How can we make virtual work virtuous?

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The concept of virtual work is increasingly in the spotlight. The emergent ‘gig economy’, the personal preferences of the so-called ‘millennials’  and ‘generation Z’ and the availability of ever-more sophisticated digital technologies means that work is increasingly ‘virtual’ for many. But what do we mean by virtual work and in practice what does it mean to worker and employer?

A broad definition of virtual work is any task that is managed and performed through digital technologies. Such technologies are of course omnipresent nowadays; they enable communication, they allow workers to be present at, and contribute to, remote meetings along with the ability to access, store and share data.

On the face of it, virtual working offers benefits to both employer and worker. Employers can distribute tasks globally to the most appropriate locations. They can lower office costs by creating floorspace and facilities for only a portion of their workforce by offering flexibility for employees to work remotely. They can reduce costs and carbon footprint related to travel and they can theoretically create a more secure environment for the storage of documents and data. Meanwhile for the employee, greater flexibility to work where and when they prefer is increasingly offered, lowering commuting costs and allowing them to fit their work around their lifestyle needs. On the face of it, virtual working is a win-win scenario.

In recent years the key challenge of virtual working has often been reported as that associated with balancing private and working lives. This is undoubtedly an important challenge to address in order to make virtual work sustainable for both worker and employer; if virtual work comes to mean workers are expected to be available 24/7 it is likely that such roles will become untenable in the mid to long term  - a phenomenon identified by such researchers as Kristina Palm and Steffi Siegert .  

Clearly the blurring of work and social time is an issue that must be dealt with. But, at the heart of this issue a further challenge associated with virtual work is worth paying attention to. Simply put, virtual work allows participants to do several things at the same time. Workers can perform tasks in the digital and physical worlds concurrently, and what is performed in the physical world is not necessarily visible to those in the virtual world. As trivial as this may seem, it has profound consequences for how work is performed with a likely impact on the quality of work delivered as well as levels of stress experienced by employees. Indeed, in a worst-case scenario, the potential to do two tasks at once may be exploited by the employer resulting in additional workload for employees. The implications of this are considerable and therefore the phenomenon is worthy of deeper consideration.

Two examples from our ongoing research program highlight the issue. Both relate to managers at a multinational technology company.

The first scenario involves a manager suggesting that it can be difficult to contribute to a virtual meeting when, for example, in a taxi trying to add to the discussion, attempting to review figures on an excel sheet via a phone screen, en-route to picking up children from daycare. In this scenario, had the meeting adhered to schedule, all would have been fine. However, forced to go mobile when the cab arrived as previously planned, the small screen made it difficult to properly contribute to the meeting. A second scenario meanwhile concerns another employee who described the problem of mobile phones switching connection between wifi and cellular networks (as happens while passing through airport security) and how their participation in a virtual meeting suffered.

These examples may be somewhat extreme, but they show how, when working virtually, it is possible to do other things in the physical space. They also show that there is a tendency to blame technology for not being good enough (for example, the small phone screen being inadequate to review a spreadsheet), rather than questioning whether doing different things at the same time is reasonable at all. In these two scenarios, the employees were multi-tasking as a result of employer expectation rather than necessarily as a result of personal choice.

Interestingly, many managers in this same company find that their employees (and sometimes themselves) are reluctant to use video capabilities at all in virtual meetings, whether engaging via mobile device or laptop. Discussing why, one reason that emerges is that if you are visible to all in a virtual meeting you can no longer multitask. Such multitasking, it was suggested, is vital if workload demands were to be met. As a result, sending emails or working on other documents (unrelated to the meeting) while participating in a virtual meeting were cited by some as necessary activities. While this is done to some extent in physical meetings as well, it is far easier to do so when no one can see your actions – hence the employees’ disinclination to switch on video functionality.

The increasing prevalence of virtual work not only leads to tensions between private and working life, it also therefore leads to tensions between different activities, at times leading to different work practices being carried out at the same time and, in a sense, competing for employees’ attention.

Two issues arise from this. Firstly, higher levels of stress will be experienced by workers as a result of an arrangement that was supposed to be ‘win-win’ for employer and employee. Secondly, the quality of work will likely suffer as the employee’s attention is diluted. If managers wish to make virtual work ‘virtuous’ and sustainable for both parties, the problems highlighted above need to be addressed.