virtuality

Virtual Companies and the Death of the Permanent Office

Here’s a small group guide for a discussion of virtual companies.

Readings:

Max Chafkin, “The Case, and the Plan, for the Virtual Company” Inc.

“Workplace Trends” [VIDEO] YNN

The “gist”: Virtual companies get their work done with minimal or no corporate headquarters or dedicated workspace. Sometimes they create cyberspace boardrooms using tools like Skype and ooVoo. Virtual work requires adjustments. Workers must be dedicated to the work itself rather than the social routines of the office. But, he argues, lots of types of work can’t be done efficiently at work anyway, especially tasks that require concentrated effort over long periods of uninterrupted time. As Chafkin notes, the workplace becomes an online market where a “culture of collaboration by a group of competent generalists” is replaced by “one based on specialists who are cheap, efficient, and good at meeting deadlines.” To counteract this negative effect, successful company owners and managers introduce and foster new online and offline collaboration products.

Key terms and definitions:

Mobile Work, Distributed Work – Distributed work reaches beyond the restrictions of a traditional office environment. A distributed workforce is disbursed geographically over a wide area – domestically or internationally. By installing key technologies, distributed companies enable employees located anywhere to access all of the company’s resources and software such as applications, data, and e-mail without working within the confines of a physical company-operated facility.

Virtual company – In virtual companies, employees are distributed but primarily remain unconnected. Such companies employ electronic means to transact business as opposed to a traditional brick-and-mortar business that relies on face-to-face transactions with physical documents and physical currency or credit. Workers telecommute from other locations, and as much work as possible is usually outsourced to non-employee contractors.  Some virtual businesses operate solely in a virtual world.

Work-life balance – Work-life balance is having enough time for work and enough to have a family and personal life. It also means having a measure of control over when, where and how you work, leading to being able to enjoy an optimal quality of life.

Co-working centers – Co-working is a style of work that involves a shared working environment, often an office, and independent activity. Unlike in a typical office environment, those co-working are usually not employed by the same organization. Typically it is attractive to work-at-home professionals, independent contractors, or people who travel frequently who end up working in relative isolation. Some co-working spaces were developed by nomadic Internet entrepreneurs seeking an alternative to working in coffee shops and cafes, or to isolation in independent or home offices. See the recent story on Hacker Dojo (“Silicon Valley Techies Fight to Save a Popular but Illegal Haven” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/technology/techies-fight-to-save-hacker-dojo-a-popular-silicon-valley-work-space.html), which local authorities are threatening to close for violations of city regulations governing traditional workspaces.

Collaboration tools – A collaboration tool helps employees collaborate. Today, the term is often used to mean a piece of collaborative software. Conference phone calls are being replaced by asynchronous conferencing, video conferences, IRC or Instant Messaging. Peer review and editing of documents is done through Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, and Wikis rather than as iterative versions printed out on paper. Board room whiteboards are imitated by online whiteboards that allow telework.

Discussion questions:

  • What do you consider the best place to get your homework done? Why is this a good place to work?
  • Should “distractions” like Facebook and Twitter – and perhaps even email on specific days – be banned at work? Why or why not?
  • Think about a place where you have worked or your parents worked. How could this work be improved (or degraded) by implementing the strategies mentioned in Chafkin’s article or the video?
  • In companies with flexible schedules, how do you manage who picks up the slack during crunch times? Are employees who are parents a special class, and do they get or deserve special treatment? How do you juggle competing interests to work/school tasks and family or home responsibilities?
  • Do managers really distract employees from their work? Do managers tend to mismanage their time and the time of others? What should managers really be doing, and where should they be learning how to be better supervisors?

Additional comments: Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place argues that the best places to gather and get things done informally are what he calls “third places” like coffee shops, libraries, and pubs. He says these places, unlike home and work, represent “neutral ground” are important for civil society, democracy, and civic engagement.

As gasoline gets more expensive and commuting times get longer, virtual work is going to look more and more enticing to companies and their employees. In Iowa, my home state, government has made substantial progress in creating co-working centers in all 99 counties. Iowa is a big rural state with a low population, and workers are already dispersed over large geographical spaces. It makes sense to establish local workplaces where people do their daily jobs and can be gregarious – even when other employees in the building are working for entirely different companies.

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