Virtual workplaces offer new challenges

We’ve talked quite a bit recently about the inexorable shift toward the virtual workplace and reviewed the technical requirements for supporting one. Now it’s time to look at the challenges.

The biggest concern is cultural. Many managers have grown up in a model in which face-to-face interaction is a key measure of an employee’s commitment. Entire business books have been written about the fine art of “management by walking around,” i.e. stalking the halls and poking your head inside an employee’s office on a regular basis “just to catch up.”

What isn’t discussed so explicitly is that this approach gives the boss control at the employee’s expense. After all, you can’t exactly choose not to talk to the boss when she’s leaning on your desk or standing in your doorway. In a virtual environment, control reverts to the employee. Presence technology lets the boss see where you are and what you’re doing — but only if you permit it.

And with asynchronous communications like e-mail, you can postpone a response until it suits you. And here’s the dirty little secret: Sometimes the ability to “tune the boss out” can be one of the most effective productivity techniques of all, something that few bosses’ egos can allow them to admit.

I’ll confess: Having my boss 1,000 miles away was a major plus to my productivity when I became one of the first virtual workers back in the early 1990s. To my boss’ everlasting credit, she was perfectly comfortable with that loss of control, as has been every boss of mine since then. (Hmm, maybe having ME 1,000 miles away was a boost to THEIR productivity, too.) Even now, my company is distributed and virtual, and we like it that way.

But even when everyone agrees in principle on a virtual workplace, there are still practical and cultural challenges to implementing one. For one thing, there’s what I’ll call “communications discipline,” the art and science of understanding how (and how not to) communicate efficiently.

When should virtual employees send e-mail (versus IM, versus a phone call)? Who should be copied? How should they respond differently when they’re on the “to” versus “cc” line of an e-mail? And how promptly should e-mails, phone calls and IMs be responded to?

There’s also the challenge of crafting a collaborative knowledge-sharing environment. How does information get stored, organized and shared? How much confidential data can reside at remote/branch offices or on users desktops, laptops or mobile devices? And how is it protected against being compromised?

Some companies I work with have actually implemented multimillion-dollar ERP rollouts precisely to handle such challenges effectively. I’m not sure I agree with that approach (except in special cases), but it’s clear that the move toward virtual workplaces signals a heightened requirement for effective information stewardship.

The bottom line is that the move to a virtual workplace can increase agility and productivity and reduce facilities and personnel costs — but supporting one creates challenges that are both technical and organizational. 073477

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