It wasn't long ago everyone was talking about a whole new way of working. It started with telecommuting in the 90's, but spread in this century to something far bigger. Remote work as a way of life, virtual teams, outsourcing, offshoring ... the scale just kept growing and the savings for companies appeared to be at least partly met by happy staff, whether that was a guy in the city who didn't have to spend 90 minutes each way in traffic, or a guy who was able to keep living in his small town while working for the big city firm so far away, or even a guy in a developing country who was able to earn more than his neighbours and follow the lure of high tech and problem solving at a time when no firms in that country were offering those jobs. I know many people in the big cities and the developed countries lost their jobs to those people, and I know it wasn't always simple to find traditional employment once the world of work started to change. Still, the world and the way many people in it earn a living changed and will not be changing back.
That said, in the mid 90s everyone I knew who was associated with any of this "new way of working" had come to realize it wasn't just a fire and forget sort of thing. You had to communicate a lot
. And while technology made some ways of communication simple and cheap, so that video calls and conference calls and instant messenger and desktop sharing and so on are all vital, it couldn't do it all. You have to get face to face still, and you have to do it regularly. I recently finished a 10 month contract for clients three thousand miles away. I did the vast majority of the work from here, and had phone calls and livemeetings many times a week. But every 4 to 6 weeks I got on a plane and I went there. And wow, the work we got done in those few days! Mini hallway meetings, lunches, dinners -- I typically could "touch" half the project participants in just two or three days, and solve seemingly intractable problems by going to people's offices and listening to them and looking at their body language and telling them they could trust me or asking them what the real problem was. It made such a huge difference to the success of the project. I didn't get paid for the time I spent travelling to them, or the nights spent away from my family, but I gladly invested that time to make everything go smoothly and to be a successful remote worker.
Some other folks have noticed this too, and in a far more systematic way. How's this for a conclusion
: "... common workplace-relationship problems, such as broken commitments, mistrust
and misrepresentation of information, occur more than twice as often with
virtual teams, as opposed to teams located in the same building. " Yikes! Apparently it's partly because things we do when we're upset with people work well if you see if each other regularly, but make things worse if you're apart. Or this useful summary
: "teams are a lot more effective when they're working with their friends in
than when they're working with those stupid offshore idiots
who never understand our designs or requirements
." So in that context, what could be a worse way of saving money than lowering the travel budget to zero and not letting people visit each other any more?
Yet that is exactly what's happening in a lot of companies. If it's happening in yours, do something about it. You need to visit your colleagues. If not, when your projects go pear-shaped, you may find the whole concept of virtual teams gets thrown out with it. And that would be a real shame.