is often a reflection of the fact that the leader / manager themselves would not be as disciplined as needed.

Loss of the water cooler conversations. An extension of many of the points above that acknowledges that in many organisations the real work is often done in the less formal connections rather than the structured meetings. If we no longer have water coolers or coffee stations to have informal congregations how will we have these valuable interactions. This is an interesting critique of the way in which organisations function – if we find the most value in the unstructured non-work connections – and the defining of the virtual workplace is an opportunity to redefine our structure to build on this reality.

Value unlocked and delivered

Decrease in overheads. How much money do we spend as organisations on office space and the associated facilities (like parking and catering)? Many people who are not actually needed in the office everyday in order to deliver their jobs are often expected to come in because we need to justify these sunk costs.

Decreased carbon footprint. The modern millennial worker is very aware of the environmental impact of every facet of their lives and one of the things about having to, unnecessarily, come into an office is the carbon tax on the activity. If people don’t have to come into the office, or are able to come in at times other than peak hour they generate significantly less greenhouse gases and are not contributing to the ongoing global environmental impact of our modern lifestyle.

Tax benefits. In many countries it is possible to claim workspace used at home against your annual tax returns. So, working at home rather than a corporate office will allow staff to offset a portion of their mortgage costs against their tax bill thereby contributing to more disposable income (added to the money that they no longer need to spend travelling to the office).

Quality of life. This is the greatest benefit that the virtual workplace offers. We loose hours a day, and days a month in our commutes. We pick up additional stressors and costs making ourselves presentable in a “business formal” office environment. We are unable to attend events for our children because we are stuck in the office and can’t get to them…. These and many others quality of life benefits are realised when we no longer need to travel into an office every day… and, they are realised without any significant impact on productivity (other than probable improvements in it).

Contingency Workforce

One of the biggest drivers of this shift is the rise of the contingency workforce, or so called “Gig-Economy”.

This workforce is populated with individuals with world class skills and abilities, who have chosen to remain outside of the formal work environment. Rather than full-time employment in one company these individuals market their skills and value on a project-by-project, or task-by-task basis to others all over the world. They work on their own from home, or another preferred location and are paid on delivery of acceptable work.

Social networking has empowered the “likes” and ratings they receive with the power to land more work in the future or to be ignored own favour of those who have high ratings. At the same time, the workforce rates those who gave them projects and pieces of work to do – indicating whether they were reasonable, clear in instructions and expectations, and easy to work with. Based on the quality of this feedback the “employer” may or may not be able to get the most sought after resources to work for them in the future.

Navigating the transition

Pros and Cons. This article doesn’t assume that EVERY role and EVERY organisation cam make an immediate and simple transition to a virtual workplace and workforce. But, EVERYONE should be having a strategic discussion regarding what the future environment should look like. The starting point would be a simple pros and cons list against the two situations. Why do we need to function face-to-face? Why shouldn’t we? What do we gain by working virtually? What will we lose if we work virtually? Then make strategic decisions based on this discussion.

Shift to flexitime first. Often the shift to a completely virtual workplace is a shock to the system. Why not try shifting to a flexitime work option first. Once the culture has adjusted to that it will be a matter of continuing the shift to offer virtual working options.

Practice. Does every internal meeting need to be held in a central meeting room where we are all physically present? Why not begin to practice by hiding virtual meetings in the current facilities. If they work you are learning skills for a more geographically extended connection. If they don’t work you can always come together quickly, conclude the meeting agenda, and then debrief the virtual experience to get it right the next time.

Craft a business case. Don’t follow the herd. Make the shift to a virtual workplace because you have a solid understanding of the benefits it will realise for your specific organisation and team. Build a business case with an integrated migration strategy that will meet your specific needs and objectives. Make sure you are working to deliver YOUR business case, not just a generic shift blown by the winds of change.

Outsource to contingency workforce. Not everything that your business does needs to be done by full-time staff. Begin to identify tasks that can be delivered by the contingency workforce. You will achieve the added benefit of having a direct cost for that work that can be factored into the profitability of the work to which it contributed… in so doing, you will begin to shift the business culture away from work hours to deliverables.

Restrict office access. Try shifting the staff onto a four day office week. They are still expected to work a full week, but on a rotating basis their access to the office is restricted one day a week. After a few months try extending it to two days, and then three days…. eventually people will only be coming in when they need to. At this point reevaluate your building and infrastructure requirements and formalise the new way of working by making strategic and informed changes.

Adjust remuneration models away from time to delivery. Change your language and measurement discussions away from hours per week, or days per month, and shift toward tasks achieved. These tasks should be measured and remunerated according to timelines met, quality of final product, broader benefits realised for the business in delivery. Remuneration can be linked on a sliding scale depending on under, or over-performing against these objectives.

Put an SLA on every task. Each task should have clear understandings regarding when they are due, each deliverable defined, what the feedback process is, and what the relative criteria are for success or failure.

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