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Virtual and Project Management Expert: Writer, Speaker, Educator. Author of Managing Without Walls and Fundamentals of Technology Management. President of Garton Consulting Group.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

How Important Is Video in Virtual Business Communication?

I’ve been very busy over the holidays so it has been a while since I’ve created a new blog post.  I may not have been writing much but I have been reading a lot!  What have I been reading about? Mostly virtual communication tools – and specifically holographic video technology.

Virtual 3D holographic videos - once seen only in Sci-Fi movies, are now becoming a reality. No longer confined to static images, scientists and engineers are now perfecting moving images – holographic video. 

A lot of opinions exist about the implications of this technology for the military, space exploration, healthcare, business and for life, generally, as we know it. It is a fascinating topic and an exciting technology with numerous potential applications.  What I have been pondering, is its usefulness in virtual business communication.  For many years numerous video communication tools have been readily available for communicating virtually - some very expensive, and some very affordable.  Some tools requiring special equipment and a room full of technical gadgets. Others requiring nothing more than a laptop, an internet connection, and an investment of less than $50. 

Despite the availability of so much video technology, it is not uncommon for business communications to be limited to audio, and perhaps some web-based visual tools for sharing presentations and documents.  From the information I have gathered, I surmise that video communications are used more frequently for personal communication (video skyping with family members, for example) than for business communications.  Why is this? I am open to suggestions/comments and opinions.  I propose that perhaps it is because being able to “see” someone is not the same as being in the room with them.  Video can often distract -and therefore detract - from the business message rather than add depth or value to it.

Although a holographic video could display a 3D image that is very realistic (and may potentially be viewed as a life-size image), it still doesn’t put you in the same room as the person.  Does watching a real-time 3D video instead of a real-time 2D video make it seem more realistic and add something that has up until now been missing? Perhaps, but I think it is unlikely.  Much of the value of being in the same room with others during a business meeting is in the interactions that occur both before and after the meeting as well as in the non-verbal interactions during the meeting.  It is not possible, for example, to have surreptitious raised-eyebrow-glances between meeting attendees whose images are being projected for all to see.

For many years workers have managed to create and maintain excellent virtual business relationships with team-members, partners, clients, and vendors without ever having met in person or seeing video images of each other.  Strong working relationships are built using nothing more than email, instant messaging and the occasional phone call. Some would agree that many of these working relationships develop into friendships over time. 

While holographic video technology is currently way too expensive for most businesses to be able to afford, there will come a time when this technology will be available and affordable to all.  Will this change the way we do business, or will it just change the way we communicate with our geographically dispersed family and friends?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Are Most Managers Still Obsessed With Time?

I received an email a few weeks ago from someone who had attended a webinar I presented on managing virtual employees.  I was pleased that he enjoyed the webinar and that he felt the information would be very useful to him in his role as a virtual manager. I was perplexed by a question he included in his email.  He wanted my advice on how to deal with team members who were stopping work earlier than 5pm on Fridays and presumably “slacking off”.  It was an interesting question and one that I have pondered many times since.  It was interesting not because it required a lot of thought to answer, but because it revealed the discomfort this manager felt at not being able to control his virtual employees’ work hours.

For many years the corporate world has been focused on “results-based” performance management.  No longer is an employee evaluated and rewarded for how many hours he or she spends at the office, but for what he or she actually achieves.  What a great concept.  The sad truth is that though performance reviews are being written with the appropriate language to indicate that the manager is evaluating performance based on results and not on effort, in reality the manager still perceives success or failure based on the time the employee spends on each task. The manager feels he has some “control” over his team when he can see employees in the workplace, knows what time they arrive, what time they leave, and can monitor time spent on things like lunch breaks or going to doctors appointments. This control, this knowledge of how employees spend their time, gives the manager a sense of security.  He is comfortable feeling that he has his finger on the pulse of his organization.  In actuality, the manager doesn’t know what his team members are doing most of the time.  On the phone a lot?  It could be the person spends all day chatting with family and friends.  Spending a lot of time on the computer?  He could be looking so earnest because he is working on a really important report or he may, in fact, spend the first half of each day trading stocks.  Starts early and works late?  Is he not capable of finishing his assignments on time like the rest of the team?  Is he making a lot of mistakes and working late to fix them before anyone notices?  Or is he spending so much time trading stocks that he has to work late to catch up on his real work?  Unless the manager is tracking and evaluating based on results he will never know who is working and who is “slacking off”.  Remember, you will feel a pulse even if the person is asleep!

How many managers working in “results-based” environments are truly comfortable evaluating performance based purely on results?  Based on my completely non-scientific research in the last few weeks, where I asked people I know how comfortable they felt and how comfortable they think their peers felt, I estimate that at least 50% of managers (+/-20%) are not truly comfortable giving up control and oversight of their employees “time”.

If virtual teams are going to work, managers must change their perception of time, results, and management.  Why should you care if your employees finish early on Friday afternoons as long as they have achieved their objectives?  One of the huge benefits of virtual teams is that workers can plan their workday around what they need to accomplish, rather than the other way around. They can be flexible with time. They can take part in conference calls that, because of time-zone differences, are scheduled for early in the morning or late at night. They can plan their day around being available during the hours they are most needed. Aside from others’ needs, what is wrong with the employee considering some of their own needs?  Perhaps they like to work extra hours 4 days per week and take Friday off.  Does it matter what day the work is completed?  How much more productive do you think your team members will be if they know their manager trusts them, has confidence in their abilities, and rewards them when they get great results?  Do you think they will be as productive if you spend your time devising ways of constantly checking up on where they are and what they are doing?  If time is more important to you than results, your team members will devise creative ways of making it look like they are working when they are not. If this focus on time becomes more important, to you and to your team members, than getting the work done – then none of you will be achieving much in the way of results!

Virtual management requires a virtual perspective. You need to think and breathe virtual. You should no longer be constrained by assumptions and management controls conceived long ago for managing and controlling in an era that no longer exists.