One of the biggest trends in the world today is the rapid development of communications technologies. There have been booms and busts a plenty, promises and failure to deliver, as well as major advances and revolutions. As we enter the 21st century, advances in our ability to stay connected to each other offer some of the greatest opportunities ever to reconfigure the way we live and work. It couldnâ€™t come at a better time. A new generation of staff and customers are demanding some of these adjustments â€? now, for the first time, we have cheap and easy access to the technology that will make these adjustments possible. 24/7 operations, total flexi-time, telecommuting, remote hubs, home offices, virtual teams â€? all these are now technically possible. But its not as simple as just buying the laptops and PDAs, installing the software, and saying, â€šGo for itâ€› to your staff. They will require a very different set of skills and attitudes if they are to really succeed.
Most developed countries around the world have moved quickly in the past five years to make broadband Internet access readily available. The price of this access is coming down dramatically. In South Africa, where I live, it was announced a few weeks ago that on 1 Feb 2005, we will, overnight, move from one of the most over-regulated telecoms countries to one of the least regulated. Anyone will be able to offer any service, to anyone, at any price. The implications are staggering. Telephone call costs should drop dramatically (we may even get free local calls within a few years). True broadband will be introduced, at an affordable price. 3G technology will arrive on our cellphones, mainly allowing video content into the palm of your hand. VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol, or telephone via your computer) will be legalised. It is nothing short of a revolution in South Africa. Its more than catching up with the rest of the world â€? its an opportunity to leapfrog.
But the technology itself is no guarantee of success. Unless people use it correctly, it could in fact backfire and produce less efficient and less effective teams and individuals. Companies donâ€™t seem to take the development of skills to work in a virtual team seriously enough. They seem to assume that people will somehow just develop them. Our experience shows us that this doesnâ€™t happen. Often, the technology gets blamed. And in many cases, the move to virtual teams is reversed. This is often a decision of older management, frustrating the younger team members. A generational divide emerges, with long term detrimental effects on the company.
Jack Welch, the legendary CE of General Electric, had a similar problem a few years ago when the Internet, cellphones and email hit companies. He solved it by insisting on a programme of reverse mentoring. Simply put, he required all his older managers and executive team to meet regularly, one-on-one, with 20-something staff members, with the express goal of the younger person teaching the older person how to use the emerging technologies. They discovered that there was much more value than simply technology training in these relationships â€? but thatâ€™s a different story, for another time.
The point is that right now we have an opportunity to move to a new evolution of corporate organisation and behaviour. But its going to take effort, energy and commitment from everyone involved. Here are some lessons that weâ€™ve learnt from our own companyâ€™s virtual workplace (we have no offices and everyone works from home, with laptops and cellphones â€? thatâ€™s over 30 people across 4 continents and multiple time zones).
Get Your Mind Right
As you can imagine, we rely a lot on virtual communications – email, email forums, online chats, cellphones, SMS (texting), etc. We understand that these forms of communication are not actually ideal – neither for relationships nor efficiency. They can be frustrating â€? sending emails into a void, missed calls, lack of focus â€? these are just some of the problems. But its better than the alternative â€? that we donâ€™t communicate at all, or that we have to all move to one geographic location. So, we recognize the limitations of our choice of communication style. This acknowledgement is critical to the success of virtual teams, and can help to reduce tensions (by realigning expectations).
We have also recognised that we need constant development. Some of the team need to learn the technology, others the etiquette, many the language (BTW, just sent this FYI, NN2R, etc) and most of us the boundaries. If you feel you’re not up to speed on the use of the technology, SAY SO. You will only frustrate yourself and everyone else if you donâ€™t.
Sort Out Your Technology
The technology is imperative. We have had to upgrade peopleâ€™s cellphones, laptops and internet connections (ADSL is our current standard, though we canâ€™t wait for broadband). We have had to standardize our software (same version of the operating system, and same version of the office suite we use, as well as the same versions of all communication software â€? this is as much for support as it is for usability). We also constantly watch the world of software development â€? especially open source and free software. One of the finds of the year so far has been Skype (www.skype.com), which is the best piece of VOIP software ever created, and its totally free of charge.
Meet for Meetings
Whatever Internet chat software you use (and once youâ€™ve tried Skype, youâ€™ll never use anything else!!), the danger is that it is just used as a quick connect tool. If someone is online, youâ€™ll buzz them and chat. That is unhelpful, and intrusive. It can be fun and a light break, like a colleague popping into your office for a 5 minute chat. The problem is, online chats tend to go on for longer, and you get sidetracked sometimes, too. Rather use Skype (or phones) for specific meetings. To make them most effective and efficient, be sure to confirm a date and time for the virtual meeting (don’t forget timezone issues). I would also suggest sending an email to outline the content of the meeting – an agenda, in fact. This allows for time to think and prepare, rather than just getting off the cuff comments. In other words, book time to really interact, rather than relying on the chance interaction. Skype allows up to 5 people to chat at the same time. You can do the same with conference calls at relatively cheap prices.
