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Meeting the Virtual Work Imperative

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Recent events have created serious organizational concerns related to the ease, safety, and overall desirability of employee travel. Airline travel has not only become more problematic in terms of employee safety, the cost in travel time has skyrocketed as well. Relatively short business trips that recently required only a couple of hours of an employee's time may now take most of a day.

While most companies had already begun to develop virtual teamwork systems and other structures for distance collaboration, the horrific acts in New York and Washington, D.C., along with new changes in airline security have accelerated the timetable for substituting effective telecommunications systems for travel. This new imperative for creating virtual work systems will yield an increased dependence on these systems for the foreseeable future, and will require that companies expand their communication infrastructure to provide significantly higher levels of performance.

Most firms will need to make a notable investment in their IT infrastructure in order to provide for the greater demand for telecommunications applications that complement or substitute for face-to-face interactions. Fortunately, there are a number of viable technologies available with which to build system infrastructures. The challenge for IT planners is to assemble them into a system that effectively enables organizational performance. Unfortunately, unlike many other large-scale organizational systems (such as enterprise resource planning or customer relationship management), there are no real benchmark systems to serve as foundations for an individual organization's response. Virtual work is very context-specific; what works well for one firm may not be appropriate for another firmeven though the two companies may be in the same business.

While the technical systems themselves may be tremendously varied, the process of developing and implementing an effective response is fairly straightforward. As in all good system design, a sound basis in system modeling, coupled with an appropriate implementation process and managerial approach, will generally yield a product that meets or exceeds organizational requirements.

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A Simple Model for Virtual Work Systems

There are numerous potential technologies that can be used to implement virtual work, incorporating the continuum from email to videoconferencing, along with a host of groupware products designed to enable both distance and local collaboration. While the technologies may be varied, they all make one of two interdependent contributions to the virtual work system: they may contribute to the connective richness of the work groups' interactions or they may contribute to the collaborative empowerment of the virtual work group. Taken together, these two dimensions provide the basis of effective needs analysis for IT planners charged with developing virtual work systems.

Connective richness. Virtually all employees have access to the telephone, which is a remarkably rich and familiar form of connection. Yet, as productive as the telephone may be, it has not supplanted the need for traveleither down the hall or across the country. People working together have a need to meet in order to accomplish their mission. The challenge of creating connective richness is to understand the basis of the need to meet and then to replace the face-to-face meeting with an equally viable interaction.

Regardless of the beauty of the destination, or the pleasantness of one's collaborator, business travel is always a burden. Contrary to what some critics might assert, people meet because there is a genuine business necessity to do so. Even when co-workers are empowered by the best possible collaborative systems, they will fail in their missions if they lack an effectively rich communications infrastructure in which to use their tools.

Meetings can be thought of as enabling two different processes: They enable administrative activity among coworkers, and they enable social processes essential to effective collaboration. Some of the administrative load of meetings is picked up by collaborative software such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook; what is difficult to replicate in a lean communicative environment are the organizing activities that take place in meetings. We have found, for instance, that in distributed meetings using group support systems (GSS), participants need to communicate with each other about how to use the tools, when to move to the next activity, and so on, even though they can perform all of their project-related communication through the software. By combining a telephone conference call with the GSS, the collaboration is significantly improved over what could be accomplished by either the GSS or the conference call itself. Not all administrative organization requires voice communication; text-based systems such as email and chat systems provide an archive of a group's deliberation that can be very important in planning and design activities.

The social function of a meeting, where participants develop their working relationship, has historically been more difficult to enable within a virtual system. A handshake, a facial expression, or a gesture have been difficult to re-create among distributed partners. Fortunately, both desktop and room-based videoconferencing systems have become much more affordable and are delivering better and more reliable performance. While no system can completely re-create a face-to-face meeting, good systems can re-create the most essential elements of a meetingcertainly the face-to-face component of it. Regardless of our level of sophistication, there is still value in associating another human face to an interaction and good videoconferencing allows us to do that.

Given these considerations, it should be clear that the needs for any system's connective richness is contingent upon the level of administrative interaction within any work group, the need of that work group to organize a contemporary activity or to engage in longer term planning, and the need of collaborators to form or reinforce the social basis of their interaction.

Collaborative empowerment. Collaborative systems, ranging from planning and calendaring systems to advanced GSS, are enhancing performance among all organizational workers. For distributed workers, however, they form an even more critical relational infrastructure. Because distributed workers lack the social cues that enable face-to-face interactions, they are significantly more dependent upon structured systems for planning, brainstorming, and other collaborative activities. Collaborative empowerment is actually a continuum that defines the extent to which the IT system facilitates work group interaction to accomplish a group task. Thus, the level of collaborative empowerment provided to them by the system may dictate the effectiveness of the work group.

People working together have a need to meet in order to accomplish their mission. The challenge of creating connective richness is to understand the basis of the need to meet and then to replace the face-to-face meeting with an equally viable interaction.

