I was struck by a recent opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun submitted by a University of British Columbia student lamenting the virtualization of everything.

The writer was particularly concerned when “my forestry class went on a nature walk to see the trees we had been studying in lecture. As we stood in the forest, I noticed I was the only one looking at the tree while the rest of the students stared at the digital image of the tree on their tablets.”  Perhaps it was the connection to that old cliché about forests and trees, but I found myself returning again and again to the question that was really being asked – have we gone too far with all things virtual?  Have we swung the pendulum too far to the side of virtuality vs face-to-face interaction? And what does this mean for business?

Businesses are adopting virtual operations at a fast pace and benefiting from the cost and time savings it provides. I can speak to this from my personal experience as a CIO.  We were early adapters of both VoIP and video conferencing, resulting in significant cost and time savings for our teams.  Virtual interaction takes travel time and cost almost completely out of the picture. The bottom line impact of this combination is a hard lure to resist, particularly for companies with multiple locations.  It is efficient for sure. But what about the impact on effectiveness?

Turns out that question is the basis of quite a bit of research. One review of that research published in the International Organization of Scientific Research Journals “found that members of face-to-face teams are more satisfied, supportive and provide innovative solutions due to self-actualizing and constructive style. Members of the virtual teams on the other hand are more prone to conflicts, less satisfied and have inferior decision making due to passive and aggressive style. There are no significant differences found on the basis of performance. Also, trust and cohesion can be developed over time and is generally found more in teams that use richer media in comparison to less rich media. Successful virtual organizations are those wherein collaboration, cohesion and trust takes place among individuals.”

Further review conducted at Drake University and published in The Psychologist-Manager Journal, found that negative attitudes towards the virtual technology itself were an issue in the effectiveness of fully virtual operations.

My own experience has taught me that a hybrid approach providing for some face-to-face interaction will mitigate the shortfalls of fully virtual relationships.  I found this to be especially true when it comes to building trust. Physical interaction can and should be provided as part of a balanced overall virtual business strategy allowing that cost saving approach to maximize employee satisfaction and effectiveness.  Virtual business owner and writer, Erika Andersen shares this belief.  In her Globe and Mail story she articulates ways to bring distributed individuals and teams together and underlines the importance of doing so.

People communicate in more ways than current technology can fully transmit. Perhaps in the years ahead there will be an interactive communication medium that will be as good as being there.  But until you can stand with your colleagues over a coffee at a break or stroll out after the meeting and chat, fully virtual operations are incomplete and missing what I have heard described as the most important conversations at the meeting.  A tree seen on a tablet is simply not the same nor as complete an experience as the one standing in front of you in the forest.

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