The burdens of working face to face

Knowledge work no longer requires people to be in the same place at the same time to work as a team.
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/21/2003

Just as technology created a global market and changed the working world, so too will it change the way people work in teams. In the process it is likely to dispatch some of our misplaced dependence on face-to-face time.

It is still early days for virtual teamwork, but there are experts who say it is the way of the future. Sure, there are concessions that have to be made: it may take a little longer, and the team definitely loses some of the camaraderie typical of workplace teams, but the upside of reduced travel, improved flexibility and the ability to work with the best possible people in the world regardless of location and organization far outweigh those downsides. Simply put, virtual teamwork means you can save money by no longer having to physically relocate people, while allowing you to tap into the best talent anywhere in the world.

The technical ability to work together as a virtual team already exists and the technology will, of course, only get better.

Even five years ago, most people wouldn’t have believed it would be possible for a team of people scattered around the world to sit at their desktops and look at the same engineering schematic or blueprint with anyone at any time able to pick up an electronic pointer to make changes, explains Gil Gordon, author and expert on telecommuting and promoter of virtual teams. The latest innovations in data transfer enable doctors to wear data gloves in remote locations that transmit sensations across the Internet. “We really do know that these things work,” says Gordon. “This is no longer the stuff of science fiction.”

Of course technology can do nothing about time-zone problems, but not every team meeting requires everybody to be in attendance at the same time. With a team of 10 people it is possible to virtually bring together six or seven at the same time and record the session for the other members to view later.

So if the technology already exists, why has the concept not yet caught on? It’s less about the technology and more about the mindset that enables it, says Gordon.

Many people are sceptical about the effectiveness of virtual teams, believing teams are most effective when people are gathered in one location to share thoughts and ideas, make proposals and counter proposals. Sceptics worry the creative spark that comes from member interaction will be lost if employees are dispersed around the world.

“Open the skull of the manager and see what he or she thinks about teamwork, and I would venture to say that 90 per cent of them would see people sitting around a table — people physically being together,” says Gordon.

“Essentially with electronic communication, you lose body language, which happens to be an important communication device.” Getting to know the person face to face in an informal manner has benefits. “Simply knowing the person, being able to joke with the person. Jokes don’t go over that well on the Internet because you can’t see the smirk or the glistening in the eyes,” says Willi Wiesner, associate professor of human resources at McMaster University in Hamilton. In fact, jokes can sometimes escalate into real conflict.

But eventually businesses are going to realize there are significant cost savings to be had from eliminating relocations and business trips while still producing as good a product.

If airfares were cut by a half or a third there’d probably be less call for virtual teamwork, says Gordon. But the cost of travel, while still a factor, is no longer the biggest problem. Business travel, once considered glamorous, is now at best a bore and often a tribulation. Constantly travelling around the world and back in 48 hours for four-hour meetings loses its allure in short order.

Beyond reducing business travel, the evolving nature of work will likely make it possible to eliminate many relocation assignments, says Gordon. He predicts at least a quarter of relocation assignments could be done virtually, maybe even as many as half. This is significant as the number of people who are unwilling to pack up their lives and move to another location grows.

It will depend on the nature of the relocation assignment, says Gordon. When it comes to sales, it will be necessary to have someone on the ground meeting customers. But there is little reason a person in accounting or marketing has to leave home to fill a position.

There is no doubt that teamwork in a virtual environment requires people to develop and hone new skills and adapt to limited communication channels, says Joan Rentsch, associate professor of industrial organizational psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. However, this does not preclude them from doing great work if the company takes steps to help team members work in a virtual environment. Whenever possible bring members together before they begin working on their task. Members can become familiar with each other, maybe get an idea of that sense of humour or personality that infuse communication styles and most importantly, says Rentsch, the team members can become clear about their duties and responsibilities. While this is best done in person, Rentsch believes it can also be done virtually and she is working on what she calls “virtual icebreakers,” that allow people to share concepts of teamwork and learn how to make points effectively. “Some people are very effective communicators using e-mail,” she says. But it is a skill that can be taught, learned and developed.

Aside from functional barriers around accessibility to technology, users also need to have some minimal amount of training, says Gordon. Teleconferencing has become virtually ubiquitous yet most people don’t feel they get the same value from a conference call that they do from being in a room with the rest of the team but that’s only because people don’t know how to use the technology properly.

Benefit of spontaneous contact

While there is something to be said for people sitting around the table having coffee and talking about whatever the task at hand may be, for every time there is a serendipitous benefit of spontaneous contact after bringing everyone together, Gordon argues there is a greater number of benefits stemming from virtual collaboration.

Face-to-face time is essentially overrated and a great deal of knowledge work can be done just as well by virtual teams. Sceptics may say that if somebody needs to ask a team member or another employee a question it’s important for them to be able to walk down the hall and ask them in person. But a lot of people confuse necessity with accessibility, says Gordon. Having a person in the same building typically increases the chances they will become bogged down with unnecessary intrusions. “The office is a terrible place to do office work,” he says.

And researchers are even finding other unexpected benefits of virtual teamwork. Managers are forced to be more efficient at planning and running meetings, for example. People sitting around a table in a meeting room often won’t have access to resources or information they have back at their desks and some people are intimidated by people of authority or even physical presence. These factors are less pronounced by electronic communication, so when people are meeting electronically they feel more free to share what they really think or feel about things, says Wiesner.

Gordon sees the move to virtual teamwork as part of a larger and inevitable shift in the way work is done.

If there is one thing telecommuting has taught, it’s that people don’t have to come into the office to do work. “The office is the outgrowth of the farm,” he says. Bringing people together at the same time in the same place is mostly unnecessary in this day and age. “This is a very revolutionary change that we are still learning how to deal with.

“I would never in my wildest dreams suggest it replace people coming together. That would be tragic,” he says. There is value in the personal camaraderie and the collegiality that comes from being together in one place which can never be replaced, nor should it be.

Besides, there will always be instances when people are dealing with some kind of physical item that requires them to come together. To use a high-profile example, regardless of the numbers of conference calls conducted, managers and decision-makers at Firestone would end up, at some point, sitting around a table looking at a bad tire trying to figure out what went wrong, says Gordon.

But in the knowledge economy those instances grow fewer and fewer. The fact remains that face-to-face time can be extremely inefficient and businesses should take a serious look at when they need it and when they don’t. “We’re never going to replace the in-person stuff, but we are going to get closer to it,” says Gordon.

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