The Virtual Workplace, All You Need to Know

Before the pandemic, did you ever wonder why I have to be stuck at an office from 9 am to 5 pm? Well, that was mostly because 19th-century American labor unions were negotiating a way for workers to not work, you know like all the time! Now we live in the 21st century and sticking to a 19th-century American workplace schedule seems a bit ridiculous. Especially if all you require to do your job is a laptop with an internet connection. Why not work in your balcony, bed, or the coffee shop around the corner, instead. 

What is a Virtual Workplace

Switching to virtual workplaces has been an increasing trend for many companies for some time now, but there is no denying that the pandemic has dramatically accelerated this process. A virtual workplace is one where employees can work from home or any other location they chose without being tied to a specific geographical location such as an office, and communicate with their teammates and supervisors via various online platforms. While some companies have been operating on a hybrid approach, having some of their employees come to a physical office location some of the time, or on a rotating basis, increasingly many more have been operating completely online since the start of the pandemic. 

Setting Up a Virtual Workplace

First, let’s get the basics out of the way. If you are setting up a virtual workplace here are some things to consider:

  • Choose a messaging platform for sharing personal information and general comments like Slack or Teams 
  • Pick a tracking software such as Trello, to make sure everyone is on the same page about their responsibilities and deadlines
  • Make sure everyone has the necessary hardware and software installed on their computer
  • Arrange training sessions for all the programs your team will use
  • Clarify whether the company will reimburse the employee or pay directly for phone bills, data plans, any paid subscription related to the job or any other similar work-related expenses 
  • Have a tech support system that provides rapid service to remote workers

What are the Advantages of a Virtual Workplace

Some of the initial advantages of virtual workplaces for employers is that it drastically cuts costs of renting, and all the other costs of running an office space. It is also cost effective for the people working there who don’t have to spend money on gas driving to and from work or spend any money on public transportation. Not running an office or having people travel to and from work is also environmentally more friendly as well. Another benefit is that this system introduces a more flexible workplace and hours. Employees can work from anywhere and work any time of the day as long as they meet their deadlines and are on the same page with their teammates. Many times people report being able to focus better without the distractions of an open office. 

One of the biggest potential positives about moving to a virtual workspace was that it introduced a new kind of freedom in hiring people since geography (and immigration visas) were no longer an obstacle. This means that the virtual workplace has more potential for diversity than we ever imagined before. While the promise of a more diverse workplace is still within reach, the technology in the workplace was quick to point out we are not equipped for a diverse workforce as well as we should be. 

Some Downsides to Consider

When many people reported being uncomfortable exposing their homes or living situations on camera to their coworkers, platforms like Zoom quickly came up with virtual backgrounds or filters. 

(Similar concerns were voiced for online education. Especially considering the income inequality and class differences, as well as various cultural differences, it is understandable that both students and employees may feel uncomfortable displaying their homes or living spaces in the background of classes or work meetings on video conferencing platforms like Zoom.)

One of the workplace discrimination examples, in this case, was that while people were using video conferencing tools like Zoom and turning on virtual backgrounds or filters, the built-in facial recognition systems turned out to work better for light-skinned people. The systems were glitching with people with darker skin tones, not recognizing their faces when turning on a virtual background and (catch the irony) completely rendering them invisible. 

In another incident, the online applicant tracking systems that HR departments are relying on more and more were found to be just as biased against people of color, women, and of course most of all against women of color, as their human predecessors were found to be. 

Of course, these machine learning and AI systems were merely reflective of the biases in our collective human history. The data that they were fed to come up with the patterns and the solutions they came up with was flawed and one-sided. Hopefully, the fact that we were faced with the cold reality of bias in technology, will be the first step in moving in a better direction towards equality in the workplace. 

Work Life Balance

Sometimes productivity suffers from the move to online and the employers are left with some losses fiscal and otherwise. If accountability systems are not efficiently operating, people may lose focus and misuse the freedom of not having to physically sit at an office desk for an allocated amount of time every day of the week. 

