Moving Closer to a Virtual Office?

September 1st, 2014 by

The working from home revolution is coming. Are you ready?

The term flexible working is everywhere at the moment. The simple fact is, we don’t need to be in the same room to work together anymore. Technology has awarded us the freedom to work remotely while still pulling together. And while this is convenient for people’s work/life balances and allows companies to draw on non-local talent, it does raise the question of what good a virtual office environment could be for our team spirit. After all, how do teams gel when there’s no opportunity for water cooler conversations or tea break chats?

There’s no getting away from the fact that humans are social creatures. You’ll know from experience let alone science that we work best with people when we get on with them. Plus, body language plays a huge part in human communication. According to the often-quoted findings from psychology researcher Albert Mehrabian, over 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. Specifically, the research found that approximately 55 percent of communication is down to body language, 38 percent is the tone of voice, leaving only 7 percent to the actual words spoken.

Regardless of the above findings, though, a large generational study from PwC found that millennials, defined as those born between 1980 and 1995, place a very high value on work flexibility, which makes sense: they grew up using technology, and don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to use these tools to improve their working day. As this generation makes up an increasingly larger portion of the workforce, companies may well find they have to offer greater flexibility in order to attract the best talent.

That’s not to say everyone’s happy about it. While some company bosses believe a virtual office is the best thing since sliced bread – Richard Branson believes we’ll ‘look back one day and wonder why offices ever existed’ – others have consigned it to room 101. Last year Yahoo’s CEO banned telecommuting in the company, acknowledging that workers were more productive when they worked at home but less innovative. But that was last year. Things have moved on since then.

So what does a virtual workspace look like in best practice? We’ve already raved about the merits of Skype and Google Drive documents. However, more and more technology is now emerging that can make virtual working arrangements feel more natural than they ever have before. Technology can now help staff overcome physical distances while working together, and find ways to foster cohesion when colleagues are on opposite sides of town, or the world.

Several software providers, like Microsoft’s Yammer, Tibco’s Tibbr, and Salesforce’s Chatter, have developed what can be described as social media for business, harnessing the best features from popular social media sites so users can interact with colleagues in an instinctive manner.

Using tools like these companies can set up an internal social network, where employees can contact others using @-replies, similar to Twitter. This is less formal than writing an email, so it’s quicker and less disruptive. You can also create work groups for projects and communicate just with those team members. Hashtags can be used to sort and track topics, allowing workers at large companies to see who else is talking about something, possibly enabling new collaborations. You can create polls to quickly collect votes for ideas, and a Facebook-like ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ function is a simple way to gauge opinion without anyone needing to be too confrontational.

The reason we enjoy social media sites so much is because they have taken something we do naturally offline, and moved it online. These tools help us seek out others who share our interests, and then we can chat, share ideas, and indicate support – directly or subtly.

Social media has revolutionised the way we communicate in our private lives, and now companies can use the same methods to improve relationships in their virtual teams. A work-related activity stream running in the background means workers can be available in a less formal and disruptive way than using the phone, or even email. And if you need a face-to-face moment, there’s always the webcam.

To look into the sort of server power and privacy you’ll need to run your own virtual office, visit the UK2 website.

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