To Be or Not to Be Virtual!

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Virtual organizations are not new and many organizations have relied on this model to operate effectively in a global market. Educational institutions, especially, have been operating virtually through the provision of online courses for quite a while, and have even offered a menu of ways that students can access their education- through the traditional classroom, virtually or a hybrid of the two.  What is new is that the current pandemic has pushed many traditionally operating organizations into restructuring themselves to operate virtually.  It has also challenged all of us to look at how we define work and how and where we perform our work.

As individuals moved their desks from their office to their homes, organizations and employees found that there are both many positives as well as disadvantages to operating virtually, such as:

  1. Organizations found that by limiting working at a business location has helped to lower overhead costs, such as utilities. Those savings, however, may have been merely transferred to greater technology and communication costs.  Additional training may also have been required to bring the less tech savvy employees up to speed.
  2. The loss of sometimes long and arduous commute times were seen as a positive by employees and as a means for greater efficiency by their employers. In many cases this allowed for greater work flexibility and life/work balance for employees. Depending on the type of work, employees could sleep and work all night if they liked, allowing individuals to be more relaxed and to work on their own energy cycles as opposed to those imposed by a clock.   The looser and more flexible atmosphere created new tests for organizations around scheduling, work flow, centralized supervision and the impact of family and home distractions on work productivity.
  3. Technology has enabled new and varying means to communicating and meeting. The use of online video meetings, chat rooms, emails and texts surges in a virtual environment.  The down side is that there is also a greater chance for there to be miscommunications or misunderstandings. Body language is often hard to depict online and can be absolutely absent when the video is turned off.  Meaning can easily be misconstrued through texts and emails. This is especially true in very diverse organizations where the lens of each employee’s perspective is not clearly understood.
  4. Although technology has opened new doors of ways to connect, what easily gets lost is the sense of comradery and socializing that can occur during breaks in the coffee room or over lunch.  The opportunity exists to get to meet many more co-workers, but not really get to know them in any depth.  This can impact on an organization’s culture and ability to weave together many different personalities and perspectives.

One of key questions that emerges is what should an organization do when the pandemic is over?Should they return to the concept of a traditional workplace, remain a virtual organization, or create a hybrid model of in office and virtual work?Is there are new normal to work that is now emerging?Are we beginning to lose the rigid 9 to 5 concept of how we define when one should work? Are employees realizing that there are new ways to define and perform work? It is a little difficult to state that organizations will go back to the old normal when new normal are being created, not only by their employees but by their customer/client base.

Whether organizations choose to remain as a virtual organization or develop new hybrid models of in office and virtual work structures, new challenges emerge:

  1. How does an organization maintain its cohesiveness around its vision and mission?
  2. What type of culture is needed to foster and support virtual and hybrid organizations? How do organizations transfer from a currently understood culture to one that is newly emerging?  How can trust be developed and encouraged?
  3. How can the need for organizational change be identified and managed?
  4. Which organizational model will encourage connection, yet maintain accountability.  Hierarchy and central management may not work best is organizations that are more dispersed and fluid.
  5. What new leadership and management challenges may emerge?  What new leadership and management skills may be needed?
  6. How should organizations view and evaluate productivity and individual and team work goals?  How can consistency in work be measured?
  7. With a higher dependency on information flow, how can organizations prepare for varying technological needs?

It is clear that the recent pandemic has initiated many new challenges to organizations.It has also created many new opportunities for organizations to re-invent themselves to be more resilient and responsive to both employee and market needs.Various paths are available which can take organizations away from the traditional concept of work and work places into defining newer, and possibly better, ways to organize around work.

 

By: Marsha Tongel, Ph.D.

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