Connectivity and digital tools have given us the opportunity to be flexible without reducing productivity. However it has become apparent that virtual working is not as simple as changing your office location – organizations have discovered an urgent need for virtual skills.
The world has changed and our understanding of “office” has correspondingly changed. An “office” is no longer automatically a block in the center of a city with rows of desks and phones.
CEO Today Magazine suggests that by 2020 (within one year of writing) 50% of British workers will be working remotely. For many people, their office could be a converted bedroom, a hotel room, a train seat, a shared workspace, a café or any space that has an internet connection and a power socket.
Creating a virtual experience
The evolution of office work is simple. From slate and scroll to pen and paper, to typewriter, to the desktop computer, to hyper-connectivity.
Virtual working is not just working remotely or in a different location: we are just as likely to email the person sitting across from us in the office than speak to them; we work with shared drives, online documents, instant messaging. Physical location is no longer a factor in working.
The need for virtual skills is behind Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus – a recognition that the way we work is changing.
However, we must be careful that, as we move into the future of work, we don’t reduce productivity.
Virtual working must not only replicate what works now; virtual working must enhance it.
And that is why we need virtual skills.
The buzzword of 2019 is “experience” – the customer experience, the virtual experience, the user experience. For virtual working to be most effective, we need to create a virtual experience that gives both employers and employees what they need.
Getting the right balance
The Harvard Business Review is not alone in recognizing that financial reward is not the only reason we work. Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, has identified the key reasons we are prepared to sacrifice 65% of our waking time for someone else’s gain.
An employee needs:
When employees have the flexibility to work remotely, it is very easy to lose sight of these key factors. The more we connect virtually, the less we belong, the harder it is to see the bigger picture and the less likely we are to be content – even with the huge advances in software, the virtual world is still imperfect.
Virtual working is impersonal and can make workers feel isolated, even if they are in the same office as others.
Learning and development professionals have recognized that the need for virtual skills is acute, but while 30% of organizations provide training for virtual working, training focuses on how to use the software and on understanding policies. But the real skills gap lies in enabling employees to work productively beyond the software.
Real virtual skills must recreate satisfaction, belonging and meaning in a workplace that is in a new dimension.
Working for fun
Enjoyment at work is not necessarily the first thing on the list of job requirements, but it’s crucial. Happy people work better, make better judgments and collaborate better.
A Forbes article suggests that happy salespeople increase their sales by 37%. Isolation and an inability to see the value of our work are the enemy of enjoyment. According to one charity – 15% of UK workers have suffered from mental health difficulties and 13% of all sick days can be attributed to mental ill health.
So, how do we create effective virtual skills that meet our human need for enjoyment, belonging and meaning? Furthermore, what are those skills?
The good news is that they aren’t new skills; they are more like power-ups. A virtual meeting gives us a great case study to model skills that are relevant outside the meeting as well.
If you haven’t attended a virtual meeting (or even if you have and want a small distraction), watch this Tripp and Tyler video, A Virtual Meeting in Real Life to see some of the pitfalls.
There are two key areas where our virtual skills need particular enhancement:
- Openness and transparency
There is a great temptation in a virtual meeting to get down to business straight away. Everyone has managed to negotiate the software and hardware challenges, so you need to get the decision made before anyone drops off.
But that’s not how it works in face-to-face life, is it? In any meeting, there is a period of catching up. You may try to schedule a meeting with another attendee about something else; you may discuss your weekend plans, congratulate a colleague on a birthday or anniversary or ask about their children.
Small talk is not a waste of time.
Virtual workers who do not build relationships with colleagues are unlikely to build relationships with their customers and clients, they are more likely to struggle with new processes and more likely to change jobs often.
Although not directly contributing to productivity, it is creating a relationship. For some people, it’s their opportunity to catch up on office gossip, to tap into a different power structure or gain vital visibility with more senior colleagues. A virtual meeting that skips small talk is inferior to the face-to-face meeting because it does not build social working.
Don’t just limit small talk to formal meetings. When you email a colleague for the first time, maybe it’s worth phoning them first just to establish that contact and finding out about who they are as a person. If you bring a new person into a chat or email conversation, introduce them briefly to the others.
Use group chat software (e.g.: Microsoft Teams or WhatsApp) to have informal conversations that may or may not be directly related to work – for some teams, a monthly virtual coffee meeting is a great way to build that sense of belonging.
TIP 1: Build small talk into all your virtual interactions
Openness and transparency
It is an irony of the 21st century that we have more communication channels than at any time in history, but we are incredibly poor at communicating.
Whether it is through information overload, lack of clarity, forgetfulness, or deliberate miscommunication, the message isn’t getting through.
The sheer variety of channels is partly to blame. I prefer email, but you prefer WhatsApp; our manager prefers Yammer, but her boss prefers Teams; the internal Comms team makes announcements on the SharePoint site.
The leader’s responsibility is to be undemocratic and dictate what each channel is for and how various categories of information are communicated.
At a team level, each member should participate in deciding how day-to-day communications work. The team will intentionally decide the level of formality, frequency of communication, which channel is used for simple instructions, the desirability of “thank you” or acknowledgment emails.
And above all, we must remember that whether by evolution or by intelligent design, we primarily communicate with voice.
The simplest way to transfer a message from one person to another is by voice, which allows clarification, questions and instant confirmation.
In a virtual working context, it is easy for messages to become distorted or misinterpreted – we don’t have the contextual clues of face-to-face communication to help us understand.
For virtual meetings, turn your webcam on so that you can see the face of the speaker; similarly don’t mute your microphone (unless there is really distracting background noise) – the small “hmmms” and “ahhhs” are part of collaborative communication and help both the speaker and other participants gauge the level of shared understanding.
TIP 2: Turn your webcam on
Context is key
We have already mentioned that virtual working often leads to reduced social interaction. A by-product of this is that the reasons behind decisions are often obscured.
If you work in a physical office, it’s obvious why a proposed office move is needed – more space, more convenient, cheaper rent etc. For those working remotely, the reason may be unclear and it may cause unnecessary worry.
Successful communication depends on understanding the context: remote workers and co-located workers have a different context so we shouldn’t be surprised when they miscommunicate.
TIP 3: Don’t assume that everyone reads between the lines
Learning how to communicate effectively is the most important power-up skill for virtual working.
The virtual workplace is the modern workplace and relying on last century’s methods will lead to failure. Upgrading our virtual communication skills requires a little adjustment, but it will make a huge difference. The need for virtual skills is acute, but the remedy is comparatively simple.