Beyond BYOD: Preparing Workers to Go the Digital Distance
Jun 21, 2012 Comment
Businesses and IT departments are grappling with a rise in BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), with many employees preferring to use their own smartphones, tablets, laptops and other gadgets for work, rather than employer-issued devices.
Whether they are "digital natives" (younger employees who grew up in the digital age) or "digital immigrants" (those who have adapted), there's no question that today's workers are increasingly tech-savvy. People have favorite devices and apps when they are away from work, and the desire to merge digital worlds is understandable.
However, being familiar and comfortable with technology tools is not the same as having the skills and experience to use those tools successfully. Having a smartphone doesn't prepare someone for the demands of the digital workplace, any more than having a good pair of running shoes prepares someone to run a marathon.
In fact, for many workers, every day at work is a digital decathlon, where a wide variety of tasks and relationships must be mediated and managed through technology. Getting everyone's devices to work together is just half the battle.
One of the key capabilities required of today's workers is the ability to function as part of a virtual team. Even when employees are collocated and can sit around the same table, teamwork can prove challenging. When team members are dispersed across multiple time zones, being an effective team player requires a whole new skill set.
In a recent blog post for the Harvard Business Review, Mark Mortenson, assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, and Michael O'Leary, assistant professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, spoke to some of the most common questions they hear about managing virtual teams.
One of those questions was "When and how often do we need to meet face-to-face (FTF)?" They responded that research supports having FTF meetings early in a team's life, but not necessarily first thing: "Having some initial virtual interactions before a first FTF meeting can actually enhance the benefits of that first FTF meeting by allowing team members to focus on things like who has what task-related expertise before they are influenced by the potential biases that FTF interactions can trigger. Then, the first FTF meeting can be used to establish work practices the tams will need to effectively collaborate when the pressure mounts."
This answer points to one of the potential upsides of virtual teams: working remotely can actually remove some tendencies toward bias. But it also provides a sense of the sophisticated level of social awareness managers and employees must cultivate when working on virtual teams. You can't just hook everyone up remotely and expect teams to function. In addition, this answer presumes the opportunity for FTF meetings, but sometimes that's not possible due to budget or time constraints. Many teams never meet in person and must be maintained solely through virtual connections.
Mortenson and O'Leary address the social aspect, too, explaining that "people have evolved to become extremely good at dynamically adapting to our social environment. In teams, we constantly synchronize and modify our actions and expectations to keep them aligned with those of our collaborators. Unfortunately, this is precisely what distributed teams are bad for." They go on to site several studies about the challenges of distributed teams, and part of their advice to managers of virtual teams is to promote some informal interaction.
What it comes down to is that virtual teamwork layers new challenges on top of the inherent challenges of teamwork, and the skills required do not come easily or automatically. In addition to syncing up information across devices and platforms, workers have to be in sync with each other's goals and preferences -- even with team members they may never meet in person.
For instance, technology enables "instant meetings" where teams can come together on the fly to deal with a problem. Many employers have implemented Unified Communications, where calendars, email, and voice mail are tied together seamlessly with the enterprise. It only takes moments and minimal effort to see everyone's availability and set up a virtual meeting. But people need to decide when such meetings are necessary and appropriate or risk abusing the ability to convene the team. Similarly, technology makes it very simple to share information. But that also means it's dangerously easy to over-share and overwhelm.
Using technology tools effectively can build trust and support productivity. Using them poorly can result in distrust and dysfunction. To avoid the pitfalls and maximize the potential of today's technology-driven workplace, workers need to have higher-order digital skills in addition to familiarity with devices and applications.
To cultivate those skills, college students and adult learners would be wise to seek out well-designed online courses, including hybrid classes where most of the coursework takes place virtually with less frequent in-person meetings. Even for students on a traditional campus, classes with a significant online component can be structured to provide important practice in what it takes to be part of a virtual team and how to manage a virtual presence.
What have you learned from working on virtual teams, in school or at work? And how do you think we could we better prepare workers to succeed in the digital workplace?
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