Virtual Collaboration: Moving From the Cube to the Cloud
By James M. Fraleigh
Remote working has grown in popularity and acceptance for years. More people are requesting flexible work hours to better accommodate job and family commitments, or to gain the solitary time—often impossible in our interruption-filled offices—they need to concentrate on single tasks. Broadband technology is now widespread and portable enough to allow these options. This fact points to a shift in the way we view the workplace. It’s not just our applications, data, and music that will reside “in the cloud,” but our offices and workgroups too.
Mastering this environment will require proficiency in virtual collaboration: the ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team. As organizations re-imagine their corporate structures by harnessing social technologies and the resources of our globally connected world, virtual collaboration will become an essential workforce proficiency, one of 10 revealed in Future Work Skills 2020, a report by the Institute for the Future for Apollo Research Institute.
Virtual collaboration will allow corporations to expand without building expensive new facilities. Companies extending their overseas presence will rely on multiple teams, assembled on demand, to break larger projects into micro-tasks. Some firms are already shrinking their physical office space in favor of online collaboration; IBM saves around $100 million annually in real estate expenses by permitting up to 40 percent of its employees to work without permanent cubes or offices. Virtual collaboration tools accessible through handheld devices, including shared whiteboards, cloud-based documents, and wikis, are accelerating this trend.
Participating in or leading virtual teams will require a new set of skills. Rather than passively awaiting their next task, skilled collaborators will learn new ways to signal their teammates that they are present. They will use instant messages, microblogging platforms, or avatar-based environments to update progress, meet with coworkers, or even take a “coffee break” in a virtual kitchen. Nascent telepresence technology will also help workers more fully inhabit these spaces. For example, Wi-Fi-equipped robots, which allow offsite workers to move around distant offices and interact with colleagues, are beginning to appear on the market.
Managing and motivating a far-flung virtual team carries new challenges as well. Solo workers and smaller companies and startups might occasionally use coworking spaces to meet physically or escape the isolation of distance work. Without a permanent physical company headquarters, however, and the culture it acquires, managers might find it difficult to engage team members who never see one another. Gaming technologies, applied to virtual collaboration, might provide this sense of shared commitment. They can allow managers to provide clear points of progress, offer task-triggered feedback on the spot, and craft to-do lists into engaging challenges. As more of our work and social lives migrate into shared spaces, adopting such nontraditional tactics for virtual collaboration will assure a smooth transition for companies, managers, and workers alike.
Learn more at www.apolloresearchinstitute.org.
James M. Fraleigh writes on a wide range of topics for Apollo Research Institute.