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Call it the paradox of work in the Internet era. High-tech makes for problems more complex than they were before, often requiring closer collaboration between people with more diverse skill sets. At the same time, technology makes it possible for those same people to work from anywhere, anytime they choose—in effect, pulling them farther apart.
It’s a shift that demands a new set of skills, tools, and leadership traits: tens of millions of professionals now interact online every day with colleagues who are physically located thousands of miles away—people they may never meet face-to-face, and who may not even work for the same company as them (or any company, for that matter).
Lynda Gratton, a London Business School professor who leads a research consortium examining workplace trends, says the shift has unfolded over the last three decades. The first wave began in the early 1980s, when big corporations hired armies of freelancers and independent contractors that could swarm around a specific project or parachute in with specialized expertise. The second wave began in the post-9/11 era, when the combination of corporate cost-cutting, faster Internet speeds, and a desire for more flexible work schedules led companies to encourage their existing employees—even senior ones—to log into the office from home.
The third major wave is now underway. It’s what Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics and a leading expert on the intersection of technology and work, calls the “network model.” Rather than simply accommodating more flexible work arrangements, or outsourcing smaller, non-core work to contractors, the network model focuses on bringing together a diverse array of people and groups, who may or may not be employed by the company, with different skills and perspectives—and potentially in different time zones, countries, or even continents—to work on a company’s most difficult, sometimes seemingly intractable problems. And it became business as usual so quickly that companies have not stopped to think about the new demands it places on their teams.
The transition does, indeed, pose significant challenges. Despite the rapid take-up of remote work, outsourcing, and crowdsourcing, the reality is that current technology does not offer the same opportunities to recognize verbal and non-verbal cues as an in-person conversation. Even when people sit a few feet away from each other, it’s easy for colleagues to get their signals crossed. Put them in time zones on the opposite sides of the world, and managers have to be “extra sensitive to group dynamics,” Gratton says.
The lack of face-time also makes it harder for leaders to spot when a project or initiative is going off-track. In an office, it’s pretty easy to tell what people are doing or ask a team member to lend a hand. “If you are working virtually, you can’t just walk across the room,” Gratton noted.
THE VIRTUES OF THE VIRTUAL
A conversation with Jenny Englert, Senior Cognitive Engineer, PARC, a Xerox Company
You’ve made a study of how the smartphone has changed the working world of the 21st century. What advantages did you find?
JENNY ENGLERT: It allows you to work anytime, anywhere. It allows you to leverage micro-moments to get small bits of work done throughout your day, while you’re walking down the hall, while you’re stopped at a red light. It helps people balance work and life in new ways. Since you can incorporate separate work into micro-moments, you’re getting more done. You’re more efficient throughout the day. That helps you get your work done and still have time to do the things that you need in your personal life. This blending and blurring of boundaries between work and personal allows people to prioritize what they need to work on in the moment, whether it’s personal or work or both.
What are the disadvantages?
JENNY ENGLERT: One of the big findings of our study is that these mobile devices, especially smartphones, have become an appendage. They’re not carried in bags; they’re carried on the body. They’re next to you throughout the day; people sleep with them. They serve so many different functions that they’re an integral part of peoples’ lives now. Always being on and attentive to what’s coming through the smartphone is a different experience for your nervous system from walking in the woods with no technology. So I worry about society, and kids especially, who are just so tied to electronic technology. I worry about their ability to really relax, and I worry about potential physical problems from this lifestyle.
How about office email—blessing or curse?
JENNY ENGLERT: Email is like your pulse to your work, a summary of how things are going. As you watch email come in throughout the day, you find all kinds of information about the status of your work. What do you still have to do? What are you late on? Things that keep bubbling up to the top of your email represent a higher level of priority. It’s a digital to-do list.
You found that collaboration could be a challenge when some employees were working remotely. In what way?
JENNY ENGLERT: If you have most of the people working in an office, and a few people working remotely, and the schedules don’t match up, there can be some difficulties if there aren’t structures in place to call people together at the right time. For example, as important deadlines approach, teams need to have easier access to their colleagues at a moment’s notice, so that if something goes wrong, they can sync up and respond to the problem.
In your studies, were employees who worked remotely happy about that?
JENNY ENGLERT: People who worked from home and remotely mostly said that it was so beneficial for them that they would never choose a job that required them to be in the office from 9 to 5 again. People were curtailing their career development for it. One person said, “I would never become a manager because I would have to go back to the office, and I don’t want to do that.” The flexibility of remote work is highly valued.
So how can leaders foster closer collaboration when their employees and partners are located so far apart? Gratton says that it starts by coming into the project with a clear understanding of the nature of the tasks. For complex tasks that require judgment, insight, and discretion, nothing can replace a face-to-face conversation. But for many routine tasks, a brief e-mail or phone conversation will suffice.
“Face-to-face conversations are like eating the richest cream cake you can imagine – you just can’t do it all the time,” Gratton says. “People have to get used to using the technology and have to get good at it.”
Technology is, after all, playing a critical role in both project management and relationship management. Many global companies are deploying what Tapscott calls “collaboration platforms”—essentially, social networks for business enterprises that provide online tools for brainstorming, decision-making, and keeping a complex project on track. Some even have vast databases that offer remote workers information about their colleagues that they can’t learn in person.
Collaboration platforms have been shown to work phenomenally well in enterprises of all sizes, whether 3,000 to 300,000. But success or failure doesn’t begin or end with technology. It’s about the human beings using it, after all. The same principles that make any leader or team great apply just as readily to digitally dispersed teams as they do to those who work side-by-side.
Rather than assuming everyone involved in a virtual project will just log in and do “do their jobs”, for example, each leader would do well to get to know each stakeholder involved, to help them understand their role in the broader project, company, and community. Leaders are responsible for the group dynamics, too. They might, then, initiate some kind of group phone call, where each team member speaks about their work preferences, experiences, families, and greater aspirations. In such a setting the leader can learn valuable information, and team members can get to know one another.
Technology, in other words, is never a substitute for humanity. And as in any physical office, someone always needs to keep an eye on the objective and make sure everyone’s paddling in the same direction, at the right pace—all the more so when the team is virtual. “The project manager needs to be a lot stronger to realize where the task is going, who needs to be brought into the conversation, and what the priorities are,” Gratton says. “When [networked] teams fall apart, it’s usually because there wasn’t anyone keeping up the momentum.” Call it management on steroids.
Tapscott agrees that 21st-century enterprise places high demands on both leaders and employees. But adapting to those challenges could produce equally high rewards. “You get a higher metabolism, more [stakeholder] engagement, better innovation, more loyalty, and you break down the silos that exist.”