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In the last decade technological advances have enabled new ways of communicating and collaborating that have been unthinkable not even 15 years ago. We can now meet virtually and see and hear each other in a quality that feels almost as if the person were in the same room.

… but only almost. Something always seems to be missing, and many teams mourn the days when they could meet in the same location every day to get their work done. It just felt better, more personal, more productive, more fun.

This is an attitude to virtual work I encounter very often when I start working with new clients and it translates into 3 false beliefs and one myth about virtual work that I want to help debunk here.

False Belief 1: Technology The Main Driver Of Successful Virtual Work

So, which tool should we use? This is a question I hear very frequently when I talk to potential clients. It is true that virtual work is not possible without online tools, but to think that there is a tool out there that will make all the problems of virtual work go away is an illusion.

The perfect tool for you and your team does not exist. There are better and worse tools out there, but they will only be a good fit for your team if it is clear what they will be used for and how. In other words, tools have to serve the needs of team collaboration, and it is more important to get the processes right than to pick the “right” tool. This usually also means that I have to adjust my work process to the capabilities of the tool.

For example, project management tools require their users to be very systematic about the information that is put into the tool, so it can deliver the benefit it advertises. If half the team does not add deadlines (because they are used to keeping track of progress differently) the tool will not be able to show the status of different projects, at how much capacity the team operates and similar information.

False belief 2: Technical And Professional Skills Are More Important Than Interpersonal Skills

Another assumption related to the belief that technology is the most important factor for remote team success is that technical skills (tool skills and professional skills) are more important than interpersonal ones. This is not the case. In a virtual work, just as in any other team, people have to communicate with each other to get stuff done, and because they do not see each other and do not know each other’s context, misunderstandings happen much faster and have more severe consequences.

Think about email: how often have you received an email that annoyed you, that made you wish that the person on the other hand had explained better, not been so rude, read your email well enough? We often assume a bad intention that’s directed at us, when in fact this other person might have simply had a bad day. The communication channel in virtual communication is usually thinner than in the face to face communication. Building a relationship in the virtual work environment requires;

(1) the willingness to overcome obstacles,
(2) time investment, and
(3) know-how about the human factor of work relations.

False Belief 3: Co-located Is Better Than Virtual

This belief leads to the assumption that the virtual workspace and process should be as close to the face-to-face experience as possible. Yet, virtual collaboration is never going to be the same as co-located work, hence face-to-face must be better!

This approach to virtual work acknowledges the functional possibilities to get work done, but emphasizes the nostalgia I talked about in the beginning of this post and leads many to adopt a quite defeatist position: I have to endure the new situation and accept that work will never be fun again.

Instead of trying to recreate the physical experience in the virtual work context, I help my clients rethink work completely. Get away from thinking of co-located versus virtual as a dichotomy and start using the best of both worlds. Why not use virtual tools to prepare a face-to-face meeting, so we can get the work done a lot faster and focus on the soft factors of our team when we meet face-to-face?

In my own work, I find that some habits from virtual meetings have started to creep into my face-to-face meetings. For example, I use online document platforms to jointly write during a meeting — no matter if virtual or if I am in the same room with my colleauges, because it is the easiest way for us to create a record of the meeting: no taking pictures, no handling of large pieces of flip-chart paper, no carrying around paper, pens and other stuff.

Myth: It Does Not Matter When And Where I Work

Virtual work does offer much more flexibility than working in an office but it is a myth to think that any virtual worker can do their work as effectively from a beach as they can at their desk in the home office or the co-working space.

Sure, there will be some, who can work from the beach and the conditions under which any team member is productive will be different. Still, there are requirements for remote team workers that limit this flexibility for most:

You need a good and stable internet connection. Often that means that your computer has to be connected to the internet with a network cable as opposed to Wifi, which can be quite flaky.

If you have to participate in lot of meetings or record audio or video, you need a relatively quiet, undisturbed space and a good audio (and possibly also video) set-up including the right equipment. The minimum is a good head-set!

Anyone who primarily works at a computer knows that sitting (slugging?) in front of a screen for hours at a time can be very bad for your back and your eyes, so just as your employer would (hopefully) provide you with an ergonomic workspace in the office, you should also make sure that your virtual workspace conforms to some basic health requirements: at the very least a good chair and table and good lighting conditions.

Overcoming these beliefs requires acknowledging that the old way of working is gone and will not come back. This is no easy feat, especially for those, who have spent most of the professional lives in co-located work environments.

It also requires companies and individuals to invest in skill development and rethinking how work is organised. In doing so, it is important to keep the everyone motivated and to show how virtual work can be productive and fun.

The article originally appeared on the Ekipa blog under the title 3 False Beliefs And One Myth About Virtual Collaboration.


by Stephan Dohrn

Associate Editor