Virtual Work Works, But Don’t Confuse Technology with Change Management

I was in a brainstorm meeting about my team’s next-generation strategy last week, and we made a number of random connections that knitted together a pretty big idea – the kind of dot-connecting that only happens when people with different (and sometime conflicting) perspectives trust each other in the pursuit of an important goal.
Five of us worked on the idea, but only two of us were in the room physically together. Yes, I’ll say it out-loud: three people were working from home.

Much has been said and written recently about the value of working virtually, and I don’t think you can sub-divide mobility into “at home” and “on the road.” Social technologies, video and mobile platforms make it easy to work from just about anywhere.

But as leaders, we have to resist the temptation to confuse technology with change management – despite our love affair with technology. Any time technology brings a sea-change transformation to the way humans do stuff, especially work stuff, we can’t forget that people work in organizations – and organizations are an amalgam of culture, processes and technology.

All of Cisco’s experience has taught us that technology alone does not create sustainable productivity; it is the way culture supports the behaviors needed to make the technology effective and processes that support and optimize it. Ultimately any organization needs to determine its “system” for collaborating as teams, whether those teams are in the same room all the time or working virtually anywhere in the world. No model is right or wrong; it is what works for the mission of that organization.

For those organizations where work is an outcome, not a place, here are some best practices from The Collaboration Imperative (www.thecollaborationimperative.com) on making virtual work work:

• Culture: Focus on shared goals, not location. Studies show that establishing rapport and trust is a key challenge of working on a virtual team. As leaders, it’s our job to replace uncertainty with trust by articulating your team’s charter and the ground rules of what you can expect from each other. In Cisco, we’ve found that virtual teams exceed expectations when their team charter answers four questions: What is our purpose? What is your role against our purpose? What are our shared goals and how are we measuring success? What is the scope of our work and where are the boundaries? Finally, another simple but profound cultural consideration: be pragmatic about scheduling meetings on a global calendar and rotate start times to accommodate time zones – you will be pleasantly surprised by the reaction of your global peers

• Process: Stop wasting time in meetings. Knowledge workers spend more than half their time in meetings with colleagues or customers, regardless of location. We’ve all been in “meeting hell,” where we’re asking basic questions like, “Who called this meeting?” or “What’s the agenda?” or “What are we trying to accomplish here?” Any meeting – physical or virtual, but most importantly for virtual – needs discipline. Chapter Six of The Collaboration Imperative is devoted to a “Clarity of Purpose” model for meeting management; where one meeting type is devoted to reporting, such as an “inform” meeting. Another is devoted to conceptualizing or brainstorming, such as an “exchange” meeting. A final quick tip: adopt a common vocabulary for making decisions. If “strategy” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone in the meeting, how can any team be effective?

• Technology: Make video communications ubiquitous on your team. The social science on body language is pretty clear – 80 or 90% of what we communicate comes from body language. If you can’t see your team, it is hard to know how engaged they are. My strategy brainstorm discussion was hosted in WebEx and we all had our video cameras on. The point isn’t the video, it’s what video lets you do as a leader – engage your team.

In and of themselves, any of these approaches would add value to how teams perform. In combination, they can produce both discretionary effort through more effective engagement, but also measurably superior results.

One of Cisco’s customers doesn’t call their virtual meetings “video meetings”; they call them “flawless meetings.” It’s what we get done virtually that matters most. While Cisco has achieved considerable real estate savings with teleworking, perhaps the most important measure is the performance of the people themselves who are working virtually. The numbers are pretty clear: As a percentage of the company’s population, teleworkers receive a higher share of the top grades in Cisco’s performance management system.

When process-culture-technology are managed like an integrated, coordinated system driving a deliberate change management strategy, it’s possible for leaders to get more done while creating passion and discretionary effort — no matter where people work. If you are considering a virtual worker program, do you have a change management strategy? Do you know what cultural norms need to evolve or adapt? Do you have rigor to your virtual team processes? How you answer these questions will predict success or failure as much as any technology that enables the virtual work.

Follow me on Twitter: @RonRicciCisco