If you commit to a virtual meeting, treat it as a “real” meeting (it is!!!). Put it in your diary. Guard it. And if you can’t make it, tell someone. In other words, all the â€šnormalâ€› rules of office and meeting etiquette apply! Somehow, when people go virtual, they often forget this â€? simply missing virtual meetings, and forgetting about reports and interactions.
24/7 and TimeZone Hell
Don’t forget that in a virtual workplace, everyone works weird hours, and that most people are never “at their desks”. Make sure you make no assumptions about timings of stuff (meetings, interactions, deadlines). And donâ€™t forget to factor in time zone issues if youâ€™re a globally diverse team. I suggest you fix your company clock to GMT, or some default time zone, and make sure you know how far ahead or behind everyone else is (donâ€™t forget to factor in daylight saving where appropriate). Most virtual workers work late nights â€? these are good times for meetings, by the way.
Using the Phone
If you phone and get a voicemail – leave a DETAILED message. Never just say, “Please phone me, there’s something I need to talk about”. Give details, so the person can start to process, and also can judge the urgency of the request. As the receiver of phone calls, donâ€™t be scared to ignore the phone. Most people cannot ignore a ringing phone â€? if thatâ€™s you, either train yourself to do so, or just switch it to vibrate, or even silent. As a virtual worker, YOU get to decide when youâ€™re available to accept a call. And donâ€™t get upset if others call screen you â€? you donâ€™t know whatâ€™s happening to them at the very moment you phone. Leave a message, or better yet, text them.
Use SMS more. Most virtual workers leave their phones on all the time – and then just switch to silent in meetings. They can often SMS during a meeting, even when they can’t chat.
No-one knows where anyone else is. If you can’t find Bob, don’t phone Mary to ask her where Bob is. Leave a message for Bob â€? heâ€™ll get back to you when he can. If he never gets back to you, thereâ€™s a message there for you.
This is a huge topic on its own, and weâ€™ll cover it next month. Look out for it at http://www.tomorrowtoday.biz/article.
Get Your Attitude Right
Virtual teams rely on trust a lot. So, firstly, donâ€™t cry wolf. If something isnâ€™t really urgent, donâ€™t try to get peopleâ€™s attention or get a quick answer by labeling it urgent. Keep â€šurgentâ€› for when it really is. Secondly, donâ€™t make your problems someone elseâ€™s. Its too easy to spread the stress around a virtual system â€? especially by simply CCâ€™ing everyone on email. Youâ€™ll read next week that I have an email rule â€? if I am CCâ€™ed a mail, and my name isnâ€™t at the top of the content of the email, I just delete it, unless Iâ€™ve got time to waste. Donâ€™t waste anyoneâ€™s time! You get a reputation very quickly in a virtual workplace, and its tough to ever change that later. Thirdly, if youâ€™re not sure, ASK.
IF IN DOUBT, ASSUME THE BEST. DON’T QUESTION ANYONE’S MOTIVE. Remember that virtual communication is difficult – it takes away subtle expressions, innuendo and all facial features and body language. Communication is lost – hugely!! Maybe as much as 75% of the total communication even when talking by phone, and 90% if typing. Don’t assume that someone meant to insult you. Or that they’re an idiot. Assume the best. Be forgiving and understanding.
Know Yourself, Know the Others
The virtual workplace relies quite a lot on people being self-aware, and of understanding different personality types. To be honest, normal team environments need this as well, but its easier to get by with deficient human interactions in a face-to-face situation. When we move to a virtual environment, we lose much of the mask that body language offers, and weâ€™re thrown into an environment where knowing self and knowing others is the only way to survive relationships. In our company, we rely a lot on the Enneagram as a basic starting point for understanding each other (see http://www.tomorrowtoday.biz/enneagram). We know what happens to other team members when they get tired, we know when to tell each other to go to bed, we know when to ignore others (there are some times you have to wade through emotional baggage to get to the real issue), and we know when someone needs help, perspective, and encouragement.
In that sense, I truly believe that moving to a virtual workplace has enhanced the relationships at TomorrowToday.biz. We get together reasonably often, and cherish those times â€? but theyâ€™re often not about work, because we get 3 days work done every 24 hours, on average. Thatâ€™s the promise, and challenge, of the virtual workplace.
Remember, we’re pioneers here.
In March 2005, TomorrowToday.biz is running a series of conferences to address issues around the Virtual Workplace. Details of these public events is available at http://www.tomorrowtoday.biz/events/0503-virtualworkplace.htm.