I've been working lately with a few Fortune 500 firms that have a highly distributed workforce. I guess in most cases that's not surprising, but what is interesting is the extent to which people in these firms are working virtually. In many cases, individuals don't have an office and work primarily from home, or their "home" office is 50 or 100 miles away and they visit that location infrequently if at all.
This makes for some interesting visits. I have occasionally been in the position of knowing more about an office building - where the restrooms are, where the coffee machine is - than the full time employees who are rarely, if ever, in the building. But even more interesting is what is happening to how people work when they become virtual.
Working virtually is a blessing and a curse, it seems to me. There are all the same pressures of the standard 8 to 5 job included in working virtually. The same amount of work to get done, the same number of meetings, the same distractions. However, as people work in a more distributed fashion, it becomes an expectation that you are available at almost anytime. For instance, I'll participate in a call in a few days with a person in the UK and a person on the west coast. The individual on the west coast will be dialing in at 5:30 am his time, and never gave that consequence a second thought.
Working virtually also means working with technology - from teleconferencing and Skype to shared workspaces and video conferencing. All of these technologies provide the means to bring people together, but they also require each of us to take on more support tasks. There's no one here in my office who is responsible for Skype support, for example. Additionally, we have at least as much overhead and planning for virtual meetings, if not more so, since it's inevitable that someone shows up late to a virtual meeting and someone must track them down.
This increased emphasis on virtual work means that line between work and "regular life" is not blurred, it's obliterated. I can now participate in any discussion, meeting or email exchange from any location at any time, thanks to portable handheld BlackBerrys and teleconferencing. What this means is that more and more people will be called on to participate in work related events in hours or locations that would have been unacceptable a few years ago, and we can expect to see some time shifting - virtual workers doing other things during the day since their time is expected in what were the "off hours".
There's also a question of etiquette in this brave new world. What is the reasonable expectation for a virtual worker? When is it appropriate to say "no" to an activity or task? When is there too much of an expectation for you to support new technologies that enable your virtual work?
I was speaking with a friend in a large multinational who has individuals that report to him in six different countries. He has never met, face to face, two of those individuals. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I cannot imagine managing someone I haven't met. Or perhaps this is the wave of the future, and all our interaction with our colleagues will be virtual. God help us if that's the case.