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Virtual Workplace

Do you work in a virtual workplace? Many people do. To find out if you qualify, consider this definition from Wikipedia: 

A virtual workplace is one that is not located in any one physical space. Rather, several workplaces are technologically connected (via telephones, email, and internet) without regard to time zones or geographic boundaries. People are thus able to interact and work with one another regardless of where they are located in the world. A virtual workplace decreases unnecessary costs (such as travel) by integrating technology, people, and projects.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Technological innovations such as highly mobile smart phones, instant text messaging, online chatting, podcasts, Wi-Fi hot spots and more, have made it far easier to work remotely than ever before. But virtual workplaces bring new challenges that managers and employees need to face, in particular, challenges in teamwork and leadership.

About 12 years ago, I joined a virtual team that successfully operated for several years.  We never met face-to-face in all the time that we worked together toward our common goal. Yet, we somehow came together, stayed together, and completed our task.

The team was the group of Organization Development (OD) professionals that co-wrote Chapter 27, on the subject of practicing organization development as an internal consultant, for editor Roland Sullivan's textbook called Practicing Organization Development - A Guide for Consultants, 2nd Edition, published in 2005.

The team was comprised of nine diverse members from around the world. The team members were:   Allan Foss, David Lipsky, Allen Orr, Bev Scott, Julie Smendzuik-O'Brien, Anna Tavis, Dale Wissman, Catherine Woods and me. Several of the members were internal OD practitioners in business organizations, while others were external consultants. Most of us were based here in the US, but at least one member was based (at the time) in Europe.

As I said, we never met face-to-face. Several years after the completion of our work, I had the pleasure of meeting two of my team mates (Bev and Julie) when we were invited to speak at a conference in Philadelphia. As I walked into the convention center, I wondered if I would recognize them, or would they recognize me. When we set eyes on one another, for the very first time, it was instant recognition!

So, how did the chapter writing team complete its task? Reflecting upon the work we did together, a number of elements come to the surface.

Mission – Our mission, to write the chapter on internal OD for the second edition of the landmark text on OD, was one that we all felt privileged to be part of.  This was a new chapter, one that the first edition of the book did not address. So we were honored to be shedding light on a vital aspect of our profession.

Engagement - We were all highly committed to this work. We were excited to be part of this team because we saw this work as an opportunity to add value to our field.

Freedom - We were empowered to tackle our topic, the practice of OD as an internal consultant, in whatever way we thought best. The editors (Roland Sullivan and his colleague William “Bill” Rothwell) did not micro-manage or tell us what to write, though they did provide guidance and encouragement.

Diversity -   We were a diverse crew.  Lots of experience, lots of wisdom.  We were turned on by the enthusiasm and talents of our fellow team members.  We knew that if we could harness the diverse viewpoints of all on the team, we would produce a rich chapter for the readers of this text.

Leadership - We were a leaderless group, where no one was appointed (or elected) as the leader. However, since a team needs leadership to be successful, leadership emerged as we went along. For example, several members of our team kept us informed of direction and guidance from the editors. Getting this input from time-to-time kept us on track, and kept us going.

So, to net it out, what will help you to be a successful in a virtual workplace?

Get very focused on your team’s goal.  One of the keys to success is having a very specific goal that everyone can focus on. The more specific, the better.

Get organized. In our chapter writing team, we developed a structure for the chapter and divided into sub-teams to tackle each part of the project. We developed a schedule of deliverables so that all the parts coalesced at the right time.

Step up to leadership. Leadership can come from anywhere. Leadership in a virtual team is critical for organizing the efforts of all so that a final product can be delivered on time.

Use technology to link up. Establish multiple ways to connect (for example: email, Skype, Twitter, a wiki, and a document sharing site) where all team members can write, edit, and upload project documents.

Communicate constantly. Having a constant flow of information and ideas is critical to your virtual success. Don’t let the flow dry up. In our chapter writing team, we communicated primarily via a special Yahoo Group and e-mail, with an occasional conference call.  If we had known about wikis, we probably would have had one.

Build trust. It’s tough building trust in a face-to-face team. So imagine how challenging it is with a virtual team that may be spread across time, space, and boundaries of organizations and cultures! Key to building trust is building relationships. Also take time to establish operating norms which give the team ground rules for accountability.

Collaborate. The core issue in any team is: Can we collaborate? This is the essence of the business case for having a team in the first place. Teams must be wary of pitfalls that can get in their way. They must also schedule in time for team building activities that will continuously strengthen the team spirit.

Build cohesion by socializing. Get to know each other as human beings. Connect on LinkedIn. Create a Facebook page, for example, where you can post pictures, and share information such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holiday celebrations.

Build cross-cultural bridges. Does your virtual team span some cultural borders? Do you have, for instance, people on your team from different countries? If so, make a concerted effort to learn as much as you can about one another’s cultures. There may be differences that, unless uncovered and understood, may make a crucial difference in whether you will achieve success as a team.

Virtual Work expert Jessica Lipnack of NetAge Consultants, said this about the challenge facing people in today’s virtual workplace:

“In the 21st century, most people work with others who are more than 50 feet away from them. Data indicate that when people are more than 50 feet apart, their likelihood of collaborating more than once a week is less than 10%. So, as people work in teams, crossing space, time, and organizational boundaries, they must master the principles of virtual work.”

Working in a virtual environment can work, if you think it through and work on it. The ingredients that you used in the old days, when everyone worked in one location, are still relevant. Only now, you have to take them to a new level of awareness, encompassing both technology and team mindfulness. You can do it.

Comments

Very nice post, Terry. One tiny point. The data from Prof. Tom Allen at MIT about proximity and collaboration is this: If people are more than 50 meters (not feet*) apart, they have a low (10%) likelihood of collaborating about work issues more than once a week. In any event, thanks for the mention!

*I made a mistake on this in the slides you're referencing. Me bad!

Thanks for the amendment, Jessica. And for blogging about this (http://endlessknots.netage.com/endlessknots/2012/05/leaderless-no-leader...) at your blog, Endless Knots!

I had my own share of challenges back when I was building my small business and managing my remote workers through Remote Staff (http://www.remotestaff.com.au/) , it was not easy but thanks technology and Remote Staff's customer service, I was able to manage the progress of my remote team.

In a year, I was able to expand my business and surprisingly witnessed how may remote workers built their careers and I feel proud that although we haven't met, we were able to work together and help each other grow.

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