However, more often than not the opposite presents itself as the actual problem. Productivity skyrockets at least initially, at the expense of everyone working at the company being expected to be available 24/7, and losing the ability to balance work and personal life alongside the loss of a physical office location to go to and leave at the end of the day. When everyone is at home and unable to go out due to a global pandemic for months, they may have been expected to work or be available for work-related communication outside of normal office hours. 

If you are losing the boundaries between work and home, here are some quick strategies to try to find a balance again. You can enforce a schedule. This is good for you and for your teammates. Let people know when you are available during the day and do not feel guilty about setting boundaries and not responding to work related messages or emails outside of these (reasonably set) work hours. Try to wake up around the same time every day, drink your coffee (or beverage of choice), change out of your pajamas and go to a designated work corner. Designating a space to work will allow you to physically leave it when you stop working. Try as much as possible to leave the home, and socialize. Loneliness was found to be not just a mental but also a physical health risk.   

Digital Gig Economy

Covid has seen the rise of freelancing work right across the globe. More companies are inclined to hire freelancers, and more workers are seeking employment as freelancers. Organizations have shifted their focus from the traditional method of having in-house employees to getting work done on a contract basis and mostly commissioned and handled completely digitally. This arrangement is dubbed by many as the new digital gig economy. Employers can use the internet to source workers as they require work to be done. While workers themselves, are shifting to freelancing work, as it gives them control over how much work they do and when they do it. 

Freelancing websites have seen registrations rise about 48% during the pandemic. Consider the growth in freelancing websites such as The Flatwork, Fiverr, Upwork, and TopTal, to name a few. Today’s world of flexible networks allows a global village approach to outsourcing work, where workers, as much as organizations, are result-driven for payment.

Companies are not in a position to take the stance of owning their staff or banning employees from freelancing. Their non-working hours are their own free time. If employers wish to keep their staff focused and to retain their talent, fair compensation and flexible working conditions will become a priority. 

From an employer’s point of view, companies will be able to source contract workers with top skills who may not have been interested in doing piecemeal work before the pandemic. The phrase “working from home” may become “working from anywhere.” No one will care whether you work in your pajamas or trackies, whether you are 30 or 60. It will only be your output—speed, knowledge and expertise to produce the work—that will count.

Productivity Redefined

Embracing this new way of work will undoubtedly include a shift of focus from “hours worked” to a “result-driven” outcome. There’s no longer any need to be tied to a desk from dawn to dusk when a virtual desk allows for work any time of the day or night. The measurement of a valuable employee will focus on the output, giving individual autonomy to the employee; rather than a command and control management approach. The leadership role for team players will become one of trust and empowerment.

Being a contract worker might lead people to feel like they do not have the same systems in place to report problems in the (virtual) workplace. While the technicalities of work in the 21st century may look very different, some of the problems have not changed since the modern workplace was set in motion. Nepotism in the workplace or a toxic workplace environment are some recurring themes. 

Equality is another issue that comes up a lot. An example of workplace inequality would be two coworkers who are tasked with the same responsibilities, with similar past work experience being paid differently based on their gender or race (or both). If you are faced with any of these issues or some others, you should try communicating with your team lead or the appropriate HR liaison if there is one. Do not hesitate to take the issue higher up if you are being dismissed by the first people you contact or they are the ones with whom you are having the issue. 

Soft Skills While Working Remotely 

While your expertise in your line of work will always be arguably the most important asset in your career, your soft skills may be the thing that gives you that extra edge to succeed. Soft skills are skills that are required in all professions and include things like communication, teamwork, flexibility, leadership etc.. 

Here we will focus on workplace communication. The first thing to remember is that working online means being more connected, it also might be an obstacle between coworkers. Although we have been using online communication in various forms be it text, photo, video (emojis, gifs, stickers etc.) it is still not exactly interchangeable with a good old face to face interaction. Especially between people who are not very well acquainted, tones in writing may get lost. 