Although a group's capabilities are defined by its level of collaborative empowerment, that does not necessarily mean that all virtual work groups need every potential tool included in their available arsenal. What is much more important is that the collaborative tools most necessary to their particular task environment are available, when needed, and members are fully trained to maximally exploit those tools' potentials. Thus, workers whose task environments are largely autonomous, but who have to coordinate with others, would need good scheduling and planning tools. Other workers, who might have once met regularly in face-to-face situations for new product development or long-term planning, would benefit from GSS that support activities such as distributed brainstorming, distributed decision-making, and a variety of analytical groupwork.

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Determining Fit and Implementation

The key in analyzing the collaborative empowerment needs for any worker or group of workers is to clearly identify the context of their collaborationwhat it is they do with others in the organizationand then fit collaborative systems as precisely as possible to their needs.

The figure shows four broad categories of work context within the collaborative empowerment/connective richness matrix, and details their principal types of activities and the tools necessary for their work. Identifying where a specific organizational work group fits into the matrix provides IT planners with a reasonable starting point from which to begin a more precise analysis of the system components necessary to a specific group of workers or work process.

Bringing virtual work systems online requires the same degree of care as any other enterprise-level system. Where the virtual work system differs significantly is in the degree of customization it must include to enable groups of workers occupying different roles within the organization. Compared to virtual work systems, most other enterprise-wide systems are fairly standardizeddifferent organizational members may use different functions of the system, but they will generally follow organization-wide protocols in their use. Virtual work systems may have to be customized not only to fit the needs of individual organizational users, but to also interact with users' systems from collaborators in other organizations. Thus, a needs assessment for a virtual work system includes a much broader range of stakeholders than might typically figure into an assessment for other organizational systems. In addition to very precise needs assessment, there are four other key factors to successful implementation:

  • Senior management support. Virtual work represents a significant change in the way people work. In order to increase their sense of the necessity of learning and using virtual work systems, it is imperative they understand that senior management encourages the use of these new techniques and supports the transformational initiative.
  • User involvement in planning and development. As noted earlier, virtual work systems are very context-specific. Because of this, it is imperative that all relevant user groups work with IT staff to identify their critical activities and to develop the infrastructure necessary to accomplish them.
  • Standardization wherever possible. Although the systems themselves must be developed for specific types of activities, employees will frequently participate in many different activities at different times. To facilitate the ability of employees to move between task environments, it is important to use consistent types of tools wherever possible. While not every employee will be able to master every system they may encounter, a familiarity with a broad range of common systems will allow workers to adapt more quickly to unfamiliar virtual work scenarios.
  • Training on system use and virtual working. Effective virtual work requires a combination of technical facility with the virtual work system coupled with a robust organizational culture that supports virtual work. This requires the IT staff to work closely with organizational development specialists, both during system development and system implementation, to ensure that employees are both trained in how to use the technical systems and trained in the social systems essential to effective virtual work. Training should focus on helping workers to overcome the limitations imposed by the virtual work environment, as well as on how to exploit potentials in the virtual environment (such as anonymous meetings, archived discussions, among others) that do not exist in face-to-face meetings. Additionally, it is critical to teach employees a common set of social and administrative protocols to use in virtual work; by applying structure to virtual interactions, workers will be better able to work together with the same level of effectiveness that they once enjoyed in conventional settings.

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Opportunities within a Crisis

Although the events that precipitated this heightened interest in virtual work are tragic and have caused cataclysmic disruptions in individual lives and the U.S. economy, the crises provide an imperative for organizational changes that might not otherwise have occurred. One of the principal benefits of adapting to a virtual work culture is that it disperses the organizations' resources over a broader geographical range. This dispersion means an organization is less dependent on any single operational infrastructure so that dislocations of that infrastructure caused by system failure, natural disasters, or acts of war have far less impact on an organization's operations and on the lives of the people who work there. Thus, in addition to potentially more efficient work and greater employee safety (and convenience), an organization's adaptation of virtual work systems may increase the firm's security and operational integrity.

Indeed, the attacks that have expedited the virtual work imperative also provide a catalytic function for the change process itself. People (and their organizations) tend to resist change; organizations and their processes possess a social inertia that makes the introduction of new systems a difficult process under the best of circumstances. Because workers and organizational leadership now clearly see the reason for a migration to virtual work systems, they will value their introduction and be highly motivated to make these systems work. For IT developers, this is a remarkable opportunity to create a welcome and decidedly beneficial organizational change.

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Anthony M. Townsend ( is an assistant professor in the Department of Business Administration, College of Business and Economics, University of Delaware, Newark, DE.

Anthony R. Hendrickson ( is an associate professor in the Department of Logistics and MIS at Iowa State University, Ames, IA.

Samuel M. DeMarie ( is an associate professor in the Department of Management at Iowa State University, Ames, IA.

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UF1Figure. Categories of work context.

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©2002 ACM  0002-0782/02/0100  $5.00

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