The Real Positives and Negatives of Working Virtually


Developing our new course, Getting Real Results from Virtual Teams, has me poring through resources and reflecting on my own experiences of working virtually. There are, of course, many types of virtual work environments and circumstances, just as there are many reasons why workers work remotely.

There are also many passionate advocates and critics of providing such options for employees and team members. The organizational costs and benefits of working off-site certainly have been on the minds of corporate America of late, with Best Buy and Yahoo both putting the skids on their generous flexible work programs.

Many things make flexible work programs desirable to employers, such as lower space-related costs and appealing to a wider range of job seekers. On the other hand, there’s the concern about productivity and lack of commitment to coworkers you don’t regularly see or loyalty to a company that may seem like just another site in your browser.

The personal cost-benefit proposition is no less conflicting. There aren’t many folks who at least initially don’t find the idea of working off-site, particularly from home, appealing. But the things that we think are good about working in that environment can become the very things that cause the biggest frustrations.

Whatever virtual work environment situation you find yourself in, see if these dueling forces haven’t left you feeling both positive and negative about your virtual/flexible work environment:

1.   You get to work on your own schedule.

Surely this is all good. It’s 2013, and the corporate clock doesn’t dictate when you can or can’t, should or shouldn’t go to work.

On the other hand, at least a corporate clock tells you when it is time to go home. Deciding on our own schedule often means we’re always at work. Or that we could be.  Or should be at work.  At least it can feel that way.

2.   You get evaluated by the results you actually produce, not by how much people think you produce.

This is really appealing because most of us think of ourselves as highly productive. If our organization is going to judge our work by what we produce, then most of us feel like we would get very high marks, indeed.

Of course, no manager, virtual or collocated, would claim to evaluate employees based on anything other than real results. When you’re collocated, however, managers aren’t as quick to question whether or not you’re actually producing anything because…well, you come in to work. “There she is, so she must be doing something” the thinking goes.
The appeal of being judged based solely on what work you produce may be diminished by the burden of having to actually produce something measureable on a regular basis. In a virtual work situation, since you’re not present physically, you better have something to show for your work. The problem is that much of the daily knowledge-based work that lends itself to working virtually doesn’t yield much in the way of regularly measureable results. Clearly, you ultimately produce something, but along the way there can be a number of what may be construed as results-less days.

Think about creating something new, like a course. There’s the research, the organizing of ideas, the creation of mental models and other things that involve “wrapping your head around” what it is you’re creating. Creating something is exhausting, consuming work. A lot of it doesn’t manifest in something particularly measureable, however. It’s hard to show your boss that you have “half your head wrapped around” something you’re creating. At least if you’re in your cube, they can see or hear you thinking.

3.   I don’t have to deal with people

I’ve heard more than one project manager quip that projects would be easy if it weren’t for the people. The sanctuary of many virtual work situations provides respite from the shenanigans and distractions of office politics or the irksome habits of cube neighbors.

In fact, it can be tempting and easy to increasingly distance oneself from others when working virtually. There are subtle ways of minimizing or eliminating interdependence with others, such as volunteering to take on small tasks that don’t require anything from others, not reaching out for input or feedback, or not volunteering or engaging in opportunities for providing input or feedback to others.

 

Out of site, out of mind can be a source of tranquility for some, but it’s not always a good professional survival strategy. Living off the grid may seem like a way to be free from the most irritating things about the collocated work environment, but if you aren’t dependent on others and others on you, you can’t call yourself a team member. Furthermore, getting back on the grid should you need to find a new job or want to explore something different is a lot more difficult if you don’t have a ready-made network of interdependent professionals.

These are just a few of the observations I’ve made as I wrap my head around all the issues surrounding working virtually and figure out ways of exploring and addressing them. I’ve been doing a lot of work all hours of the day and weekends for this new class, but taking a picture of the mess on my kitchen table and sending it to my manager didn’t seem like a very professional way of showing how productive I’ve been.
Fortunately, I get the opportunity to share my thoughts with readers like you so he can see how productive I’ve been. Now I just need to make sure he still needs me for other things, too!

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