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The third wave of virtual work

    Tammy Johns
    Lynda Gratton
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Knowledge workers are now untethered, able to perform tasks from anywhere at any time. What do the best of them want from your organisation?

If you wanted to find three decades of the evolution of knowledge work encapsulated in a single career, Heidi McCulloch’s would be a good one to consider. As a liberal arts graduate, McCulloch started out working in corporate marketing departments and then moved to an advertising agency, becoming an outside service provider to companies like the ones where she’d previously worked.

After starting her family, she stepped away from that world and took on an entrepreneurial challenge: restoring and selling a historic inn. She came back to agency work a few years later and rose to vice president by playing specialised roles on global project teams. And now? She’s on to new ventures. She is an independent consultant, and in July 2012 she created a “boutique collaborative workspace” in downtown Toronto for people like her. It’s an oasis for mobile knowledge workers, who can do their jobs from anywhere but who gravitate to where they can do them best — in the company of other creative people engaged in work that matters to them. To a career planner, McCulloch’s might seem like an erratic path. For us, as long time observers of workers and their relationship to workplaces, it reflects a progression.

In studying the dramatic changes that have taken place since the 1980s, we have discerned three major waves in the “virtualization” of knowledge work. They developed for different reasons, and they are all still moving forward.

Wave One: Virtual Freelancers

Untethered work on a large scale began in the early 1980s, when a “freelance nation” of virtual workers using nascent email networks emerged. The new connectivity allowed an individual who might otherwise have worked inside a company, or at a specialized vendor serving a company, to set up a one-person shop instead. For many workers, the option to be hired as an independent contractor was a godsend – it meant they no longer had to compromise every other demand of their daytime existence in order to do skilled, well-compensated work. Organisational managers were happy as well, because this new freelance pool gave them the flexibility to contract for more or less labor as business conditions warranted.

Wave Two: Virtual corporate colleagues

Despite its benefits, the first wave required compromises. For workers, the big one was that in embracing the freedom of contributing remotely, they had to give up formal connection to a company and all that went with it — from health and retirement benefits to leadership development and career progression to equipment and tech support. Organisations, too, missed that engagement on the part of virtual freelancers, but they also came to appreciate a work approach that enabled operations to proceed across different time zones and through emergencies when people could not be together in an office.

Initially people doubted that full-time employees who worked remotely would be as engaged and productive as their office-bound colleagues. Indeed, a company’s early forays into untethered work often go through an initial rough patch, but as interoffice communication has shifted from face-to-face conversations and paper memos to voice mail and then email, it matters less and less whether colleagues are on the same wing or even the same continent.

Wave three: Virtual co-workers

As the second wave gained momentum, organisations began to realise that virtualisation meant less natural collaboration. Anxious for innovation, they missed the kind of ideation that results from serendipitous encounters and hallway conversations. Anticipating the retirement of baby boomers, they worried about the tacit knowledge that might go untransferred.

Somewhat paradoxically, then, a new wave of complex, global virtualised work has surged, as many workers physically reunite and retether to specific spaces. A major focus of the third wave’s new technology is to give workers the feeling of being in a shared environment. But virtual platforms can go only so far. As we’ll see, organisations and workers are also investing in a return to the colocation of colleagues in the real world.

Make the change

For employers today, the imperative is to learn how to capitalise on all three waves in the virtualization of work. One of us, Lynda Gratton, hosts a consortium of forward-thinking organisations that are learning jointly about the opportunities and challenges of new work models. From the efforts of those organisations and others, we have distilled five pieces of advice.

Focus on collaboration: Any strategic plan must begin with clear goals. In the 21st Century, a new approach to work in a large organisation must be aimed at supporting greater collaboration — the heart of an enterprise’s ability to innovate better and faster. With this business outcome in mind, design decisions can be made about the right culture, talent sources and leadership to cultivate. Although it may sound simple and even obvious, having a clear statement of purpose is instrumental in addressing conflict and changing mindsets.

Reconceive physical workspaces. The raison d’etre for physical workspaces is being turned upside down. Previously, they were designed to house the expensive technology and tools that workers needed for output, to support efficient processes and maximum productivity, and to reinforce the hierarchy of management. Unintended side benefits that arose from colocation were cultural alignment, idea generation and fellowship that led to greater trust, teamwork and quality. Now, in the realm of knowledge work, those extras are the whole point of colocation, and physical space should be optimized to deliver them. Thus private offices and cubicles are being replaced by more flexible, communal and transparent workspaces. Companies even use physical space redesign as an opportunity to rethink work processes and organizational design.

Reconstruct workflows to tap remote talent. Efficiently combining the contributions of highly specialised people to produce a valuable outcome is always a complex challenge. It is especially tricky when collaboration is required and the people are working virtually and independently. TELUS, a leading telecommunications provider in Canada, now brings together its teams around a purpose rather than a function or a department such as sales or finance. So, for example, people who serve the same client can sit together, regardless of their functional expertise.

Invest in intuitive technology. Too often, attempts to support remote work and encourage collaboration are dominated — sometimes crushed — by an obsession with sophisticated technology. It is important to avoid that by keeping the focus on desired business outcomes. At the same time, those who succeed do rely on a fast-evolving information technology tool kit. The surest route to greater innovation and efficiency is to invest in intuitive collaboration technology that becomes part of the regular flow of work.

Recognise idiosyncrasy. Success in the new wave of work will also require that employers encourage and support individual work preferences and customize approaches to engaging and motivating differing work personalities. This will entail a delicate balance between best practices and flexible accommodations. Most work environments have committed heavily to standardised human resources practices in the interests of fairness and efficiency, yet this one-size-fits-all assumption ignores the fact that wants and needs vary even over the span of an individual career. As the impact and importance of features such as flexible hours, relocation and travel wax and wane, the ability to adapt to life’s changes is vital to workers and a significant value proposition for an employer to offer.

Tammy Johns, formerly the senior vice-president for innovation and workforce solutions at ManpowerGroup, is the CEO of Strategy and Talent Corporation. Lynda Gratton is a professor of management practice at London Business School.

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

Organisations, too, missed that engagement on the part of virtual freelancers, but they also came to appreciate a work approach that enabled operations to proceed across different time zones and through emergencies when people could not be together in an office.

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