by Gerry Davis

Working in the Virtual World

Feb 08, 20077 mins
IT LeadershipNetworkingOutsourcing

Executives are grappling with new ways of managing their staff as the world grows flatter and leadership teams are decentralized and virtualized.

On any given day, 42 percent of IBM’s workforce of 330,000 workers does not report to the location where they are based. The company’s human resources head Randy Macdonald says the past 10 years will be characterized as the fall of the traditional business empire and the rise or emergence of global collaborative and virtual empires.

This new paradigm is enabled by the proliferation of communications technologies, broadband and changing business models. In a faster-paced, more competitive world, executives must be more flexible and agile, and must acquire new communication and management skills. Paradoxically, a virtual world calls for greater relationship-building efforts than in traditional teams or organizations.

Macdonald says that many millions of dollars have been spent on teaching employees verbal communication skills. “In this new world of virtualization and visualization, we haven’t taught these skills. Going back to some of the basics in this evolving world of work will be critical.”

Eric Lesser, head of human capital research for IBM’s consulting practice, agrees. “With a virtual world, you change the dynamics around social capital and you change the value of the relationships you have.”

On the one hand, you get to expand greatly the number of relationships, but they also become more difficult to maintain in terms of geography, time zone and culture. “What this means is that relationship maintenance becomes increasingly more important. You need to pay more attention to relationships,” Lesser says

Keys to the DisembodiedHe says that the keys to communication for executives in the new, disembodied organizations are: connections, relationships and common context. “It’s more important to maintain your network and your connections by having regular face-to-face meetings and then to build a relationship of trust, and to understand the context in which you find your distributed workers,” says Lesser.

While flexibility is valued and technology enables flexibility, he adds that executives must take care to maintain balance. Without balance, an executive can quickly be overwhelmed. Boundaries should be set and respected.

“I can do an event with my kid from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. but will be happy to get back online at night. That’s not a stigma within groups I work with at IBM,” Lesser says. “The challenge, though, is your ability to shut it off. Executives and managers need to help workers to define rules about when they’re available and when they’re not, to help them draw boundaries and guidelines.” Lesser says one of the biggest challenges is making the right connections between people globally: “How do I find the person who can answer my question with one phone call or maybe two rather than five or six?” According to Lesser, businesses need an organizing framework or taxonomy for their staff software so staff can rapidly find key people. Once the experts are located, enabling technologies such as instant messaging, conference calls and videoconferencing take over.

“But technology by itself is not enough. If you have key sites or project teams located away from the main office, you have to give people the opportunity to meet face-to-face at least once. You need to build up a trust which comes only from a deep understanding of what people do, their values and motivations.”

Truth Through TrustMark Allaby, a Toronto, Canada-based financial services partner for Accenture, says that the first rule for a virtual workforce is that relationships need to be established ahead of the virtualization.

He says Accenture runs many management meetings by conference call, and uses multiple virtual channels such as instant messaging and video-conferencing. “It works well in a workforce where people know each other, where there’s a relaxed environment and trust, so that participants are comfortable saying what they think and asking direct questions.”

But Allaby says that with large offshore project teams the challenge is greater. “When running large project teams in India and Manila, we didn’t just pick up the phone and say, ‘Right, guys, we’re a team, let’s get to it’. We had to go and build relationships. We sent people at all levels from the onshore teams and had some of the offshore guys come onshore. If you don’t do this you just get a lot of talking but no real communication.”

According to Allaby, e-mail is the biggest killer man has ever invented. “People start flinging e-mails back and forth and never resolve anything. You need to force yourself onto the phone, talk things through and listen to other people’s point of view. Some of the disciplines around good meeting habits need to be re-learnt in the virtual environment. You need to really try to understand what they’re getting at, as opposed to just pushing your own topic.”

Back to the FutureCap Gemini Australia technology services head Bradley Freeman says that he has noticed younger workers are starting to create face-to-face communities in response to the virtualization of their workplaces. “There’s something in that human touch that they are re-inventing,” he says.

“There’s an equilibrium point where you seem to revert to an old-style community,” he says. “I’ve seen that with the 20 to 25-year-olds joining our industry. They’re tech-savvy and comfortable in a virtual workforce, but are now starting to cluster around home base, and the home and office community are starting to gravitate together.” Freeman says that consulting firms are often victims of “the big airport syndrome”, with many of their offices located close to airports because of the time spent travelling to client locations.

“We’re more conscious today of the fact that if you’ve got people travelling all the time and you don’t have that connection and bonding to an office on a regular basis, some of your people will go feral—they go, they leave,” he says. “There’s something in human nature that, unless you’re a sociopath, yearns for a personal connection, sense of community and knowledge-sharing face-to-face. I’m sensing a return to community, particularly by our young people who are tired of being virtual. Travel is no longer an incentive.”

Push on All Cylinders

One of the archetypal virtual corporations is Yahoo, and Mark Ketzel, the company’s vice-president of human resources for Asia-Pacific, says the key for his executives and managers is balance. “We have business units in different locations driving products across different geographic areas out of Sunnyvale, Calif., into the U.S. market as well as to Europe and the Asia-Pacific,” he says. “We’re truly global, reaching one out of every two internet users in the world on a monthly basis.”

With the complexity arising from a virtualized workforce, Ketzel says the key challenge was to “get things done” on both a global basis while using a matrix management approach. “We push on all cylinders, using our internal systems, e-mail and lots of instant messaging. We’re more electronic-oriented than voice-oriented. But what makes it all work is the fact that it’s balanced out with a lot of face-to-face meetings, team interactions and lots of travel. You absolutely need to develop these relationships before virtual communication can be successful.”

At Heidrick & Struggles, we believe that the executives of the 21st century need to be both more flexible and more aware of staff slipping into technology and out of communication. Interpersonal skills such as team-building, collaboration and relationship focus are critical to powerful and effective leadership in a virtual world. Leaders need to propel their teams into face-to-face relationships and avoid the situation that one executive described to us, where a group of people—occupying three different floors of the same building—regularly communicated via teleconference

This article originally appeared in CIO Asia