The decision made by the CEO of Yahoo to order all employees working virtually back into the office was an unfortunate indication of how little we have learned about working in a virtual world. Sad, given that people have been doing this for over a half century. I was fortunate to work for a company in the 1970s that was progressive on flexible work hours. It was my first real job and management experience. When the company decided to implement flexible hours, people could arrive at work between 7-10 am and work 8 hours. Most didn’t need to declare in advance when they would arrive. As a manager of a customer service department, I had to determine how to implement the change and be certain that the customer service phone lines were attended between the hours of 7 am-6 pm. Thus, I needed to negotiate with my staff as to how to schedule their time and provide them some flexibility. Staff members in the other department I managed were free to choose when they arrived. Most fell into patterns quickly, so I would generally know when to expect them. I learned early in my management career that my focus needed to be on managing the work rather than managing how people do the work. I saw the positive effects of autonomy which included a greater commitment from people to do their best work. Trust was strengthened and people were more open to learning.
In Yahoo’s case, there appears to be a belief on the part of the CEO and likely others that people can be more creative and productive when working in the office and that collaboration is enhanced when people are face-to-face. I wish we had more research studies to see if this is really true. As Dennis Jaffe mentioned in his post on his subject, much depends on the organizational culture and structure. Is there a virtual learning community in place, where expectations for participation individually and in groups are clear, where relationships are built and supported virtually? There are likely very few organizations that have developed strong virtual learning communities in their workplaces. Yet, we have the capability to do build them, especially with the technology present today. Using video conferencing, we can be together visually and engage in dialogue. Technology does not have to limit our ability to engage in creative collaboration.
So what does it take to be more effective when working virtually? At the individual level, it requires us to shift our own assumption that we can be more effective when face-to-face. When I moved from classroom teaching to distance education, I asked myself, “Can I create the same relationships with students and develop a transformative learning environment similar to what I have created in the classroom?” I didn’t want the job if I couldn’t do that, so I created a mindset that I could and went to work on learning how to do it. I learned quickly that I needed to be aware of the presence I wanted to create through email and on the phone. I needed to extend myself in a way that showed I cared and was fully engaged. I also needed to be as available working at a distance as I would be working in person, placing boundaries around my work time, showing up for meetings, on email, and for impromptu conversations so that people felt my presence. To support collaborative virtual work, we need groups of people who are connected relationally, fully present, and willing to engage in the same way via technology as they would face-to-face. After working virtually for many years now, I am a strong believer that I can be much more effective and productive in the virtual space and if I were working in an office.
What can organizations do to support virtual work and learning communities? While this work is a lot about building a virtual learning community, here are a few important aspects. Managers need to realize that building relationships is an important factor and will need deliberate attention, as there is less opportunity for it to happen naturally. People who work virtually need to be supported in connecting with others who have similar interests and to learn from others who have diverse backgrounds and interests. Creating time for personal check-ins during meetings is important to ensure people have time to share what is happening in their lives. When there are meetings where some people are face-to-face and some are virtual attention needs to be given to bring those on the phone or video conference into the conversation. Virtual work requires a level of assertiveness that may be greater than what is needed in face-to-face environments and people need support in making the right connections and developing their own supporting work structures. Managers need to establish expectations of as to how often people need to be present online or on the phone, connecting with colleagues throughout the day, much in the same way they would in the office. When that happens, work gets done and trust is not an issue. Also important is ensuring that people have access to the technology needed to support virtual work and are well trained in how to use it.
When I saw the Yahoo decision and the press it got, I was concerned that it may cause other companies to back-track on their virtual work commitments. Given the world we live in and the sustainability challenges both environmentally and socially, I believe it is critical that organizations support virtual work. Working virtually can create greater balance in one’s life and keeping people off the roads is important for both safety and environmental reasons. Maybe it is time to place greater focus on learning to work and manage virtually.