Frustrated business woman While teaching a recent Getting Real Results from Virtual Teams class, a student asked the question, “What does the end game look like?” How virtual will our work world become and what will that look like?

The pendulum seems to swing in terms of how virtual organizations want to be.  Yahoo and Best Buy are two examples of companies that have recently decided to cut down on their flexible work programs and get employees back to the office.

Working from home as part of a flexible work schedule is only one aspect of working virtually. Even if some organizations are bringing people back into the office, it’s still safe to say that our work worlds are increasingly virtual. More and more we rely on electronic communication mediums to interact while face-to-face communication accounts for less of our work-related interactions.

Concerns abound regarding this reality of the 21st century work place. A recent article in the New York Times lamented, among other things, the challenge of blurred boundaries between work and home as we are increasingly able to work from anywhere.

In our Virtual Teams class, we explore best practices as well as the benefits and challenges of working virtually. One of the themes in our discussions is how labor intensive communication can be in a virtual environment.

Consider, for example, the last face-to-face encounter you had. How many questions got answered, facts were gathered, or confirmations were made?  What if you had not had the face-to-face exchange but had been required to do that using email?  How much longer and how much more work would it have taken?

The first part of the answer is that it would have taken at least as long as the person with whom you were communicating decided to take to respond. The receiver decides how long it takes to communicate, not the sender.

For example, let’s say I have written a report and want some feedback on a sentence to make sure it reads correctly. If I get that feedback face-to-face, I walk over to someone and get the feedback. I determine the timing of that exchange.

If I seek feedback on that same report via email, I send the email with the report attached and who determines when it gets answered? The receiver does. Once I’ve pressed Send, I am no longer driving the communication train. The receiver may choose to respond in a couple of minutes. Or a couple of hours. Or a couple of days.

The point here is not just that this takes longer than a face-to-face exchange. It’s the work it takes to compose the message, follow up to the response, and keep track of the exchange. How many back-and-forth emails could this take?  It’s more work.

Or consider the degree and nature of communication needed for relationship-building. Some have suggested that working with others face-to-face is a form of team-building and that we’re doing it all the time.

With virtual team members, I have to plan the communication that facilitates team building. It feels a little contrived and it takes more effort than when working face-to-face because it can’t happen as casually or even accidentally like it does in a collocated environment. In his book, The Virtual Manager, Kevin Sheridan suggests that getting full engagement from team members takes four times longer in a virtual environment than in a collocated one. Again, it takes longer and it takes more work.

Obviously, many tools are available for communicating virtually. Text messaging, instant messaging, posting questions on an intranet site, etc. are just some of the options in addition to email that provide varying degrees of communication efficiency given the purpose of the communication.

Furthermore, there are many things that are easier using electronic communication. And as more synchronous, informal methods of communication become integrated into our communication toolkit, the effort and planning it takes to get things done decreases.

But with the toolkit most of us are using these days, it’s pretty hard to argue that working virtually and the communication that goes along with doing that effectively requires less work. If you look at the overhead in communicating virtually, often across time zones or language and cultural differences, it takes more work to accomplish what’s expected of us than it would if we worked in a collocated environment.

I don’t get the sense that this always gets fully considered in the cost-benefit analysis when making decisions about people and organizations operating virtually. Do organizations only see the time savings of working virtually or do they account for the time costs of communicating virtually? And if the effort it takes to communicate effectively in a virtual environment is considered, is that reflected in the demands made of virtual workers? Or are more people doing more of their work virtually but actually taking on greater work loads?

Whether workers are all ordered back to the office or they continue to be distributed in different time zones and locations, the nature of our work and our reliance on electronic communication continue to increase the effort it takes to communicate effectively.

Anyone want to grab a cup of coffee and talk about it?


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