Gavin Olivier, Managing Executive: Performance Enabling Technology at LRMG Performance Agency, says cloud computing has had a significant impact on both the knowledge worker and corporate organisations.
Knowledge workers can now access their virtual office anytime, from anywhere and smaller businesses in particular have the advantage of not being forced to invest in complex, costly computing infrastructures. For a reasonable cost, they are able to tap into processing speeds and storage capabilities, previously not possible.
Essentially this means that work forces are now more enabled than ever before to be mobile and to create work-life blend. People are able to access their intranet, knowledge repositories and learner management systems from their chosen place of work via the cloud.
As this new way of work develops in our environment in South Africa, it’s important to recognise that it will change the way businesses do things. “We are now dealing with people over technology, a forum which has a significant impact on working relationships,” notes Olivier.
One cannot underestimate the advantage of face-to-face interaction between employees. Not only does this create empathy and unity, but also a natural understanding of each other’s communication styles and personal challenges that may be influencing work at any given time. Different personalities communicate differently and people can easily misunderstand tone and subtext in an environment that is void of facial expressions, body language and voice tones.”
Olivier says for various reasons, people behave with far less restraint in a virtual environment than in the physical world. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as
the ‘online disinhibition effect’. The challenge for businesses in the future is how to keep people personally connected. “One of the answers,” says Olivier, “lies in technology itself. Ideally one needs to look at building social networks and discussion spaces where employees are able to collaborate with each other and discuss more personal issues – as they do on FaceBook and Twitter.” Businesses can also create online discussion boards where distanced teams can discuss projects in a shared space. This allows people to be more open and honest without the filters they normally would use when speaking openly. It also allows valuable opinions to come through from all members of the team. Not only does this help break down hierarchies but it also creates a sense of transparency which builds trust and becomes a natural repository where discussions are documented and can be referred to afterwards.”
It is important for business owners to enable their team with an effective intranet or learning and knowledge management system. “This is one of the most vital aspects of building a healthy virtual working team,” he says. Virtual teams need a shared workspace that is the centre of their activities. They need to be able to access shared information – project plans, meeting minutes, action lists, deliverables, etc. These must be formalised and easily accessible by all team members – all the time. This workspace must also include a platform that allows teammates to comment on certain items openly – as they would in the real world. “Encourage behaviour that empowers people to share and discuss important elements,” says Olivier.
Schedule face-to-face meetings where possible or online virtual meetings where face-to-face is not possible, in a structured way. “Ideally try to ensure your offsite team comes together regularly in project meetings. This allows the team to discuss what they need to while also connecting on a personal level.”
Learning together is also key. In this frenetic world of constant changes and developments, particularly in IT, it’s vital for teams to be learning and developing together. In doing so they keep up to date as a team but also make their learning real by applying it to real work scenarios and through discussing their learning with each other. This leads to additional forms of collaborative learning which research has shown people retain better over time.
Internal communications also becomes more important in a virtual environment. It is important for business managers to ensure that effective communication is shared with the group and that no assumptions are made. This includes personal information as well to build an emotive level to interactions.
In summary Olivier believes that as we increasingly embrace the wonderful benefits of technology we must ensure that we don’t lose our human interactions which are so valuable to team work and enjoyment of work. “It’s no coincidence that as we become more reliant on machines, we’re also becoming more conscious of our humanity. Our relationships at work, with our colleagues, our clients and our suppliers add tremendous meaning to our jobs and to lose touch would be to lose a part of who we are,” concludes Olivier.