Karen Lojeski: The New Rules of the Virtual Workplace

By Karen Lojeski

At the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, champion golfer Phil Mickelson faced a crucial decision. On the 18th tee he had to choose between his less controllable driver and a more predictable iron. Inexplicably, he chose the former. The result: He double-bogied the hole and lost the tournament. In the globalized virtual workplace, executives also face hard choices, and many of their decisions are just as difficult to understand.

Hewlett-Packard recently decided to minimize virtual IT work by pulling everyone back from disparate locations to centralized company offices, while Accenture has gone in the opposite direction, choosing to operate without official corporate workspaces, its employees on the move from airports to clients and back in a continuous state of rootless virtuality.

According to a report in The Mercury Newson June 3, 2006, Randy Mott, the CIO at H-P, based his decision on his experience at Walmart, a highly centralized and rigidly designed organizaton. The policy H-P described includes plans to eliminate anyone who does not relocate to one of the 25 centralized offices targeted for this consolidation. An unexpected choice given the need for flexibility in a global workforce..

In a June 5 article in the Wall Street Journal, Bill Green, CEO of Accenture, said his company was organized as loosely as it is because the partners who originally broke off from Anderson to form Accenture could not decide on a central location for the new company’s headquarters. Again, an unusual situation given a global workplace that requires consensus-building across geographic and cultural boundaries to achieve success.

Each man claims his strategy will be successful. Mott says that by being in close proximity, younger employees will gain the benefit of more experienced IT personnel and the company will achieve better efficiencies. Green says the constant mix of younger and older consultants at client sites will result in more learning exchanges and higher levels of client satisfaction. Can they both be right? Or does globalization require more innovative organizational processes?

Our data show that both geographically disparate as well as co-located workforces can be adversely affected by virtuality. And since virtuality is a constant now, the redesign of the 21st century organization requires us to move beyond the old structural models. I believe the solution lies in the middle ground. A place we have to work to find. A place that will involve experimentation and creative thinking.

One international company I’ve worked with, based in Europe with offices in dozens of countries, is taking a proactive approach to organizing its IT workforce. A group of corporate stakeholders at the highest level, including board members, C-level executives as well as human resources and IT leaders, have joined together to develop a virtual workforce management strategy to address the company’s growing mix of onsite and internal employees combined with virtual contractors and outsourced personnel.

In a process that includes rigorous due diligence of emerging organizational models and a series of all-day solution-seeking workshops, the lead executive brought together senior-level managers, outside consultants, academics and other specialists in different industries and is producing new and challenging ideas on which to build this critical resource plan. Old models are passed over for new ways of thinking about resource compliments.

Among the changes: re-designing human resources practices specifically to meet virtual resource needs; developing a custom-tailored collaboration platform; and organizing updated leadership training programs that will focus more pointedly on how to inspire and motivate distant workers.

The company is keenly aware that while many management practices that have worked well in the past may not translate into the same results in the Digital Age. They also believe that their sustainable competitive advantage will depend on organizational innovation that includes resources that work well together whether they’re seperated by a corridor or an ocean.

Every corporation that depends on skilled professionals must recognize that its virtual workforce is at the center, and not the fringes, of future competitive advantage.

A report in the October 2005 issue of the McKinsey Quarterlyhighlighted this fact. The report describes the growing importance of what they term the “tacit” worker, who are engaged in a multitude of complex interactions with others and cannot be substituted for new processes and technology. Tacit workers (otherwise known as knowledge workers) rely on their experience and judgment to succeed. The report warns that in cases where such workers are not well-organized and supported, the company is putting itself at significant economic and competitive risk.

It follows then that an organization’s workforce strategy must be elevated to the same level as other high-priority initiatives included in the strategic plan. And that requires coordination and commitment, creativity and on-going scrutiny on the part of senior management. The overarching game plan must go beyond “sourcing,” a term made popular recently but which still summons up images of low-level managers haggling with every “body shop” for the lowest price. Instead, the plan must leverage cross-disciplinary thought-leaders to design structures that make more sense for Digital Age companies and virtual tacit workers.

When it comes to shaping future organizational frameworks, we are going through an evolutionary process. Without a broad set of best practices, companies find themselves tacking back and forth in many different directions. This causes confusion and organizational fragmentation and splintering.

Sometimes, corporate leaders reach for what they already know and feel comfortable with, hoping to offset a lack of reliable and time-tested models from which to choose. This leads them to make hard-to-understand decisions, just as Phil Mickelson did. I hope they will begin to consider the entire range of clubs in their bag before taking what may well be that game-changing swing.

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