What about virtual work presents the greatest productivity challenges for you / your organization?
I am preparing to moderate / participate in a Virtual Work Success panel for high growth entrepreneurs for Big Council - Charlotte, NC and would appreciate your input.
So far, the list includes...
Thanks for this post. As you have found so far, there are many issues that come up. I am currently working with a client who is going through frequent reorganizations, with people changing roles almost on a weekly or monthly basis. This makes working virtually even more difficult.
Another issue that often comes up is a follow-on to the blind/deaf problem you mention above. And it has to do specifically with building meaningful relationships. As the virtual distance model points out, Affinity Distance is the most significant factor. Therefore knowing whether people's values align, whether they are part of a social network that yields 'good' connections, are appreciated for their contribution to the work in a visible way, and deeply internalize a sense of interdependence with teammates on shared goals and success are all major factors that contribute to virtual work productivity or a lack thereof.
Productivity is a tricky issue for us today. It can be measured in many ways. Traditionally it is seen as how many units of something or "widgets", are produced within a given timeframe. In the knowledge economy we have not yet successfully taken this widely accepted economic view of productivity and turned it into something useful when people are "thinking" for a living. So I would also add that we need to understand what productivity actually means as well as try to figure out how to maximize it.
Hope this helps.
Karen, thanks for the reminder of the importance of Affinity Distance.
How do you respond to those who question Affinity Distance because it is difficult to quantify?
Thanks for the great question and follow-up. Affinity distance is actually not that difficult to quantify. I have an estimation guideline that can be used for this purpose or people could take a Virtual Distance Assessment. And I'm sure there are other ways as well. I think we have pushed what have been called "soft" issues under the rug for way too long and I think we need to get out of the habit of thinking they are not quantifiable - because they are. But they are not soft. We can analytically see how affinity issues are impacting the bottom line. There is a direct, reliable and valid connection - from a statistical point of view.
It also just makes sense. When people's values are not aligned, when their social networks are impotent, when hierarchy and formal status takes precedence over someone's contribution and when people do not tangibly see how their goals are tied together or that they share the same future and fate, employees don't deliver. But what's even more profound in the virtual workforce is that all of these things become 'invisible' therefore companies have to be willing to take on the very challenging task of bringing things back into view. And that's something that could be measured and tied to results as well as productivity.
Neat that you used the term "invisible". I am a Lean practictioner - we are all about identifying and elminating waste. As I work with professionals in the modern workplace-including virtual professionals-I teach them to see "invisible waste" in their email management, time management, meeting management, and processes. Based on your comments, I need to add the waste of Low Affinity Distance to my list of wastes they need to learn to see.
How can I get a copy of your Affinity Distance estimation guideline?
Thanks for the great conversation!
I'd vote for "Being blind/deaf/mute in virtual meetings" and "Email jail" out of the items listed above.
I would also add that communication issues due to organizational silos have been a serious obstacle in my work with virtual teams. While these are a problem even for colocated teams, I have found them to be even tougher to overcome in a virtual setting.
Thanks for your reply, Lawrence.
Great point - the difficulty of communication across organizational silos is multiplied in the virtual work context.
Can you share a situation that has been particularly challenging?
Recently, I worked on a software development project that required multiple teams to integrate their web sites with a portal site. The portal site would be used to navigate to each of the component sites and also provide common services to each. The individual teams were geographically separate and culturally distinct. Many of the underlying business processes used by each team were different. This was all due to organizational silos that allowed each business line to develop its own culture and processes.
Attempts to bridge the gaps among the silos were hampered by geographical separation. We could not get all of the parties involved into a single room. WebEx teleconferences were scheduled, but we were often unable to resolve issues within the time allotted. Either items were left to be dealt with in future meetings, or fragile agreements that were made fell apart over time. Team members would either come up with new issues or rehash old ones. It became clear that discussion often ended because people abandoned the cause in order to deal with other work.
It is difficult to integrate groups from different parts of an organization, especially organizations that have grown through mergers or acquisitions. Few organizations are able or willing to make the effort to integrate cultures and work processes. The lack of effort hampers colocated organizations, but at least they can pull people together in an office, hallway or conference room if needed. Virtual teams don't even have that luxury.
I hope this helps,
Thanks for sharing the details of your experience. This issue is common among those who seek to improve the situation with Virtual Distance methods. I personally do not believe that it's possible to "merge" cultures - or even align them particularly well. In fact, I think it is, to some degree, a fools game.
In the digital age it is crucial to better understand where traditional management models and theories are helpful and where they just don't work anymore or make any sense. One practical way of dealing with such situations is to try to form what I call "super-cultures". Ones that are made up of high performers from different organizational areas, from 'old' cultures, who embark on a shared goal for the 'new' organization.
This can be achieved by creating what I have termed "tiger teams"; small groups of high-talent, high-energy employees from a mix of different areas charged with tackling challenges related to high virtual distance in the context of organizational silos. Tiger teams have a lot of authority as granted by senior management to come up with solutions and implement them. What eventually happens is that a super-culture is formed: one that is not like any of the 'old' cultures but formed as an overlay, with freshly minted interests that coalesce into an emergent super-culture. When individual tiger team members go back to their respective groups, they take with them enthusiasm and championing of new ideas and practices. If they are well respected, over time, others in the group follow the tiger team members' lead. And a new culture begins to develop - one that is not handicapped by mindsets that have been developed over decades or more.
But as you alluded to - it takes courage and committment from senior leadership - to let go of an illusion of control and have a high tolerance for ambiguity - a key aspect of leadership in today's virtual world.
If there's an interest in doing a webinar through the VDI on the topic of silos and the virtual workforce - overcoming engrained cultural barriers, please let us know and we can schedule something around this topic.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I like the concept of creating a "super-culture". You put your finger on two key success factors for that approach: senior management support and selecting well-respected resources to be part of the tiger team. Another factor that is so often woefully neglected is devoting sufficient planning and resources to managing the organizational changes required to allow the new super-culture to permeate the organization. Even well-respected resources pulled into a tiger team may not have the time or soft skills needed to make that happen.
I would love to participate in a webinar devoted to silos and the virtual workforce. I've witnessed the destructive force of silo mentality for so long and would love to know how others have dealt with it.