I got married in the fall of 1996. I was working as a mid-level manager at a blue-chip MNC, and my career was going well. The small issue was that my husband was in a transferable job, and I was unwilling to compromise with my marital life or my career. Home-officing was not really an option back then, the internet had just entered homes and was still quite expensive and slow.
When I insisted, my manager reluctantly agreed to let me work virtually for a few days a week and commute between Pune and Mumbai for six months, after which they would review whether it could be extended based on my ability to make it work without impacting deliverables.
Over twenty years later, fifteen of which I have spent working in the virtual model, I can safely say that virtual working is a significant enabler.
When I became an entrepreneur with niiti consulting ten years ago, I was determined to set up an organisation where potential and skills were not determined by where one was based but rather on how one delivered value. Many dissuaded me, saying it was not for everyone, or that I couldn’t rely on myself alone to run a company virtually.
But running a virtual organisation for nearly a decade now has made me realise two things—working from home has everything to do with one’s attitude and self-discipline and very little with organisational policy.
Virtuality can vary along four dimensions depending on the organisation:
- Space: The physical location of the employees—are they co-located or dispersed in different places?
- Time: The time zone in which the employees work— are they working the same business hours or are they dispersed across time zones?
- Culture: The employees’ culture—are employees from the same culture or country or from different ones?
- Boundary: The organisational dispersion of work— do the organisational processes stay with the organisation or are they outsourced?
Organisations vary in their virtuality. At one end of the continuum is a company like Amazon.com, which has the entire business model virtual; its employees rarely interact with customers directly. They do, however, interact with each other face-to-face and through technology at several offices around the world.
Then there are companies like Microsoft and IBM with traditional structures but a significant number of telecommuting employees, some located in customers’ offices. Employees work together as teams, which may interact completely face-to-face, completely through technology, or through some combination of the two. The teams may be located in the same time zone or spread around the world.
Increasingly, virtual working has become an interesting option with organisations realising that having employees brave traffic every day for hours erodes their productivity, and that geographies can sometimes play spoilsport in the quest to get the best talent. It is no surprise then that companies now openly advertise flexi and remote working opportunities.
Given that the world is waking up to the stark reality of environmental issues and the struggle to balance carbon footprints and energy overheads with the need to drive economic growth, virtual working structures seem like an interesting choice.
And then we have pandemics like the coronavirus, that gets even the most reluctant virtual worker to realise that work can get done from anywhere! Companies like Twitter have made it mandatory for all employees to work from home in the wake of the pandemic.
In a press statement to IANS, Cisco has stated that “since the outbreak began, there has been a 22x increase of traffic on the Webex backbone, connecting China-based Webex users to their global workplaces. Significant growth in the usage of Webex in India has also been observed.”
Even a more traditional company like Unilever has asked its employees to work from home in the wake of the pandemic.
Would this forced shift make remote working more amenable to organisations that didn’t consider it as an option earlier?
Sandhya Shekhar, the former CEO of IIT Madras Research Park, and now an advisor on innovation strategies, says, “Managing people in a virtualised world is very different from dealing with them face-to-face.”
In her book, Managing the Reality of Virtual Organisations, she has framed 16 critical factors that could ‘make or break’ any company choosing to go virtual. In a study that analysed organisations worldwide, she elucidates that the level of harmony across three dimensions—people, process and technology—determine whether virtual working is conducive and if it could lead to profitable and productive enhancement.
Through my experience, I have learnt that the one factor that is non-negotiable in any virtual working setup is Trust. Whether it’s trust between virtual working teams, a client and vendor, or even between reporting relationships, virtual working without trust leads to unproductive and uncomfortable situations.
Another factor that can enable a person or collective choosing to work remotely to maximise productivity and work quality is self-discipline. Narayanan Madhavan, ex-editor of Hindustan Times and now a freelance writer and consultant, says that he gets more time to do things in a virtual setup but admits there are benefits of “going to work” in a structured space. “It helps if you start work at the same time every day and have a dedicated space to work,” he says.
