Virtual Work

Virtual Work

Kaplan-Leiserson, Eva


It’s not just for members of the Jedi Counsel.

GOOD NEWS OR BAD? Technology is increasingly allowing us to work from anywhere. The plusses and minuses are still being tallied, but the fact is that it’s happening. Maybe one day we’ll be able to attend meetings in hologram form, as members of the Jedi Council do in Star Wars Episode III, but, right now, videoconferencing, online collaboration software, cell phones, email, Wifi, and other technological tools are contributing to a burgeoning number of virtual companies and teams.

Virtual companies. The Herman Group reported in one of its Trend Alerts that “Over the past decade, technology has emerged making . . . physical facilities where people come to work practically obsolete.” Already there are companies-many small businesses, for example-that don’t keep headquarters. Employees simply work out of their homes. Some larger companies have made parts of their workforce virtual. JetBlue broke new ground in 2000 with its call center made up primarily of stay-at-home mothers. According to a case study by Blue Pumpkin, a workforce optimization supplier JetBlue worked with for the initiative, the strategy helped the airline see “performance improvements that resulted in $1.2 million in benefits the first year alone.”

The Herman Group says the increasing number of virtual companies (and, by extension, parts of companies) will attract people who are looking for increased freedom and independence or the ability to better integrate their work with family responsibilities.

Young people will be particularly attracted to virtual employment, the group says, because of their independence and technology fluency. Learning online will have prepared them for this type of work. However, the risk is that young people who only know virtual employment may not develop the social skills that they’d practice in a face-to-face workplace.

Virtual teams. Those who don’t want to work in a virtual company, preferring “congregate workplaces,” as The Herman Group calls traditional work spaces, may still find themselves part of a virtual team. Because of the distributed nature of business today, more and more work groups are spread out over a country or the world, requiring them to employ many of the same tools as virtual companies.

New skills and strategies

A recent survey by Right Management Consultants found that virtual teams that exist over the long-term (more than a year) run a strong risk of declining performance due to team burnout. To operate successfully for longer periods of time, both virtual companies and virtual teams will require new strategies and skills. Many are still being discovered, but here are a few examples.

Out: hours in the seat. According to The Herman Group, in virtual companies performance measurement will become increasingly based on results rather than hours worked. The group also says that new ways of working developed in the virtual realm will begin to cross over into traditional employment.

In: new leadership competencies. Right Management Consultants says that virtual team leaders will need special leadership competencies, including sensitivities to “interpersonal, communication, and cultural factors, to overcome the limitations of long-distance teaming.” The organization suggests rotating leadership to reenergize teams. In its survey, virtual teams that agreed that “new leadership talent emerges as necessary” were found to have higher performance than those who didn’t agree with the statement.

In: teambuilding. Groups that invested in some type of teambuilding activity performed better than those that didn’t in Right Management’s research. The 35 percent of virtual team respondents that reported having an effective teambuilding session scored significantly higher on leadership, decision making, innovation, and team performance.

In: face-to-face meetings. Virtual teams and companies should still get together in person from time to time. Slightly more than half of the people in the virtual team survey met at least once per year. Those team members who had face-to-face interaction with their colleagues scored highest on effective team leadership, creative ideas and approaches, and managing multicultural differences.

It’s easy to see that virtual work requires some new approaches (as well as heightens the importance of traditional ones). But you don’t have to study the ways of the Jedi to prepare yourself for the virtual world. Here are some resources that can help.

* The Bumble Bee is a Weblog covering virtual teams and collaboration. It promotes a new model derived from nature: bioteaming.


* Virtual Support Services provides training, mentoring, and support for virtual business owners.


* Interview USA offers a virtual video interview service, called Vivid.


* The Manager’s Handbook/or Virtual Teams: 24 Exercises to Take Your Team to High Performance includes activities for four different stages of team maturation.

MORE/ virtualteamhandbookorder1.html


* on JetBlue’s call center:

* on virtual companies from the Herman Group:

* on the Right Management survey:

Copyright American Society for Training and Development Aug 2005

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