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Virtually Present?

Virtually Present?

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Last edited May 5, 2023

Virtually Present?

Founder and Chief Energy Officer at People and Transformational HR, Perry Timms, tells us all about virtual teams within the workplace and how technology is making this possible. Today’s blog article has been written by Perry Timms, Founder and Chief Energy Officer at People and Transformational HR. Armed with 30+ years experience in people, learning, technology, organisational change and transformation, Perry’s mission is to connect people and bring about a design revolution for a better future of work. In October 2017 he wrote his first book, Transformational HR, which was published by Kogan Page. He is determined to change the world of work; one conversation at a time.

I’m drawn to working virtually – I really get a kick out of being nomadic and not fixed in one place. But then that’s easy for me as I’m a free-spirited consultant. Yet when I was a salaried employee, I also liked to be in a variety of settings to do my work – so I was very much virtually present. I expected virtual working to be the norm by now, but it remains stubbornly elusive to many and a way of working for a few. Is this likely to continue? Are we over-playing the likelihood that we’ll not have to be present in a physical sense for much of the work we’ll be doing in the coming 5-10 years?

The questions asked of me to write this blog post are:

  • How do you make virtual employees work effectively and profitably?
  • What are the opportunities and pitfalls of building a virtual team – is it a dream or reality?

I’ll begin with the assertion that where we work is increasingly subject to fewer and fewer restrictions, and more and more variety.

So this is a good thing surely?

No more commuting, no more missed family time due to getting home late and more tranquility (in either a home-based work set up or some pleasant social space like a coffee shop or a co-working office).

Provided, of course, it involves (mostly) a computing device to email, video call, social network thread and shared drive kind of working. It’s clearly different if you’re in manufacturing, the service industry, retail, health and social care, flying a plane etc. If that’s the case, virtual working may be a little more tricky to do on a regular basis. Until the robots; but that’s a whole different story.

What we’re hearing about, is pioneering organisations like Buffer with an entirely distributed workforce, of no fixed abode and entirely virtual working. Couple this with the value of coworking spaces like WeWork and it appears that “no fixed abode” is becoming more normalised. Indeed, successful companies like Automattic (who build the WordPress site) have made this way of working work over a number of years now so it’s sustainable.

Then of course, there’s the “gig” economy. Which is mostly virtual working where the algorithm is the scheduler, their connecting means and the feedback generator – virtualising the manager role. Often working alone, this is virtual working in its newest form – platform jobs.

This appears to be the way we’re all headed then surely? Not so fast. There’s more to this than simply plugging in elsewhere.

What about those gatherings where people come together for a good reason? Like a team meeting, a project board, a scrum standup, or an innovation jam? What about the feeling by leaders that if you’re not visible, how can you can be scrutinised, supervised or managed?

In such situations, virtual working needs some careful engineering and design, else we’ll create a whole new range of issues.

I don’t think you can make anyone do virtual working well by decree – you can declare it and remove the physical space, but are people getting it right? That takes some effort and recalibration of how you work, learn, lead and support each other.

My tips on how to do this are:

  1. Invite people to consider how they could work more remotely and virtually and whether they’d like to experience more of this.
  2. Have them look at their workflow now and imagine it in a more virtual situation and then share and compare with their colleagues.
  3. Encourage some experiments after people have worked out some baseline data about how efficient they are now to compare to a period of sustained virtual working.
  4. Create an open discussion on the things to pay attention to in the advent of more virtual working and that these are regularly discussed either in person or on some connected technology platforms like Yammer, Slack, Workplace (Facebook at Work) etc.
  5. Make any decision to virtualise a collective one so that people understand what it means to them and they can help shape how you do this.
  6. Test potential new hires/candidates for roles in your company on this “virtual” question – would they be more or less encouraged to apply to work with you if you’re a part or entirely virtual workplace?
  7. Keep virtual working as a thing you all talk about as a team – what’s working well and what needs more attention.
  8. Ensure physical coming together can happen. How you optimise the time you’re physically together is down to teams working this out and not just relying on the quarterly “strategic update” sessions.
  9. Use socialised technologies to create the feel of togetherness even if you’re not physically able to be together.

Virtual working is often touted as being more effective and efficient. In my experience that’s the case, and there’s some evidence I’ve come across (for example, American Express did a study of their working 4 years ago). I speak to a lot of people who have the chance to work from home or remotely (even occasionally) reporting feeling more balanced in how they spend their energy. There’s no one absolute study. For most people, it feels that way and the energy they would have spent travelling to work, they can put into working or balanced into family life.

I’ve worked with, and advised companies on, remote and virtual working. I’ve become so much of a fan that I shudder when organisations who can work this way shy away from it because of paranoid, distrusting leadership or colleagues. To me, if you CAN work virtually but it’s prevented by management decree, that’s not a good organisation to work for.

Of course, there are pitfalls as well as opportunities with virtual working and virtual teams. People can feel isolated. You can miss out on being allocated some choice work because you’re not visible. Others can forget to include you in key decisions because you’re not sat around the same table. Moreover, this is without any risks of using home-based devices to connect to corporate networks such as distractions and temptations.

So, it occurs to me that it’s not the technology that’s stopping this from happening more. The main barriers as I see them are:

  • Trust – a lack of it (and not just limited to manager/employee distrust – colleague distrust perhaps even more so)
  • Attitude – people don’t believe they can or should work remotely or virtually
  • Habits – either your habits, other people’s habits or even the organisation’s habits (culture, rituals, processes)

These are the pitfalls that if you don’t pay attention to, they could cause your virtual team working to stutter and fail to live up to need or expectation.

So, to achieve those productivity gains, there’s a need to still be connected to each other – and that can clearly be done through messaging on apps and social networks, video calling, live streaming, and more. One further way to bring people together (maybe sooner than we think), is virtual reality worlds. We may virtually turn up at meetings in a space where our avatar represents us and allows us to interact with each other virtually.

With all this said, a more virtual world and a more virtual life may sound a little farfetched or even a sad way to be. Yet the distances between us and our people can be closed nicely through use of connecting technology; wasted time commuting can be put to good use with working, learning and being more creative and we can SURELY do with a little less hassle in our days to keep our minds clear and healthy.


Is virtual working and being part of a virtual team something we should all plan for and get used to?

I think so, and small-scale experiments to inform a more virtual way of working with our co-workers will help us get better at this.

For we may not see our colleagues every day, but we need to maintain the feeling that we’re all in it together. Virtual working may become a virtual reality before we know how to truly make it work.

My advice is to practice and make virtual a virtue.

Perry Timms – June 2018

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