Madhavan also believes that some roles are more conducive to remote working than others. Teams, where the outcome is dependent on collective working, find remote work more challenging.
In her book, Sandhya also mentions she surveyed over 300 senior managers and found them all to interpret virtuality differently. Some had adopted telework and e-learning extensively; others were traditional brick-and-mortar businesses with highly virtual supply-side integration; some had little option, but extensive virtual linkages with joint venture partners, subsidiaries and new office locations; yet others were primarily looking at online customer interfaces.
Many organisations believe that geographic dispersion can be managed simply by putting the right technology in place, with some tweaking of associated practices. However, they fail to recognise that while technology can bridge physical distances, a whole bunch of other distances could arise with such heterogeneous entities. Sandhya Shekhar calls them ‘Virtual Distances’ in her book. These could be cognitive, cultural, lingual, social, leadership styles, value systems, work practices, and so on.
People experienced in working virtually realise that technology is just an enabler but not the driver, and is enabled by a trust currency that is established between the virtual working teams.
Ruchi Jolly, the co-founder of Questera Foundation and COO of niiti consulting, has been working out of her virtual office for over seven years. She believes teams can be extremely productive if they have clearly defined job roles and adhere to mutually beneficial work practices. It could be something as simple as ensuring overlapping working times and communicating well.
In my own experience, first as a corporate professional and then as an entrepreneur, the human factor of virtual organisations cannot be overemphasised. Establishing meaningful relationships between team members in virtual organisations, maintaining a steady pace of decision making, understanding intercultural dynamics, managing the lack of engagement and ownership, take on a heightened priority when compared to more structured and traditional brick-and-mortar firms.
As the new organisational form necessitates the need for a paradigm shift from traditional management and leadership styles, emotional intelligence provides a basis for effective relationship building. Just as in families, where it is not so much the physical distance but the emotional distance that is difficult to bridge, a failure to recognise these virtual distances in organisations could have disastrous consequences.
An interesting realisation is that virtual working is ‘The Great Equaliser’. When one is not in physical proximity while working, things like a “corner office” and imposing titles assume less significance when compared to the value one delivers. Virtual working also gives a level playing field for young cash-strapped startups to compete with the big guns. Uber, Indiegogo, Spotify are just a few examples but the list is ever growing.
Are you planning to work virtually? Or collaborate with teams in different geographies? Here are some tips shared by professionals experienced in virtual work for five years or more!
- To be efficient and effective, set a work time every day from Monday to Friday: While we have the flexibility to work as per our time and comfort, it’s not uncommon to procrastinate through the week (especially since there’s no one enquiring what you did any given day!) and on weekends. To maintain that balance, stick to a routine that works for you.
- When you are working from home, family members take you and your time for granted. Talk to them and let them know the nature of your work. Set some boundaries on what’s not okay, and when being disturbed will not be acceptable. It will be easier to work, and you can have the best of both worlds!
- Have a corner in your house (if you don’t have the luxury of having a dedicated office room) with a table and chair where you “go to work” each day. It will give you a sense of privacy and space and allow you to “switch off” after work.
- Over-communicate. In a virtual set up, it is critical to engage with your team members daily. Call, message, or e-mail your project team members regularly even if it’s not needed. You’ll realise how important it is to be connected.
- Look out for opportunities to meet up teammates, even if it’s for a coffee. Knowing people in person goes a long way in establishing trust and camaraderie.
- Inform your teammates in advance if you are going to be unavailable. It’s critical to building trust and credibility.
- Choose the medium to communicate based on the need. When discussing project updates, it’s almost rude to send private WhatsApp messages to one person keeping others out of the loop. If you are upset with team members in a virtual team, don’t spar with them over e-mail or WhatsApp. Have a video call instead!
- Learn to work on the cloud and familiarise yourself with apps like DropBox, GoogleDrive, FaceTime, and Zoom. It takes time to be comfortable, but once you get the hang of it, virtual work and collaboration become a breeze.
- Make sure you invest in a good broadband connection. Working remotely without a good internet connection isn’t really an option.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)