The Virtual Workplace: A Reality Now
Wayne F. Cascio
University of Colorado Denver
Consider the new paradigm of workanytime, anywhere, in real space
or in cyberspace. For many employers the virtual workplace, in which employees operate
remotely from each other and from managers, is a reality now, and all indications are that
it will become even more prevalent in the future. In and of itself, this represents a
dramatic change in how we work, and it presents new challenges for our profession. The
challenges stem from the physical separation of workers and managers wrought by such
information-age arrangements as telecommuting and virtual teams. "How can I manage
them if I cant see them?" is a question that many managers ask.
Technology: Enabler of the Virtual Workplace
Where we work, when we work, and how we communicate are being
revolutionized, as a "seamless" web of electronic communications
mediae-mail, voice mail, cellular telephones, laptops with modems, hand-held
organizers, video conferencing, and interactive pagersmakes teamwork and mobility a
reality. Not only is work becoming seamless as it moves between home, office, and phone,
but it also is becoming endless as it rolls through a 24-hour day (Power Gizmos, 1997). To
be viable, virtual offices require four types of information:
Online materials that can be downloaded and printed
Databases on products and customers that are accessible from remote
Well-indexed, automated central files that are accessible from remote
A way to track the location of mobile workers
When Virtual Work Arrangements Are Appropriate
Virtual workplaces are not appropriate for all jobs. Jobs in sales,
marketing, and consulting seem to be suited best, although even in these jobs, virtual
work arrangements are not recommended for new employees or those who are new to a
position. The key is to work with employees well ahead of planned transitions. Firms such
as Lotus, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard have written guidelines, training, and networks of
peers to facilitate the transition. For example, Hewlett-Packards guidelines for
virtual workplaces address topics such as who can participate, family and household
issues, remote office setup, and administrative processes.
Assuming that virtual work arrangements are appropriate, and that at
least some employees are willing to try them, how should a manager proceed? Two types of
virtual work arrangements that are becoming more popular are virtual teams and
telecommuting. Lets consider each of these:
In a virtual team, members primary interaction is through some
combination of electronic communication systems. Members may never "meet" in the
traditional sense (Power Gizmos, 1997). Such an arrangement provides several advantages:
It saves time, travel expenses, and eliminates lack of access to
Teams can be organized whether or not members are in reasonable
proximity to each other
Firms can use outside consultants without incurring expenses for
travel, lodging, and downtime
Virtual teams allow firms to expand their potential labor markets,
enabling them to hire and retain the best people regardless of their physical location
Employees can accommodate both personal and professional lives
Dynamic team membership allows people to move from one project to
Employees can be assigned to multiple, concurrent teams
Team communications and work reports are available online to facilitate
swift responses to the demands of a global market
Of course the major disadvantages of virtual teams are the lack of
physical interactionwith its associate verbal and nonverbal cuesand the
synergies that often accompany face-to-face communication. Despite these drawbacks,
virtual teams are growing in popularity. "Groupware," computer-based systems
explicitly designed to support groups of people working together, enables virtual
interactions (Ishii, Kobayashi, & Arita, 1994). Groupware includes components from
simple to sophisticated. The simplest forms are E-mail and newsgroups. In the middle are
forms routing and document management. Sophisticated groupware includes interactive
systems that link employees with one another and with customers. Interactive video
conferencing that incorporates document cameras with zoom features using WYSIWIS
technology ("what you see is what I see") is an example of this. Corporate
intranets afford some of the highest gains now available from groupware. The goal of
groupware technology is simple: to promote and improve interaction among individuals
(Aannestad & Hoooper, 1997). This is collaborative empowerment.
Training members and managers of virtual teams. A 1996 survey
conducted by Dale Carnegie Training found that 90% of American workers spend at least part
of their work day in a team situation, yet only about half received any formal teamwork
training. Virtual teams add another layer of complexity to any teamwork situation. They
have created a rich training agenda, for example:
How to use the software to enhance team performance
How to manage the anonymous environment, and when to use it
How to provide anonymous participation and feedback when ideas or
criticism need to be brought out. This is particularly important since the traditional
cues of social interactionbody language and hand gesturesmay not be available
Social protocol for virtual teams
Since changes in team membership must occur with seamless continuity,
it is important to teach common culture valuesfor example, team membership may
change frequently, and it is not personal
Another form of virtual work arrangement is telecommutingwork
carried out in a location that is remote from central offices or production facilities,
where the worker has no personal contact with coworkers, but is able to communicate with
them using electronic means (Gupta, Karimi, & Somers, 1995). As of late 1997, roughly
11 million US workers telecommuted, a 30% increase since 1995, according to a study by
AT&T (Jackson, 1997). Two of every three Fortune 500 companies now employ
Company practices with telecommuting. Travelers Insurance provides
orientation programs for telecommuters, their managers, and also for their coworkers who
do not telecommute. GTE pays for office systems and equipment that does not duplicate what
employees use at work. However, Hewlett-Packard employees must buy their own equipment.
When telecommuting does makes sense (right job, right person, right
reason, right boss) firms report that peoples strategic planning skills go up
dramatically because they have blocks of time to think (Warner, 1997). People themselves
say they are as much as 40% more productive while working away from the office, because
they have fewer distractions.
They need to send a few more voice mails and e-mails to keep the boss
informed, but technology makes this possiblelaptops and computer servers that give
mobile employees access to company files. "Mix and match" arrangements, in which
workers spend one or two days a week at the office, where they can interact with managers
and coworkers, seem to work best. In fact, AT&T found in its 1997 survey, that fully
one third of telecommuters would look for other work if they were forced back into the
office fold. More than 70% reported that they were more satisfied with their jobs than
before they started telecommuting, and 75% reported feeling more satisfied with their
personal and family lives than before starting work at home, for reasons including better
relations with spouses and children, improved morale, and less stress (Jackson, 1997).
Virtual Office Challenges for Managers
By far the biggest challenge is performance management ("If I
cant see employees, how do I know that they are working?"). This is not the
same thing as performance appraisal, an exercise that many managers do annually to
identify and discuss job-relevant strengths and weaknesses of individuals or teams. In
contrast, performance management is part of a continuous process of improvement over time.
It demands daily, not annual, attention.
At a general level, the broad process of performance management
requires that you do three things well: define performance, facilitate performance, and
encourage performance (Cascio, 1996). Like a compass, the role of the manager is to
provide orientation, direction, and feedback.
In managing a virtual workplace, a second major challenge is
communication. It is important not to over-rely on e-mail, which is one-way communication.
In addition to e-mail, managers need to learn how to conduct effective audio meetings, and
to balance e-mail, voice mail, video conferencing, and face-to-face communications.
Implications for I-O Psychologists
New business realities, coupled with evolving attitudes about work,
suggest that virtual workplaces are here to stay. The challenges of managing a virtual
workplace will escalate in scope. What does all of this imply for I-O psychologists? A
quote from renowned Canadian hockey player Wayne Gretsky illustrates the essence of the
challenge of managing a virtual workplace. When asked for the secret to his goal-scoring
success he said: "I dont skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck
is going to be." To be a beneficiary, rather than a victim, of these emerging
business trends, skate to where the puck is going to be. Develop the performance
management systems, information-access capabilities, and training systems to develop
skills that will be important in the future. Always look ahead; learn from the past, but
dont live in it. By embracing these emerging changes in the world of work, we in I-O
psychology can lead change, not just react to it. This will be the greatest challenge of
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