ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Pros and Cons of Leading a Virtual Organization

Today’s technology enables us to work anywhere in the world and to communicate with each other in a variety of ways. On the face of it, it would seem that this is the ideal situation. Employees can work from their homes, or at the beach for that matter. Employers have less overhead because they don’t have to maintain office space for each and every employee all the time. In most cases accountability can be maintained by setting and meeting goals – having deliverables.

But, one of the things we’ve learned from research conducted at Stanford, is that when people are not working where they can see each other they tend to believe they are working harder than the next guy. A Stanford researcher (whose name I’ve forgotten) had a group of graduate students working on a joint project separately. Since they were working without seeing each other work, most of them started grumbling that they were working harder than their fellow workers. When the researcher put cam-recorders in their cubicles, such that they could actually see each other working either in real time, or when they chose to look in, the grumbling ceased.

There is less trust and less respect when we don’t see each other face-to-face.

I’ve long been aware of the importance of the informal, spontaneous, and impromptu conversations and encourage my clients to create open spaces that encourage people to chat with each other. In his book Jamming, Professor Kao who traveled the world, described many places that designed spaces for the interaction of others. Creativity happens in the spontaneous.
Bruno Bettleheim wrote about the in-between spaces used by children when they were thinking, or under stress. It is a similar concept.

So, one of the most important ingredients to organizational and individual growth, is the ability to get together with others informally to “chew the fat”, share an idea, brainstorm together – and to create the next great thing. Or, equally important, to discover that a project in the design phase was really a bad idea and should be squashed.

People who are working apart from each other and only come together for an hour or two on the phone in their formal weekly or monthly meeting miss out on these opportunities.

Too, management is less able to interact encouragingly, to see what is going on, to evaluate who needs some extra help, or to do any of those empathic things we talk about as so important in leaders and managers.

The bonding that is necessary for extra-ordinary team work is far less likely to occur when people aren’t working in near proximity to each other. Just one story – a group of employees were working together in a small area. Two additional people were added to the group and management determined that the space was getting too crowded. Intending to have a positive outcome, three members of the group were moved to a space across the hall. Yes, directly across the hall. These three people became the outsiders in just a very short amount of time. They were not seeing each other constantly, and the opportunities to chat informally disappeared. Now, they needed to actually get up and go across the hall.

Talking on the phone gives us some clues. E-mail almost none. Face-to-face meetings are the most valuable of all and when we have virtual organizations that is what we lose the most.

I strongly suggest my clients who have mostly virtual organizations – or those who are managing groups of people in other areas – other countries – find time to bring people together. If possible do it quarterly. If that’s much too costly or too difficult, at least do it once a year. Allow plenty of time for the informal socializing during those retreats.

When I work with my CEOs to set up agendas for retreats we balance work-related content, with social time and also allow time for recreation and rest.

Bringing people together and allowing them to get to know each other personally significantly increases morale, trust, productivity, motivation and creativity. It is worth the time and price.


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