All of us probably experienced a texting mishap where whoever we were texting mistook a joke for an angry message or maybe we didn't quite understand what the person we were corresponding with was trying to say with that ping pong racket emoji. So it is only natural that between coworkers, sometimes the tone of an email is lost. 

Add to that the fact that many times, people are working with other people whom they have never and will never meet in person, and people who come from completely different cultures and countries from around the world. Sometimes the people in teams working in a common language are hailing from different countries and certain things are lost in translation. 

It is much easier to catch a misunderstanding of this kind when people are sitting all together in the same meeting room and a joke falls flat, or some are visibly offended. A mistake can quickly be fixed with an apology and can turn into a learning opportunity. However, with online communication and virtual workplaces, some of these things may get lost in the process. 

Workplace Communication Gone Digital

Workplace communication can suffer when individuals are not clear with their boundaries. Given that we live in a world much more connected than ever, and we work with people from around the world, it is more important than ever to be clear with your boundaries in workplace communication. Even with people from the same culture, communication styles in the workplace may differ from one person to another just based on one’s personality or upbringing. In both cases, the sooner you clear the air with your coworkers about something that is bothering you, the better your communications will be going forward. If you feel uncomfortable by one of your teammates giving you a nickname or making an offensive joke, try addressing it in writing with the said colleague. If they are unresponsive and escalate the situation you can involve a third party like your lead or an HR representative. 

Managing Virtually

If you are managing a team, workplace communication being online may present a new set of challenges as well. Managing virtually requires learning how to change modes when needed in interacting with people. The way you speak to some people in-person may not work as well in written form, or even over the phone. You cannot see the person’s facial expressions exactly in the same way as you could in person. Especially considering zoom shrinks every participant's image to a very small square and there is usually a giant graphic or some other presentation in the middle of your screen making it extra difficult to read the faces of your team members. 

If at all possible try to get your team to socialize together to get to know one another and establish rapport ideally before everyone starts working together and plan to meet in person again at least a couple of times per year; if possible at critical decision times and times when there's a major accomplishment to celebrate.

As the team lead or the manager, take the initiative to establish ground rules for accessibility: Who will have to carry a beeper or cell phone to be accessible for quick questions and decisions? Will there be a certain day of the week or month, or a certain time of day, when everyone (or a subgroup) always should be available? Deciding to use calendar software that integrates personal and team schedules will enable every team member to know when every other team member is available for a "meeting." Establishing a way to show what time of day each participant is most likely to be available will forestall a lot of back and forth. The information can be included in an online directory of team members.

Establish your system for tracking projects. Scheduling tasks is especially important for a distributed work group. The right software will make it possible to distribute tasks evenly, keep everybody contributing, and assure that scheduled days off and vacations cause minimal delays. Emphasize at the startup meeting that many workers will have to learn to discipline themselves in new ways to accomplish tasks under deadline without the spur of frequent casual encounters with the boss or teammates. Make sure each team member knows what he or she is responsible for and what deadlines are especially important.

Managing employee workloads need sustainable boundaries to be put in place by effective management. There’s a definitive line between effective remote management and micromanaging that will drive your employees insane — if left unchecked.

Managers and team leaders will have to: adapt their skills (or upgrade their skill set) to be active listeners, have a digital mindset, be adept at negotiation and problem solving, and quick off the mark to facilitate change where needed. Clear principles to reinvigorate creative passion and to negate feelings of uncertainty need to be instigated. Touted as being “humanocracy,” businesses that succeed will be intensely human. Leadership on every level will focus on being connected to their employee, especially when dealing with remote workers and hybrid working situations.

Workplaces will need to reflect more compassion and have greater empathy for their employees.

Considering all its advantages and disadvantages holistically all in all, virtual workplaces are transforming work in the 21st century. 

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